Inspired by women who were driven and successful in spheres traditionally dominated by men, Rachel Kushner presents Reno.
One might use the same words to describe this fictional woman that Jonathan Franzen used to describe her creator, when she was his student at Columbia University’s master of fine arts program in 1997.
“I had the sense that she came from a place where nobody had told young women what they could and couldn’t be,” he states.
Yup: Reno seems to come from that place, too.
Franzen continues, describing Kushner as “strikingly curious and well informed about the mechanics of the real world…neither afraid of intellectual content, nor in any way pretentious about it”.
Reno fits that concept as well, and The Flamethrowers is an intellectual and informed novel. But what else do readers know about Reno?
She is not exactly a conventional beauty and has a tomboy allure. Even at the age of 6, drawing became a habit, a “way of being, of marking time”. And she thought of the most unlikely things in terms of art. Even skiing was, to Reno, like drawing on a mountain’s face, so even years later, she considers herself not a motorcyclist but an artist. When she moves to New York City as a young woman, she hangs out where people she wishes to know hang out, “women and men in ripped, self-styled clothes, smoking and passionately discussing art and music and ideas”.
A bit of a jumble, isn’t it? (To be fair, it’s pulled from disclosures throughout the novel, not a single paragraph.)
And that’s not accidental.
In an interview with Michael Schapira in Full Stop, Rachel Kushner explains that she views identity as something looser than it often appears to be.
“…I find people’s firm and insistent grip on identity and origins to be sad and arch. Who knows what defines us? What interests me and excites me at a given time — that is what defines me. And I will go ahead and feel suitably proprietary about whatever it is I want to understand and transmute into fiction.”
When readers meet Reno, she is actively searching. She is still testing the limits of herself, sussing out what she has (and has not yet) admitted to be true of herself.
“I’m relatively tall, which seemed to count against me, and I was once even told by a short man that I was retriggering his youthful nightmares of being ridiculed by tall girls in school, and I sensed he wanted me to apologize for this, for his adolescent trauma, and I didn’t, and moreover, I gave up on short men partially if not totally, sometimes even preemptively disliking them, thought seldom admitting this to myself.”
Reno is still analyzing and defining, not always admitting her limitations even while actively trying to overcome them. But, although much of The Flamethrowers considers her relationship with Italian artist Sandro Valera, the novel is preoccupied with women.
In an interview with Maria Russo in the NYT Book Review (May 6, 2013), Kushner explains:
“I was really inspired by these larger-than-life female artists like Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse and Yvonne Rainier and the incredible Lynda Benglis,” she said. “There were many women who were really driven and became successful, who were part of essential paradigm shifts, despite the fact that the art world was still dominated by men.”
The female characters in The Flamethrowers are remarkable indeed, be they waitresses, artists, activists or heiresses.
“There is a certain kind of older woman who pretends to be doddering and meek when in fact old age has made her strong and vicious, but signora Valera was not that type. She did not pretend to be meek.”
One might say that The Flamethrowers is the story of Reno’s education, of her learning to not be meek.
But the novel is difficult to contain.
And that’s not accidental either.
“All these things I was interested in — motorcycles, art, revolution and radical politics — don’t seem connected, yet I thought they could become so, in the space of a novel,” she said.
From work-to-rule strikes in Milan to the mechanics working on the salt flats, from the politics of the New York City art world to the women’s groups marching in Italy: this novel has a substantial reach.
“And yet it was the beginning of the end for me, some kind of end, although I didn’t see things that way at the time.”
And, its trajectory is much like the tracks left behind on a mountain face by a skiier, looping back and forth, almost-overlapping in some places with unexpected turns in some others.
The language, too, forces a slower path for the reader. Piano notes are tumble and clouds appear to be melting on a hot griddle (that’s awesome, isn’t it?). There is an “incessent sameness of highway” and “insects tocked and thumped and splatted”. It’s intense. “Language as the house of being.”
So all of this, a messy heroine and beautiful language and a sprawling plot is not accidental, and, yet, an accident is at the heart of The Flamethrowers.
“What happens slowly carries in each part the possibility of returning to what came before. In an accident everything is simultaneous, sudden, irreversible. It means this: no going back.”
And, yet, ironically, Reno aims to do just that. “Which gave it, the past, a kind of mystery I couldn’t unknot, a certain meaning. Because if it meant nothing, why could it not be acknowledged? Why did it have to be erased?”
Like Nicole Krauss’ Great House and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad, The Flamethrowers careens from the scenic to the expansive, and Rachel Kushner simultaneously pulls readers from places they cannot return to without sketching a future for them to inhabit.
An unsettling but vivid read, The Flamethrowers seems to inhabit a place where nobody has told novels what they can and cannot be.