Performing reality: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
by Rachel Kushner
Published June, 2013
‘Why do you invent … and tell lies?’ So asks Reno, the protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. She has come home with the artist Ronnie Fontaine after a dinner party, during which he told an epic tale. ‘They aren’t lies,’ replies Ronnie. ‘They’re a form of discretion.’
Ronnie, like many characters in Kushner’s novel, never stops being an artist. Even at home in his New York studio, he is still mythmaking – recasting his earlier fictions as a polite respect for privacy. And Reno finds other signs of self-invention here. On the wall is a list of titles for Ronnie’s autobiography: Partial View, Obstructed: A Memoir, I Lived (He Died) … Our narrator is not all that she seems, either – ‘Reno’ is not her real name. She is Reno because Ronnie named her this, after the Nevada town she had made a film about. They had slept together, back when she was fresh to New York and fell in in one night with some friends of his at a bar. That evening, narrated in a virtuosic passage early in the novel, establishes Reno as a species of ingénue possessed of a seemingly incompatible blend of vulnerability, passivity and chutzpah.
In another fiction, this episode of drunkenly following strangers from bar to bar might be cast as fateful. After all, it is the night Reno sleeps with Ronnie and it is through him that she will meet Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. Her relationship with Valera will form a significant part of this coming of age story. But Reno does not believe in fate. It is ‘just one night of drinking and chance’, she says. And yet these events ‘sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.’ Reno is promptly hooked into an art scene she has longed to be part of. And Kushner’s evocation of the heady experience of being on the threshold of your fantasy life hooked me too.
I was not part of the New York scene in the 1970s, but a decade later in Sydney some similar ideas were being mobilised. I saw plenty of tricksters and performers on exhilarating, endless nights in the city. There was nudity and provocation at Performance Space with Sydney Front or the punk shock Post Arrivalists. There were Mike Parr and Stelarc’s self-mutilations and, beyond the gallery, women like Jill Orr, burying her naked self in dirt, or Bonita Ely, mapping the degraded Murray River. And there were plenty of ingénues, artfully dressed and lingering, but never entirely involved. It was sometimes hard to know when the performance ended, or when the drug-taking went from spirited to spiritless, and when – or if – the artists ever stopped being artful. There was that dinner where the painter who used urine in her work forensically described the removal of her pubic hair (years before the ubiquitous Brazilian). And another, after a brilliant photo exhibit that faked an otherwise undocumented gay history, where a man, detecting my Jewish heritage, lectured me on how homosexual persecution outranked anti-Semitism in the Holocaust. I sat through all of it with my suburban awe, frequently gobsmacked, unspeaking. And so I recognise acutely what Kushner so touchingly evokes: Reno’s desire to be part of a scene, even if she is not worldly or thick-skinned enough for its more strident excesses.
Reno tries, on that chancy night, to join the knowing, ironic conversations at the bar. She tries to share with Ronnie her interest in Robert Smithson, the Land Artist who built the iconic Spiral Jetty (1970) in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. After her year in New York, Reno will perform her own Land Art, riding a Valera motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats, drawing ‘in a fast and almost traceless way’ and then documenting her path across the dry white rime:
The photographs would be nothing but a trace. A trace of a trace. They might fail entirely to capture what I hoped for, the experience of speed.
Speed is one of the novel’s themes, so the 21-year-old Reno does not remain in Mulberry Street for long, her apartment ‘blank and empty as my new life’. Kushner is too curious about those ‘buried truths’ and her interests steer the novel in unexpected directions.
Kushner’s playful take on character and identity is evident in the novel’s aliases and ‘discretionary lies’, and in the larger-than-life cast. Meet artist and activist Burdmoore Model and Fah Q, group leader of the radical MotherFuckers. Meet gallerist Hellen Hellenberger, waitress Giddle, and Didi Bombonato, the deerskin-glove-wearing Italian speed racer. Not so much Dickensian, these names, as Warholian. Reno’s outsider status allows her to observe the artifice, fickleness and pretensions around her with clarity, whether enacted by artists or Italian revolutionaries. ‘Dance was very popular,’ Reno observes of the art world,
as was most performance, especially the kind that was of a nature so subtle – a person walking through the gallery, and then turning and walking out of the gallery – that one was left unsure if the thing observed was performance or plain life.
This succinctly describes the tension in the novel. It never aligns itself with either version of reality. Is Ronnie a fabulist, or could his stories be true? Does the waitress Giddle, who claims her work is her art, seriously believe this, or does she just long to shine a tarnished reality? ‘Probably nothing was true,’ Reno says of one of these encounters, ‘but I liked the challenge of trying to talk to them … It was direct and also evasive, each in a way that made sense to me.’
By continually juxtaposing performance and reality, Kushner imbues her sprawling, galloping narrative with a compelling friction – a quality galvanised by the novel’s collage-like design. Kushner intersperses the New York episodes with background information about Reno’s ‘unsentimental’ Nevada childhood, a visit to Sandro Valera’s Italian family, and finally with scenes in the piazzas of Rome, where Reno falls in again, this time with Italian radicals. Time shifts over twenty non-linear chapters, which leap from the First World War to the 1970s. In the novel’s brief opening scene, we see Valera, founder of the motorcycle empire, assaulting a German soldier with his bike lamp. In the next chapter, we meet Reno, riding a 1977 Moto Valera across Nevada. The grimy underside of the Valera fortune is later exposed in a passage about the exploited plantation workers who produce rubber for Valera tyres. Kushner’s interest in Valera, she stated in a recent interview, provided the novel with a ‘thread that was about Italy, and both wars, and motorcycles, industry, factories, modernism, money, inheritance, and legacy.’ Phew. And yes, all of these collide in The Flamethrowers.
This interest in the hidden machinations of distinctive communities was evident in Kushner’s debut, Telex from Cuba (2008). That novel centred on the relationship between American expatriates running sugarcane plantations and Cuban revolutionaries. Kushner is a former editor of Grand Street, Bomb and Art Forum, and this too is plain in The Flamethrowers, in the knowing, wry tone with which she describes the art of being an artist.
Reno, fresh from art school and intrigued by the masculine sport of motorcycle racing, has a freedom her mother’s generation did not. But in both fields of interest she is confronted with a pervasive misogyny. Feminism empowers her, but her youth and background make her shy of retorting when she is patronised. ‘Her ideas are great,’ Sandro says to an influential gallerist in one of several deflating exchanges. In another scene, he tells Reno: ‘You don’t have to immediately become an artist. You have the luxury of time … A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist.’
Without sentimentality, Kushner deftly renders her character’s contradictions. Reno is both driven and drifty. She gets waylaid on her artist’s path, partly by her desires – for Ronnie, who is only interested in himself – and then for the older Sandro, who affects a world-weariness when he tells her ‘that’s what you do … you inhibit thought. With your young electricity.’ But Reno is not guileless. She is keenly aware of what desire consists of. After her night with Ronnie, she says: ‘Enchantment means to want something, and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.’ By contrast, Reno notes the fate of other women on the scene, such as the alcoholic Nadine, who ‘was on her way down, or up, or down, and not looking for friends. She wasn’t shopping for experience. She was trying to survive.’
Throughout the novel, Reno veers between thrilled expectancy and lyrical melancholy – states intensified by a constant shifting from external detail to emotion:
Rain fell. Every day, heavy rain and I sat in my apartment and waited for sirens. Just after the rain began, there were always sirens. Rain and then sirens. In a rush to get to where life was happening, life and its emergencies.
From the weather to Reno’s hunger for life to unfold, for speed and urgency.
In an essay about Robert Smithson’s land art, Jeffrey Kastner cites this line from environmentalist Wendell Berry: ‘The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.’
The tension between wildness and domesticity is part of Reno and her landscapes. There is an emotional wildness in her desires, as there is in Sandro’s philandering, in Giddle’s pretence, and in unfathomable Ronnie, whose lies seem to mask another, perhaps more damaged self. There is political force, too, in the novel’s depiction of radical activism in New York and Italy, where Reno meets Gianni from the the Red Brigades. Beneath the Valera’s manners and wealth is a brutal lineage of fascism and exploitation. At the Valera villa, Reno, unused to being waited on, squirms at the maid’s intrusion. But Sandro tells her, ‘they’re used to people … They’re domestics’ – as if the staff were once wild but have been tamed, as if they are an entirely other species.
Beyond the villa, the lovers go hiking. Sandro
picked crushed little chamomile flowers out of my hair as we continued … and pointed out a matted place among the underbrush where a wolf had slept. We stopped and looked together at the indentation that was the wolf’s bed. There was something tender in seeing where a wild animal slept, the choices it made to seek softness, and I felt a twinge of envy for that wolf, its self-preservation, its solitude.
This reverie connects Reno to a restorative nature absent from the novel’s mostly urban settings. At the wolf’s bed, it is as if Reno has – to cite Berry again – ‘come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief’. Like the land artists she admires, she will ultimately turn away from the galleries, the institutions, the star-makers, and toward the environment to perform her greatest act. At the western desert salt flats, she will break the women’s land speed record on her motorcycle. Ronnie claims that ‘certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes.’ Maybe, says Reno, ‘women were meant to speed past, just a blur.’
The Flamethrowers is complex, but its considerable research is nimbly deployed. It rarely feels laboured or dogmatic, despite its interest in the period’s political and intellectual upheavals. The novel does not strive, in its plot or themes, for neatness, psychological recuperation or redemption. Rather, it is interested – as was Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) – in rupture and contrast. Both novels house seemingly unconnected scenarios for kaleidoscopic effect, backlit with ideas and vivid imagery. The polyphonic approach and the disconnected form resist unity. Kushner said in a recent interview that ‘truth cracks open in the places where things do not cohere. That’s how life is.’ The novel’s sprawling quality takes some adjusting to, because it asks the reader to make the connections, to piece together a broken chronology. But, as with Underworld, I was quickly won over by this planned incoherence, and once compelled by Reno’s voice, by the range and force of Kushner’s vision, I could relax and enjoy the ride.
Kushner said of her approach that she ‘would prefer to let the reader deal with holding together what fits because it is in one book, and not because the writer tried to make parts cohere in a symphonic logic.’ Disorientation is, in fact, one of her themes. Reno embodies this in her thwarted creativity, in her relationship with the older Sandro, who (the reader knows) will inevitably betray her, and in her attempts to get beneath the ‘discretions’ of slippery types like Ronnie or Giddle –who may or may not be an older version of the child Giddle from Kushner’s first novel. Reno’s inability to get at some ultimately unreachable, fundament of the self – Ronnie’s or Sandro’s, or ultimately her own – is part of her appeal and, for me, these intimate observations beguile more than some of the novel’s later episodes where Reno is overshadowed by the scope and the urgent demands of the plot. There is one moment, too, toward the story’s end, where the structure seems to falter. After the events that have lead to their separation, narrated by Reno, we are given Sandro’s perspective. Maybe it is included out of some fidelity to the idea of balance, but by this point we are so attuned to Reno’s narration and her voice is so fully incarnate that an overview from Sandro has the dull weight of a prosthetic attached to something so otherwise alive.
The Flamethrowers has gained considerable attention since its release. It was greatly admired by James Wood in the New Yorker, but has also had some cryptically snarky reviews. In an article for Salon, titled ‘Rachel Kushner’s ambitious new novel scares male critics’, Laura Miller dissected these responses in the wake of debates about the lack of female literary critics in prominent American publications. Miller is rightly appalled by Adam Kirsch’s claim in Tablet that the work is ‘a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics’. Wood was dazzled, though occasionally puzzled, Miller notes, by Kushner’s ‘eerie confidence’. But poet Frederick Seidel was sarcastic in the New York Review of Books, complaining that while The Flamethrowers had ‘generous and exuberant artificiality’ it lacked feeling; it had ‘heat but no warmth’. Kirsch also chided Kushner for being ‘overly cool and stylish’, a complaint I am unable to imagine either reviewer levelling at male counterparts like DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon or Philip Roth.
This coolness, the artifice that Kirsch and Seidel deride, is manifest in the deliberately arch tone and the staginess of some of The Flamethrowers’ scenes. But far from being all style, this tone gives substance and precision to the artists’ milieu – a scene characterised by Andy Warhol’s reproductions, Cindy Sherman’s sexual and identity politics, Barbara Kruger’s sloganeering, and the feminist ‘Actions’ of Valie Export, whose Touch Cinema (1968) is reprised in the novel when Gloria Kastle offers up her naked pelvis in a curtained booth for touching. Kushner achieves a balance. She sustains an interest in flashy artificiality without belittling the ideas informing the artists who deploy it, even when she is taking a jab at their more superficial incarnations.
Kushner’s refusal to define the world of The Flamethrowers as either artifice or reality may make Kirsch lament: ‘What is missing,’ he argues, ‘is a sense of what all its characters are like when they are not aflame, not performing their selves but simply being.’ But it seems to me that the novel asks whether there is any getting at an ‘unperformed’ self – an idea entirely consistent with a period in which the whole notion of an ‘essential’ self was being deconstructed in art and critical thought. In this, and in its resistance to redemption and psychological closure, the work is wedded to the postmodern.
Kushner’s focus is how reality and pretension co-exist, how one state does not preclude or degrade the other. Here is Reno, for example, on Robert Smithson: ‘I had immediately wanted to see [Spiral Jetty] made by a New York artist in leather pants, who described more or less the slag-heap world of the West I knew, as it looked to me, and found it worth his attentions.’ Gritty reality and affectation jostle in one sentence; each plays a part in Smithson’s achievement. There is Reno’s admiration for Smithson, whose monumental Jetty was built in Utah’s polluted Great Salt Lake, there is her sly jibe at his pretension – those ‘leather pants’ – and there is the derogatory reference to her own origins in ‘the slag-heap world of the West’.
These juxtapositions, left uncohering, lyrically encompass Reno’s complex worlds. They skillfully evoke the way in which the creative process gathers and transfigures diverse ideas and influences. Reno’s unglamorous youth riding motorbikes in the Nevada backwoods culminates in a final shimmering act. Across the white plains of the salt lake, in leather pants, on a Moto Valera, she blitzes the world record, becoming the fastest woman on earth in 1976. At speed, Reno collapses time, evaporates distance. On her machine, she is fully empowered. But even when idling Reno is compelling. It is her character that makes The Flamethrowers so incandescently alive.
Drew Arnold, ‘The Rumpus interview with Rachel Kushner,’ (7 August 2013)
Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (Pantheon, 1994).
Jeffrey Kastner (editor), Land and Environmental Art (Phaidon, 1998).
Adam Kirsch, ‘The Mythmakers,’ Tablet (29 May 2013).
Laura Miller, ‘Rachel Kushner’s ambitious new novel scares off male critics,’ Salon (6 June 2013).
Frederick Seidel, ‘This Book Has Heat,’ New York Review of Books (11 July 2013).
James Wood, ‘Youth in Revolt,’ The New Yorker (8 April 2013).