Rachel Kushner's 'The Flamethrowers' Arrives With a Bang

Novel of Arts and Motorcycles Ignites '70s Arts Scene

The Rachel Papers: In her novel “The Flamethrowers,” Rachel Kushner confronts the political and ideological chaos of the ‘70s.
Lucy Raven
The Rachel Papers: In her novel “The Flamethrowers,” Rachel Kushner confronts the political and ideological chaos of the ‘70s.

By Joshua Furst

Published July 24, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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Kushner fills Reno’s story with dozens and dozens of secondary characters, showing how their lives and ambitions change through time, and allowing them to extensively and passionately debate their beliefs, their ideas, their interpretations of history and personal experiences, their attempts to grapple with and oppose (sometimes) the world that was rendered out of Valera’s fascism. Thus we learn about all manner of artistic and political subversion, some of it frivolous posing, some of it serious attempts at disruption, some of it seriousness posing as frivolity.

There’s talk of revolution, talk of liberation, talk of Allen Ginsberg and of a social theorist named Moishe Bubalev, a stand-in for Herbert Marcuse. There is excess and danger for their own sake and for the sake of disruption.

Writing in the fact-drenched realist mode that typifies the “serious” novel in our era, Kushner dramatizes these competing ideas. And though Reno is the character whose life we’re tracking, her point of view becomes one among many subjective consciousnesses interpreting the events in the book.

Though she never abandons the psychologically rooted, factually and materially grounded realism of her story, here and there Kushner lobs a disruptive observation into her text — about speed, about time, about power, about the inherent falseness of what we conveniently call our “real” selves, our “real” beliefs, our “real” experience.

“There is no fixed reality, only objects in contrast,” she writes.

Then, later, “Certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures.”

Throughout the book, there’s the sense that people, events and even ideas are not what they seem. One character’s art consists of pretending to be a normal person doing a normal job so well that others don’t realize she’s pretending. Another tells nonstop stories about his life that communicate the truth of who he is while covering it up with outlandish lies. What’s real is fake and what’s fake is real, and the difference between the two is, as Kushner says, “as thin as the difference between a gesture that was dignified and one that was pathetic.”

This distrust of the real culminates in the bringing together of Reno’s world and that of T.P. Valera. By this point, we’ve come to understand that for all the talk of revolution, she and her artist friends live in the noblesse oblige world of privilege that for its survival depends on Valera and his corporate friends. They aren’t what they claim to be, no matter how earnestly they themselves believe these claims.


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