● The Flamethrowers
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner, 400 pgs, $26.99
In many ways, “The Flamethrowers,” Rachel Kushner’s novel about the historical, political, cultural and — most daringly — ideological chaos of the 1970s, is a simple bildungsroman.
It tracks the sentimental education of its heroine, Reno, from starry-eyed, eager youth, lusting after experience — her greatest assets her ambition and naivete — to weary, knowing connoisseur of what’s broken in the world and how it got that way. We ride on Reno’s back as she swims her way into the ’70s art scene, falling in with Sandro Valera, a minimalist interested in the “thingness of things,” and floating from party to party to bar to party, surrounded by everyone who’s anyone (the book namedrops art-world celebrities of the era, from Robert Smithson to Gordon Matta-Clark).
We thrill as she drives her sleek Italian motorcycle (provided by Sandro’s family’s company, a famous manufacturer of cycles and, more lucratively, tires) through the Bonneville Salt Flats, hoping to create a great work of environmental art, but instead succeeding in breaking the female land-speed record. We travel with her to Italy, where she’s been invited to give a valedictory tour celebrating her accomplishment, but then finds herself barricaded inside Sandro’s family’s villa while the Red Brigades stage the insurrections that shut down the entire country for a period in 1975. We feel the tension as she flees Sandro’s villa and its relative safety and finds herself in the middle of the chaos, sharing a squalid Roman apartment with the leaders of the opposition. We watch her go from someone pretending to be an artist to someone consumed by the uses — and limits — of art.
For a certain kind of contemporary novelist, trained in the pre-eminence of empathy and emotion, this would be enough for a successful novel. But Kushner isn’t a typical writer. No matter how satisfying Reno’s story may be, she’s after something headier and more subversive than the heroic arc of a spunky, independent woman set against the super-cool backdrop of ’70s nostalgia.
Throughout the novel, Kushner, whose father comes from a New York Jewish family, takes detours to show us the life and times of T.P. Valera, Italian futurist, motorcycle inventor, tire magnate and father to Reno’s love interest, Sandro. This allows her to contrast large swaths of 20th-century history with her specific 1970s milieu: the cycle-riding Arditi of the Italian forces in World War I, the rise of Italian fascism, the abject lives of the Amazonian tribesmen conscripted in midcentury into working for the Brazilian rubber plantations, the rise of global capitalism and the ideological connections between all these.
“They were smashing and crushing every outmoded and traditional idea… every past thing. Everything old and of good taste, every kind of decadentism and aestheticism. They aimed to destroy czars, popes, kings, professors, ‘gouty homebodies’… all official culture and its pimps, hawkers, and whores,” she writes about the futurists. And, crushing the past, they built corporations, consolidating their own power.
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.
The true radicals are out on the street, waging war against the Valeras. They are the only people in the book who are simply and completely who they appear to be, and their appearance on the scene challenges not only the lives of the other characters, but also the notion Kushner has been playing with, of inauthenticity as the only viable way to engage the world.
What’s at stake in “The Flamethrowers,” we come to realize, is freedom. Not the jingoistic freedom of American imperialism, but true freedom: existential, material, human freedom. It’s the kind of freedom that hasn’t been seen in a long time — not since the 1970s, maybe. The kind we sometimes have to hide in order to hold on to it. The kind that’s always threatening to burst back into the world and work its anarchic, regenerative destruction.
As Burdmoore Model, an acquaintance of Reno’s and former leader of the radical 1960s trouble-seekers The Motherf***ers — one of the many characters in “The Flamethrowers” who appear at first to be incidental but turn out to be central players in the drama, says — “A lot of people think the city is decadent emptiness… empty of potential. It’s dead now, I mean currently. But the day will come when the people of the Bronx wake up, the sisters and brothers out in Brooklyn, and I can hardly wait.’”
Joshua Furst is the author of “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf, 2007).