Who are these people? And why are they naked?
Wishy-washy art be damned. Decent books, okay albums, nice films, a real deluge of those, should get the hell out. As something measured by shelf life, their sole purpose is to meet expectations and ‘mediocritise’ the whole thing. And while some of us would not be able to figure out what ‘the whole thing’ even is, let’s not forget that provoking love-or-hate reaction from public is exactly what art should do. What Rachel Kushner did with The Flamethrowers. Which is deliriously self-indulgent and so nonchalantly cool.
As Morrissey put it in one of his recent interviews, some people are art. By analogy, some books are art. Not in the way that a writer is an artist (not necessarily) and literature is a form of art (you’ll be amazed), but in the way that art stares at you from each and every page of these books with what could be described as a predatory smirk. This is very much the case with The Flamethrowers, a novel about a young girl from Nevada called Reno who sells her motorbike and, in pursuit of her artistic leanings, comes to New York of the 70’s to have this thing called ‘art’ smashed all over her face in a way that is frightening, thrilling, disgusting and quite overwhelming.
As with any self-respecting novel of modern times (though not on modern times), the plot of The Flamethrowers jumps all around the place. There are flashbacks you expect and there are flashbacks you don’t expect. Rachel Kushner is totally in charge of proceedings though, and she is never afraid to break things up a little: for instance, right in the middle of the novel there is a scorchingly brilliant chapter enumerating the actions of The Motherfuckers, an anarchist NY group of the 60’s, whose founder Reno meets at one of those tedious art-parties where you are equally bewildered, put off and amused. It’s an entertaining breather, but it also adds credibility (which was hardly Rachel Kushner’s main concern, to be honest) to the book swarming with mostly imaginary but perfectly realistic writers, graphic artists, sculptors, etc. Speaking of sculptors, it’s through one wealthy, minimalist artist (is there a worse combination?), Sandro Valera, that Reno gets into that world. She becomes his girlfriend – a girlfriend of a wealthy, minimalist artist. Sandro is of the Valeras, a powerful Italian family that owns a huge motorcycle empire in Rome. And Moto Valera is the bike that Reno rides.
While the premise is quite straightforward, The Flamethrowers is filled with plots. Reading the novel, I kept thinking to myself, not unpleasantly, that several books of short stories could come out of it: take that story about dead rabbits or one about a woman who got hit on the hip by a meteorite. Brilliant, intriguing ideas that come pouring out of the artist’s impressionistic, imaginative mind, and if some of it starts looking like a mess – you hang on to it like you do to a great David Lynch film. And what could possibly be easier when Rachel’s prose is so charismatic and so intoxicating, and you find yourself purring in dizzy delight: ‘he looked like Zeus lost in a casino’, ‘he said ‘cops’ with a tough, flattened New York accent, as if he were beheading the word with the chop of his voice’, etc. The prose is joyful and lush, but the devil is of course in the detail, so you get Rachel mentioning the Motherfuckers crashing an overpriced Ukrainian diner for it to later quietly resurface as a place where Reno and Sandro eat. That’s art for you. And that’s artists: naked, impotent, vaguely gifted motherfuckers quietly usurping the city like a sprawling gang of zombies.
On love or hate. Indeed, I don’t believe there is a person who would close the book thinking this was a decent, okay, nice read. There are those who would think The Flamethrowers (in itself certainly a symbol, because art does not just lead to creation) is a novel of the year and there are those who would stop reading or drag themselves through by way of a ridiculous habit. Me, I think it’s the novel of the year. It is everything art should be: bizarre, brilliant, polarizing. Interestingly, having read and loved the experience, I can’t even see Reno in my mind. But I can sense, feel, smell her, and every credit to Rachel Kushner.
In fact, my only regret is that I haven’t read Rachel’s debut novel, Telex From Cuba (2008; fantastic title at the very least). But there’s no regret like a sweet one. And yes, this review is pretentious – but then so is its subject matter and so is art.