by Rachel Kushner
Scribner, 2013. 383 pp.
At the National Book Awards ceremony this past November, Rachel Kushner read a section from her second novel, The Flamethrowers, a finalist in the fiction category. She chose a scene set at a New York dinner party in 1976, in which a middle-aged artist named Stanley Kastle plays his guests a tape in which he muses about language and real estate: “A good realtor says ‘home.’ Never ‘house.’ Always ‘cellar’ and never ‘basement.’ Basements are where cats crap on old Santa costumes. Where men drink themselves to death. Where children learn firsthand about sexual molestation. But cellar. A cellar is where you keep root vegetables and wine.” Kushner’s reading lasted five minutes, but she didn’t get through half of Stanley’s recorded speech. She got a lot of laughs for her performance; in the book, however, Stanley and friends listen to his recorded voice in silence, until he shuts off the tape player and another man offers a theory about the meaning behind the tape recording. “I, uh, don’t know what my point was, except that men over fifty can’t stop talking,” Stanley responds. “It’s an illness.”
Kushner’s novel, in many ways, is about men talking and making art, and about the ways that women experience men’s art, or become the object of it. In Kushner’s novel, the reader witnesses this scene through the eyes of a young woman nicknamed “Reno,” after her home city in Nevada, by a man she sleeps with once. We never learn her real name, but “Reno,” who moved to the city to pursue an art career, is not invited to the downtown art parties because of her work, but because of her boyfriend, Sandro Valera. Sandro is older, an established minimalist artist, who comes from powerful stock—his father was a wealthy Italian motorcycle manufacturer. Before Reno met Sandro, she knew the Valera name because of the motorcycles. She grew up working class and rode bikes when she was younger. On their first date Reno notices Sandro’s confidence: “I saw how easy everything was for Sandro. I felt it, all at once. That he simply found a girl he liked and incorporated her. And because I was attracted to him, his charisma, his looks, and his knowledge, if I didn’t form an attachment it would be my loss.”
Kushner’s novel, in many ways, is about men talking and making art, and about the ways that women experience men’s art, or become the object of it.
Without Sandro, there wouldn’t be much of a novel, even if Reno is our protagonist. Reno narrates, but the world she describes is Sandro’s—he takes her around to dinner parties and gallery openings, movies and museums—and it’s a world with fewer female artists than male. Reno occasionally makes films, and her friend Giddle describes her waitressing job as performance art. But in Sandro’s New York, women facilitate the display of men’s art or are the objects of their art—or, as in the case of Stanley’s wife, Gloria Kastle, make their own body art (Gloria stands in a box with a cut-out window framing her pelvis and a sign that says “Place Hand in Window”).
After a year in New York, Reno rides west to take part in a motorcycle race with the intention of photographing her track marks. (“It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West,” she notes.) She rides a Valera motorcycle, next year’s model. Even on this journey, which she takes independently, Sandro provides her momentum.
Unlike Gloria, the male avant-garde artists in The Flamethrowers don’t use their bodies to make their work. Stanley makes neon tubes arranged by his assistants according to an algorithm; Valera exhibits large aluminum boxes, and his assistants wear white cotton gloves to protect the metal from their fingerprints. Not all of the men have so much control over their work, or bodily detachment from their labor. Like in Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, which was set in that country’s revolutionary period, The Flamethrowers is a novel concerned more generally with exploitation. It narrates the ways in which men not only exploit the bodies of women but also other men, and the ways in which men exploit nature itself.
Kushner tells the life story of Sandro’s father, T. P. Valera, alongside Reno’s story, and his biography is a parable about the dangerous combination of technology and power. In 1912 he is a student in Rome and a solitary figure until he falls in with a group of young men who gather at cafés “arguing and penning manifestos” about speed, sketching idealized machines, and racing motorcycles around the city. After a stint as a soldier fighting for fascism, Valera starts manufacturing motorcycles and applies his futurist sympathies to his management style. During a rubber shortage in 1941 he travels to Brazil and starts his own extraction business, a project that begins with meeting Brazilian men “who arrived hours late in creamy linen.” Valera thinks he’s not racist because “after spending his boyhood in Egypt he was not unaccustomed to dark-skinned people. It was backward to hate them.” But he builds his business on the uncompensated labor of dark-skinned people and the destruction of their environments. The rubber tappers work on credit and carry balls of rubber, “a good comfortable crushing weight” of one hundred pounds, on their heads. To recruit workers, the minister of industry tells Valera that he will pretend his country is sending men off to war, because “it’s easier to get a snake to smoke than to get an Indian to enlist.” Valera becomes wealthy off the back of this charade and eventually bankrolls—not for entirely un-selfish reasons—his own government’s construction of the Autostrada del Sole, Italy’s first superhighway, which runs from Milan to Naples like the zip running down the inside of a boot.
As many critics have noted, Kushner skillfully blends history and fiction in The Flamethrowers, a technique she debuted in Telex from Cuba. Both novels are set during moments of political upheaval, and the lived past is brought to life through Kushner’s careful but always fantastical reconstruction. The events in Telex from Cuba take place in the clubhouses of United Fruit Company managers and in the camps of the Cuban revolutionaries in the 1950s, but a showgirl who contributes vitally to the novel’s plot is based on a prostitute who died in the 1930s. Likewise, rubber may have really run short in the Second World War, and the Autostrada del Sole really did get constructed, but the Valera company is fictional.
Kushner’s mix of fiction and historical reconstruction in The Flamethrowers might have been inspired by her interest in images. “It was with images that I began The Flamethrowers,” she wrote in the Paris Review, and “by the time I finished, I found myself with a large stash.” This stash reappears throughout The Flamethrowers, perhaps most starkly in the photograph of a housewife bruised by a meteorite that has fallen through the roof of her home. The images, many of which are taken from magazines and movies that Reno sees with Sandro, are part of Kushner’s exploration of objectification. Reno often experiences the images differently from those around her, imagining the housewife’s boredom before the meteorite struck, while Sandro discusses time, randomness, and single-story houses. Reno herself is a collector, making a film about New York by accumulating shots randomly, holding out her camera as she wanders the streets and watching the tapes back to look for interesting footage. “I was not like either Sandro or Ronnie [Fontaine],” Kushner writes as Reno (Ronnie is Sandro’s best friend). “Chance, to me, had a kind of absolute logic to it. I revered it more than I did actual logic, the kind that was built from solid materials, from reason and from fact.” This comes in a paragraph that is more about Reno’s approach to life than her practice as an artist; it’s evident that the two overlap.
After Reno sets a women’s land-speed record back in the salt flats of Utah, she is invited to take part in a tour of Italy with the Valera racing team. On the cusp of the spring of 1977, she travels there with Sandro, and they stay at his family’s villa in northern Italy while they wait for the tour to begin. That year has been described as Italy’s second 1968—a year of labor militancy; mass demonstrations of leftists, feminists, students, and autonomists; and violence between protesters and police, with deaths on both sides. When they arrive, Sandro apologizes for his brother’s impolite behavior, explaining to Reno that the Valera factory workers were rejecting their union to go on strike. “Good for them,” Reno thinks, “and anyway, it didn’t excuse his brother being rude.”
Later, after her relationship with Sandro has dissolved, Reno witnesses a huge march in the streets of Rome:
The women’s groups were marching first. Italy was backward in its treatment of women. Divorce had become legal in 1974. Abortion was illegal. A lot of the women’s banners were about rape. That I knew about these issues through Sandro, who would go on at length, made my chest tighten. Sandro, interested in feminism. A sympathizer. A man who apparently loved women so much he had cheated on me the moment it was convenient to do so.
Reno, predictably, films some of the march, and Kushner’s depictions of Reno’s images are vivid; she describes a window smashing and a bunch of balloons rising into the sky, “their stretched skin the sheer white of nurses’ stockings.” Indeed, Kushner uses Reno more like a camera than a character; she often chooses to stay silent rather than speak up. The way that Kushner constructs her narrator is one of the most fascinating innovations of The Flamethrowers. Reno is a lead, our protagonist, a subject rather than merely an object in her life story, even as the characters around Reno objectify her.
In an apartment downstairs from where she stays in Rome, two male filmmakers are making a documentary about a pregnant woman named Anna, which is based on a real 1975 movie made by Alberto Griffi and Massimo Sarchielli. “Anna is homeless and eight months pregnant and sixteen, beautiful and depressed, suicidal and with a heroin habit,” as Kushner explained to the Paris Review in an interview about the actual film, “and the filmmakers become obsessed with her, not so much in saving her as in tracking her existence. They start filming her all the time. It’s an early example of direct cinema, where everything is filmed in real time.” Again, Kushner seems to be highlighting the mostly unambiguous ways in which men—and in her own case, women—can come to exploit others for their artwork. As Reno observes of Anna, “She was young, a teenager, and beautiful in both a tragic and an unmarked way. It was her smile, dimpled, sweet, and naïve, and her patient tolerance of the older men who directed her, that seemed tragic.”
Later, back in New York, Sandro’s friend Ronnie has a show of “pictures of beat-up women” that a woman gallerist refuses to show because she “felt the work was too misogynistic.” When Reno goes to his opening, she looks at the pictures and finds herself thinking about Anna: “I thought of the pregnant biondina. The biondina told to strip nude, deloused for the camera, and what was the difference? Vincenzo has the baby.”
As much as this is a novel about women making art, as much as The Flamethrowers demonstrates Kushner’s brilliant ability to make art, this is also a work of fiction about women not making art: about women being the object of men’s art and experiencing art made by others. At the paperback launch for The Flamethrowers in Brooklyn, Kushner said she “wanted a narrator that was hard to look at” and “wanted to write a character that felt like thought.” In this way, “Reno”—a character who is never truly named—is the opposite of Anna, and even of the activist women she films in the Italian streets. Kushner dedicates her novel to “Anna.”
Natasha Lewis is the producer of Belabored, Dissent’s labor podcast.