As usual, I begin the new year reading those books I should have read last year: first up, Rachel Kushner’s much lauded American epic, The Flamethrowers. Set largely in New York and Italy during the 1970s, the novel tells the story of a young woman’s love affair with a wealthy Italian while detouring into radical politics in the first half of the twentieth century and in the seventies.
It’s narrator falls fully born into the world of the novel, so much so that even her name remains unknown to the reader, who must make do instead with the suitably mythic nickname she quickly acquires, Reno. This establishes her working class, provincial roots, which she has abandoned to live in New York and pursue her ambition to be an artist. Luckily, not the kind of artist that has to spend long hours in a studio painting or sculpting, as Reno finds it difficult to stay still – so much so that the novel begins with her taking part in a motorbike speed trial across the desert. Her ‘art-form’ involves filming in some way that is never entirely specified, and, in fact, art rarely gets in the way of a story that is supposedly full of artists.
It is entirely appropriate that Reno sees herself as a camera as she is rarely active in the novel, and more often finds herself viewing the action as an outsider. She arrives in New York knowing no-one:
“I figured it was only a matter of time before I met people, was part of something.”
And though she does meet people, she is never quite part of the New York art scene, Later, when her Italian boyfriend, Sandro, takes her to meet his mother in Italy she is equally adrift, even when it comes to the rules of the cheese knife:
“…rich people didn’t follow the letter of the law….Although there was some way of following them, while not submitting to them, but it required a mysterious touch, and you had to be from that class to possess the special touch.”
In Rome, among radicals, her position as an observer is enforced by her decision to film the demonstration she is taken to. Her job as a ‘China girl’, a woman who is photographed holding a Kodak colour card at the beginning of a film as a marker for the flesh tones, seems symptomatic of her role in the novel.
Reno’s speed trial ends with her crashing, and the novel also seems prone to sudden stops. Her biking and filming are presented as integral parts of her character but are also largely irrelevant to the plot once their particular set-piece is over. Perhaps the best section of the novel is that set in Sandro’s mother’s villa in Italy, with its eccentric cast of inhabitants. However, when she catches Sandro with another woman she simply walks away and the relationship peters out. Admittedly this takes her (somewhat implausibly) to another interesting setting, with a group of radicals in Rome, but, after one encounter with street violence, it skids to a halt and we are soon back in New York.
Clearly the novel thinks it has something to say about class: Sandro’s wealth is entirely built on exploitation, not only of factory workers Italy, but of the natives of South America who harvest rubber for the company. It is suggested near the end that it is Sandro’s knowledge of this that has led him to be an artist, but that decision seems more to originate in a desire to forget where the money comes from. There is an implied contrast between Sandro’s friends, firing blanks at each other for sexual pleasure, and the radicals of Rome:
“The gun was a tool like the screwdriver was a tool, and they all carried them.”
In fact, the novel hints at the exploitative nature of art itself, particularly the way it exploits women. Sandro’s friend, Ronnie, puts on a show of pictures of “women mugging for the camera with their faces roughed up.” In Rome she discovers some men filming a young girl, pregnant and homeless. When the baby is born, they put the girl in an asylum:
“They didn’t care about her. The girl who was the centre, the cause, the reason for their film.
Venice. They were hoping for Venice”
Reno herself seems largely to be let down and abandoned by men, the novel’s conclusion reinforcing this pattern.
The novel, then, has many memorable scenes, but I found it a stop-start affair. The one thing it never seemed to do was pick up speed.