The Flamethrowers
Rachel Kushner
Scribner, $26.99 (cloth)

The Flamethrowers was nominated for the 2013 National Book Award.

“What about the epigraph, Fac ut ardeat?” Jesse Barron asks Rachel Kushner in an interview about her latest novel, The Flamethrowers, for the Paris Review. “It’s from the Stabat Mater, about the sorrows of Mary,” Kushner explains: 

I saw the phrase Fac ut ardeat—‘made to burn’—over a fireplace in the childhood home of an Italian friend who came out of a Fascist background. This friend always assumed it was d’Annunzian—about war, and being an Arditi [elite Italian soldier]. But it’s also a joke, of course—it’s above the fireplace.

Kushner’s rapid shift of focus here is just as fitting an entry point into The Flamethrowers as the historical contexts she ravels out of her epigraph. The phrase Fac ut ardeat points to large-scale religious tropes and world events, only to lead into a single living room. The joke comes at the expense of those larger meanings; it shows how easily their pathos can become no more than an amusing bit of furniture.

The Flamethrowers is preoccupied in this way with the narrow limits of care and attentiveness—with what one of its characters calls “the uselessness of the truth.” What if our private, everyday interactions with the people and objects we care about don’t tell us much about the structures that bind them together, or even about our own large-scale beliefs and values? Kushner probes what it means to appreciate individuals within such limitations, and her sensitivity to such intricate experiences of self-isolation makes The Flamethrowers a considerable achievement.

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Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba (2008), follows a group of American families through the social upheavals that oust them from Cuba in the 1960s. While Fidel Castro ascends to power, her preteen characters pursue first crushes. When their parents aren’t despairing over abrupt love affairs, they’re striving to pull their sons out of the revolution. Kushner conveys the frightened surprise with which her characters try to make sense of larger social transformations through the prism of their private lives. The bubble they inhabit is distorted by the surrounding revolution without ever being deflated. Their little domestic worlds change shape without losing opacity, leaving them shaken but still sheltered.

The Flamethrowers explores a similar theme. It weaves together two plots, one set mostly in mid-1970s New York and the other set in Italy between the First World War and the late ’50s. The former features a woman nicknamed Reno, an aspiring artist from Nevada. The latter tells the story of T.P. Valera, a motorcycle enthusiast whose love of these machines eventually makes him very rich. Reno is having an affair with Valera’s son Sandro, with whom she travels to the Valeras’ family house in Italy.

Like Telex from Cuba, this new novel is grounded in a wealth of research. Kushner studs both plot strands with cultural and historical allusions. Her ’70s characters listen to Big Jay McNeely, quote Sylvia Plath, and watch Jacques Demy films. Some of them are land artists or minimalists; others are former anarchists from Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. When Reno travels to Italy, she is swept up in its famous 1977 public protests. Valera and his friends are bikers obsessed with futurism.

Together they “read poems about speed and metal, recipes for soufflés of wire and buckshot, a diet that was part of the general call to metalize themselves, their bodies turned metal, into machines, their spirits no longer lethargic and fleshily weak, but fast and strong.” When the Second World War breaks out, Valera joins the army and becomes part of the Arditi (“Daring Ones”).

Kushner’s characters seem poised to make a mark within the social and cultural movements she so precisely brings to life. Reno works her way into New York’s most prestigious art communities. The motorcycles Valera starts making in the twenties eventually become contenders for the world speed record. But as in Telex, Kushner stages a series of failures as her characters attempt to engage with larger social histories. The characters in Telex have trouble making sense of the political upheaval that surrounds them. In The Flamethrowers they keep trying, but failing, to mine their attentiveness to work and relationships not only for daily sustenance but for broader, shareable understanding too.

Reno’s art projects and love affairs, for example, comprise a series of near misses in which she almost rises to social relevance, or almost makes a momentous change. For her breakthrough project she wants to photograph the lines her motorcycle makes in sand at very high speeds. But she crashes midway through the attempt, fracturing her ankle. The photos—once she takes them from a wheelchair—testify not to her beautifully abstract velocity but to the ungraceful progress of her skid and tumble:

A truck was just ahead of us, dragging a metal grader, probably to repair the surface where I went down. When we arrived at the crash site, I saw that I’d broken through. What seemed like endless perfect white on white was only a very thin crust of salt. Where the crust had been broken by the force of impact, mud seeped in. 

Her second ambitious art piece also fizzles. Caught in a protest march in Italy, shooting what promises to be amazing footage, she drops her camera, breaks it, and loses the pieces. The final days of protest find her couch-surfing, wondering how she’ll get back to New York. And Reno’s disappointments aren’t solely professional. Her affair with Sandro initially promises to lift her into upper regions of artistic fame and sheer wealth, only to end when she discovers—dramatically, but predictably—that he’d been cheating on her with his cousin. When she tries to make sense of the breakup, she realizes she has always been attracted to Sandro’s best friend Ronnie. Meanwhile, Valera faces a similar set of frustrations: his disenchantment with futurism, his country’s defeat in the war, his motorcycles’ debasement from allegories of progress to tools of mindless bloodshed. “Some of the corpses,” we read, “had been tied behind motorcycles—Valera motorcycles!—the Esso signs on the petrol pumps behind them round and bright as lollipops, the bodies dragged down the Corso Buenos Aires like bags of sand.”  

Kushner's characters struggle toward the realization that their lives might not be relevant. 

Eeriest about these misadventures is how fleetingly they are registered. Disappointment expends itself quickly in this novel, to the point that it becomes difficult to take its short-lived intensity seriously. In a comic expression of such indifference, Valera’s family uses his high modernist gravestone as a model for the grave of their family dog. At other times this easy unconcern takes on a sadder tone. The friends Reno made while living with Sandro respond to their breakup with reflexive, casual pity, and she takes it in stride. “They disapproved of how Sandro had treated me,” she recounts. “But I understood that they would remain friends with Sandro.” Of Sandro himself she says, “I still knew him, even after discovering that I didn’t quite know him.” Their relationship ends not with a heightening but a flattening of feeling. Losing the person with whom she had fallen overwhelmingly in love neither reveals secrets about him nor throws her into confusion and crisis.

• • •

If conventional novels represent individual voices as important elements of a wider social dialogue, Kushner turns the convention on its head. Rather than defend her characters’ relevance, she has them struggle toward the realization that their lives might not be very relevant or exemplary after all—and that even they can learn little from what happens to them. If Kushner’s characters mature, it is only in their increasing awareness of how unsatisfying and undramatic their efforts toward self-understanding are. Ronnie Fontaine, the lover Reno realizes she should have chosen, berates her not for failing to notice Sandro’s unfaithfulness, but for believing there could be some point to analyzing it. He lists for her all the women Sandro slept with while they dated, including Reno’s best friend, Giddle. When Reno asks, in tears, what his point is, Ronnie explains he has just shown her “the uselessness of the truth.”

Such deflations trace the way in which the ’60s and ’70s became disenchanted with an earlier, modernist trust in velocity, intensity, and all-out revolution—mellowed into a melancholy or ironic relativism. But though Kushner seems to have much respect for wry postmodern humor—just as she seems to admire futurism’s shameless celebration of individual power—these ideologies are not at the heart of the novel. Rather than merely mock or lament the irrelevance and disconnectedness of her characters, Kushner suggests that it is possible to appreciate a social world made of individually intricate but not strongly interrelated or mutually illuminating parts.

The Flamethrowers develops this more original and more positive side of its aesthetics through its characters’ preoccupation with relatively small, compact machines: their intricacy, their workings, the skills they require. Valera and Reno both love motorcycles; Reno is also fascinated by cameras, and as a child Sandro is captivated by flamethrowers (as well as the soldiers who use them). These machines—more scrutable, perhaps, than other modern machines—serve as oblique models for the kind of self-fulfillment Kushner’s characters can hope for. A self-fulfillment that is both limited and precious. Through her characters’ attachments to the machines, Kushner illustrates how much ground consciousness can reliably cover, what kinds of care and beauty it is capable of achieving. In one resonant example, the narrator channels Sandro’s internal monologue about flamethrowers from the Second World War:

The flame oil in the twin tanks they carried was five parts tar oil and one part crude, and they had a little canister of carbon dioxide and an automatic igniter and a belt pouch with spare igniters. The flamethrower was never, ever defensive. He was pure offense, overrunning enemy lines. He surged forth, a hulking creature with huge tanks on his back, a giant nozzle in his hand, hooked to the tanks. He was a harbinger of death. He looked like death, in his asbestos hood with the wide cowl, and he squirted liquid fire from a magnificent range—fifty meters—into the pillboxes and trenches of the enemy and they had no chance.

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were a hopeless lot. Their tanks were cumbersome and heavy and they were obvious and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said, after which Sandro continued to love the flamethrowers best, to reserve for them a special fascination . . . . But he didn’t know if his interest was reverence or a kind of pity.

We see how vividly Sandro understands the mechanics of these objects, but also how small and restricted a fantasy he builds around them. His “special fascination” can’t illuminate broader concerns; even for him it exists only as a quaint artifact of his childhood. Yet Kushner refuses entirely to ironize scenes like this one. She registers them as moments of wonder and discovery, as her characters’ best attempts to make the world they live in seem meaningful and appealing.

In counterpoint to the gaps of indifference that separate Kushner’s characters from the larger social world, these quieter scenes suggest that such small forms of knowledge are not derivative or discardable. They cannot be dismissed as forms of solipsism or failures of insufficient effort. Here, as Reno is about to get her motorcycle back after her crash, she considers what it would be like to ride it again:

Soon I would have the Moto Valera, which was being repaired at the dealer in Reno and would be shipped back to New York . . . . The leathers I had worn on the salt flats were too big, and where they sagged they rubbed my skin off as I rolled and skidded. The scabs were just now beginning to fall off . . . . The streaks itched terribly. Sandro liked them. He said they looked like paint pours on a Morris Louis canvas.

The lesson she has learned about bike outfits won’t do her much good: she probably won’t race again. And the only beautiful patterns the crash did create imprinted themselves across her lower body. These unexpectedly beautiful bruises are rapidly disappearing, and she will never show them to anyone else. Kushner notes both the care with which Reno and Sandro revisit the details of her attempted art project—appreciating what this crash has shown them about motorcycles and their relationship to human skin—and the narrowness of the insights with which their attentiveness is repaid. She lets us see Reno’s crash as both a vehicle of self-understanding and an ironic reminder of its limited scope. Kushner challenges us to take in this sequence not only as a moment of deflation, but also as an aesthetic experience, as a discovery of beauty and tenderness that seems moving even if this feeling Reno and Sandro share will not do anyone else much good.

Kushner does not indulge in a liberal fantasy that the individual and the private are the most important dimensions of social knowledge—or in the converse Marxist fantasy that one can explain individual experience through larger social systems. Instead, her sheltered characters convey a hesitation about the extent to which our private lives can be meaningful interventions into loftier historical narratives. Kushner wonders how to make sense of life if one comes to doubt that the wider and narrower spheres of one’s existence are reliably connected. These questions about the gap that separates our daily cares from the larger world also concern the purpose of writing. Kushner implicitly asks to what extent the small world of a novel can capture the real world without distorting it, and whether the experience of being immersed in a piece of art draws us closer to or farther from the more complicated reality it aspires to illuminate. That Kushner raises these issues in ways that avoid naiveté makes The Flamethrowers a well-executed work; that she does so while remaining humane makes it an original and urgent one.

Photograph: Blake Stubley