I was attracted to The Flamethrowers long before I broke down and bought it, mostly because it seemed “different” from the other contemporary novels out there. The perceived “difference” came, I think, from the reviews and also from the subject matter, which seemed, over the distance of the internet, sharper, stranger than some other books.
And it was a different book than the three other contemporary books I’ve read in the past months (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Americanah by Chimmamanda Ngozi Adichie). There are sharper images in The Flamethrowers, and while I read I felt like Rachel Kushner was one of the smartest people writing. Many sentences in it are fragments, and I think that this style lent the book some of its edge. Though what interests me the most about the book is the narrator, her diffused quality, and her lack of backstory.
As to the “traditional filler of twenty-first century realist fiction,” maybe that is something I avoid. I don’t relate to standard psychologizing in novels. I don’t really believe that the backstory is the story you need. And I don’t believe it’s more like life to get it—the buildup of “character” through psychological and family history, the whole idea of “knowing what the character wants.” People in real life so often do not know what they want. People trick themselves, lie to themselves, fool themselves. It’s called survival, and self-mythology. I wanted to create a person who felt in her thinking how I think a person might actually think, but through literary language, mine, not stream of consciousness (with all due respect for those experiments), and maybe that’s one trick of it. I don’t do the big hand of God placing people around the Kriegspiel board and claiming to see into their deeper motivations. Even Freud would not do that. He would probably just listen to what they are saying, and let the reader interpret.
The three novels previously mentioned were so full with backstory that for the first half the reading felt like they were not going forward but backwards. And until the backstory totally took me under, I was conscious of moving backward instead of the motion I like to have when I read, that of going forward. The Luminaries fills in backstory for the first half of the book while the twelve men are sitting around a hotel lounge talking. Americanah piles on the backstory while Ifemelu is sitting and getting her hair braided. The Goldfinch shovels through the past while Theo is in a hotel room in Amsterdam.
I don’t know what this means besides that The Flamethrowers seems to me to have handled the backstory in the best way: move forward. (Though it is true, that while Reno is waiting to ride her motorcycle in the land speed trials Kushner cuts to NYC and the reader gets the history of how she met her boyfriend, where she came from, and such, then she finally rides the bike and we can move on.)
I also appreciated The Flamethrowers for its description of Rome and Italy in the 1970s (except for that wooden floor in Prati or Parioli and the view of the Colosseum from Piazza Venezia before Mussolini). It was a volatile time in Italy that I rarely read about. Combine the Italian movements with the art scene in NYC, the emphasis on speed, on youth, on change, The Flamethrowers is an invigorating read.
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