“A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist,” a character says early on in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about being a young woman in a world that doesn’t consider that to be a speaking role. Those of us familiar with being smart, young, and female will appreciate the effort.
The time is New York City in the 1970s, scene of the minimalists, performance artists, and the early SoHo art scene. The ingénue is “Reno,” a nameless young woman who bombs into New York City from Reno, Nevada, hot to make it in the art world. She is young, Western, and working-class, a new person from a new part of a new country. We meet her “drawing in a fast and almost traceless way,” during a high-speed motorcycle trial on the Salt Flats in Utah, making white-on-white lines with her tires that she’ll later photograph. It’s the perfect project for a character who herself is nearly a blank canvas.
At first it seems like bike-racing in Reno will be a conduit for fire (the flamethrower of the title), aimed at the art establishment, her Old World boyfriend, patriarchy in general, and especially the trucker who sees her motorcycle at a rest stop, lures her into a friendly exchange, and says “’You won’t look nearly so good when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.’”
(Why do misogynists always draw women in first? Why do they engage our female impulse to be “nice” before putting us in our place? Kushner has her gender-dynamics perfectly calibrated.)
Reno loves two things, “drawing and speed.” And in many ways, her macho motorcycle-riding and ski-racing undermine the typical symbolism of the young woman: She’s moving too fast to be embodied, too fast to be of a place, as women usually are; she’s the driver, not the terrain, a possessor of a complex, beautiful machine (a motorcycle) not trapped inside one (a body).
But even with her guy-girl bravado, Reno’s first performance turns out to contain the seeds of her downfall. The motorcycle she’s riding is a Moto Valera, on loan to her from the manufacturer because she’s sleeping with the scion of the Valera tire empire, an older Italian minimalist artist in New York City who picked her up as one of a series of interchangeable young women. Youth and speed are not enough for the price of entry in Manhattan; you also need money and power, and Reno is too willing to take what she hasn’t earned. As she says, “I wanted to be led.” When she crashes her bike, it’s the boyfriend’s name that gets her the access to complete her project.
The Hollywood version of this story is a ubiquitous fairy tale so entrenched most people don’t question it—a charming, broke young woman meets a rich, older man, who helps her fulfill her dreams, never mind the secret dirty wrangle on both sides. Kushner sets out to immolate that, by what actually happens when you are young, gorgeous, and trying somehow to trade upon it.
Reno knows she’s an outsider and a class usurper, but she’s too young to see all the ways that Sandro is humiliating her. And she’s too young to know that the humiliation is part of the thrill for him. Her eventual disillusionment is painful, but also satisfying in the finely-grained texture of its truth. The older man isn’t bringing her to orgasm in public places to be generous, unaware of her discomfort; he’s enjoying her discomfort. He doesn’t like her despite her cluelessness; he likes her because of it. He didn’t mishear or misunderstand her question; he decided not to answer.
But before all is revealed, the Reno-Sandro story widens out, in order to attempt larger points about youth, class, power, and rebellion. “The Flamethrowers” of the title turns out to be the social revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s who, when Reno and Sandro go to Italy in pursuit of another Valera-family-sponsored art project, write the couple’s issues on a larger canvas.
The complexity of this structure is one of my favorite parts of the book; we realize only in Italy that the effect of third-person narrative segments about Sandro’s father’s youth is to explicitly situate Sandro in the context of the patriarchy and powerful family that created him. His story can’t start without the story of his father. (Reno, significantly, is fatherless.) And, as other third-person segments drop in and out, the reader realizes that Reno’s first-person segments don’t make her the overall narrator—her segments are in first-person because a young woman can have no other voice. And her story is framed and overrun by other more authoritative ones because no one expects her to be talking in the first place. It’s an extraordinarily clever and satisfying device.
It’s less clear what the reader is meant to take away from the conflict between the revolutionaries and the establishment. Sandro’s family members, when we meet them, are a cliché (though an amusing one) of evil, incestuous aristocracy, complete with a cold mansion and stale bread. The third-person segments about the brutality their corporation practices against indigenous peoples in Brazil cement their corruption.
And the revolutionaries are as bad, as a standalone chapter about an NYC group called the Motherfuckers indicates. The guru for this group, a fictional creation named Bubalev, writes, “What happens between bodies during an insurrection is more interesting than the insurrection itself.” Put another way, “We are here to live…. To demand our life. Not to request that the needs of life be met. We are here to meet them ourselves, to meet the demand for life.” None of this italicized living is presented as having much value beyond the murder and looting it encourages. The only thing that happens between bodies during the eventual revolution is a sexual encounter of which Reno says, “The rest of it I wish I could erase.”
The general pointlessness of the wider conflict leaves the ultimate point of Reno’s story more up in the air than might be intended. Sandro gains some closure when he goes home to face his family. But Reno’s tale ends with aimless driving around on her motorcycle during the blackout of 77. She has existed, she has lived, but it’s not clear that she’s been enriched, or what the novel is trying to tell us about the lack-of-enrichment, if that’s the intention. She’s not actively making new art—maddeningly, during her time in Italy, she drops her camera and succumbs to creative inertia. The two female characters bracketing her at a final party are an aging whore and a young woman embarrassing herself with see-through pants.
There’s only so far you can go with a character who is not a woman but “an index for the existence of woman” as Reno says. The framing device of other POVs (which start in midsentence, as if they’ve been talking nonstop while Reno is onstage), the dropped camera, the ass-less pants and all the other ways Reno ultimately conforms to gender expectation create a confusing quality of stunted rage, of flamethrowers not deployed, or turned selfward. I want Reno to end with a bang, not a blackout, but maybe that’s all before her as she blazes into the future. Kushner writes during the early motorcycle-trial performance:
“Every few minutes an engine screamed as a vehicle flew off the line, spewing a rooster tail of salt from under each rear tire. A few seconds into its run the vehicle began to float, its lower half warbled. Then the whole thing went liquid and blurry and was lost to the horizon. One after another I watched the scream, the careen, the rooster tail, the float, and then the shimmer and wink off the edge of the horizon, gone. Careen, rooster tail, float, gone. Careen, float, gone.”