The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

I remember when John Banville won the Booker Prize someone remarked that despite the enormous cultural changes in our world British writers were still writing about art historians. The New York art scene seems to serve a similar function for American writers. I’ll confess here that the New York art scene bores me. And globally speaking probably lost any real influence with the demise of Andy Warhol. New York’s cultural relevance after Warhol is its street life, most notably rap and graffiti. Kushner attempts to give her New York artists relevance by marrying them to the social unrest in Italy in the 1970s, which never comes across as anything but a rather random parallel.

There’s a really good novel buried in these 400 pages. The problem for me was that Kushner wasn’t interested in writing a good novel; she overreached herself and set herself the task of writing a work of art.

The good novel is the story of Reno, a young girl named after the town of her birth who arrives in New York full of ambition. She’s faced with a world of hideous men. Narcissistic, vain, egotistical pumped up with their own self-importance and sense of entitlement. In 1970s New York pretty young girls, it would appear, were required to be little more than groupies. There are two brilliant pivotal moments in Reno’s quest for identity.  One when a simple odd jobs guy treats her with kindness, pretty much the only act of kindness she receives from a male in the entire novel. She’s not interested. Can’t blame her for that. She has her sights set higher. The other is when an aristocratic Italian woman (the best character in the novel) treats her with utter disdain, which is how you feel she deserves to be treated if she’s ever going to wake up. The Italian section of the novel was easily my favourite even though it was also the most baffling because it’s called upon to make sense of the New York section which for me it didn’t. How the New York art scene in the 1970s relates to Fascism and its backlash in Italy baffled me. You sense the author wanted to write about two worlds she knew – New York and Italy – and her means of connecting them was arbitrary rather than inspired.

I love reading James Wood’s reviews but rarely agree with his final judgements. He had nothing but praise for this and yet frequently finds fault with DeLillo. Ironically this often came across to me as DeLillo fan fiction. Unfortunately, though she can write well, Kushner never hits the heights of DeLillo.  The female protagonist was really compelling and if the narrative had stayed with her I would have enjoyed this a whole lot more. Unfortunately the novel is constantly fragmented with sideshows, few of which didn’t bore me a bit. download-1

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