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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strangely uneven but enjoyable and intriguing
Set mainly in New York's art district in the late 1970s, Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" tells the story of a young girl, known only to the reader as Reno, after the city she comes from. She's a girl who loves motorbikes and photography, but struggles to find her place in the New York art scene. When she falls for the estranged son, Sandro, of the Italian motorbike...
Published 15 months ago by Ripple

versus
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A talented author, but stylistic choices make this a real slog.
In brief, the premise of The Flamethrowers is that Reno, a young woman from the American Midwest, moves to New York in the 1970s with hopes of becoming an artist and, maybe, finding love. This leads to her falling in with the in-crowd and traversing the art scene amid the feelings of alienation and distance she has from the people she meets.

None of the above,...
Published 12 months ago by Ross


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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strangely uneven but enjoyable and intriguing, 5 Jun 2013
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Hardcover)
Set mainly in New York's art district in the late 1970s, Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" tells the story of a young girl, known only to the reader as Reno, after the city she comes from. She's a girl who loves motorbikes and photography, but struggles to find her place in the New York art scene. When she falls for the estranged son, Sandro, of the Italian motorbike manufacturer Valera, himself an artist in New York, Reno finds herself in situations she cannot control.

"The Flamethrowers" is a difficult book to describe. It feels unbalanced at times, with one of the main events not occurring until three quarters of the way through the book. It's also not easy to even say what it's about. It covers business, from the start of the Valera family interest in motorbikes told in another strand of the book which frustratingly ends mid way through the book, through the oppression of Brazilian rubber tappers in a small but perfectly written chapter, ending with the family business controlled by Sandro's brother in Italy facing the political labour issues of the period. Meanwhile Sandro enjoys the wealth which allows him to create art. Eventually these two collide and Reno is caught up in the middle, but she is a person who seems to go with the flow rather than making choices of her own. Yet somehow this imbalance in the book makes it all the more compelling. Add to that Kushner's often unexpected turn of phrase and I was gripped by it from start to finish.

In fact, it may well be the slightly unbalanced feel of the book that helps the reader to associate with Reno, a girl who is very much on the edge and not in control of her life. In some ways she's a cipher for events that happen around her but this doesn't detract from the book in any way. The differences between social and political disorder in Italy in the late 1970s are contrasted by rioting in New York towards the end of the book which, not unlike recent rioting and looting in the UK, seem to arise out of pure opportunism.

Often novels that feature the art world can border on pretension but this doesn't happen here. Kushner's artists are dreamers and raconteurs who seem to struggle to differentiate between imagination and reality at a time when there are real social issues at play. Similarly Sandro's mother and brother seem completely oblivious to the demands and needs of their workers in Italy. It is in managing this difference that Reno finds herself, often unwittingly.

Ultimately though, this is a novel that I admired more for the writing than for the plot development as such. Kushner covers a lot of issues, and it's far from clear at first reading what her message, if any, is. Like many very good novels, it's a book I've found myself thinking about long after finishing it, but I'm never quite sure what the message is. Kushner is a writer who gives a sense of space to her setting and in this Reno is cast adrift. The publishers note it's an "exploration of the mystique of the feminine" which I must say I never quite picked up on. For me, it's more about the difference between dreamers and those who take action to back their beliefs. Her style is captivating and compelling though in equal measure and she's a writer that is well worth checking out. Images from the book still flit through my mind long after reading. If you like writers such as Hari Kunzru, this is well worth checking out.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More than a line of speed in the desert, 6 July 2013
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This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Kindle Edition)
An interesting mix of several main story lines, as our narrator gets involved with art movements, motor cycles, tyre factories, strikes, street fighting and skiing. If that sounds improbable, the novel isn't. It's spread across deserts, New York, Italy with various characters and sometimes co-incidences to pull it together.

I'd expected a road trip, but its more a 'state of existence' trip, as the lead "Reno" reacts and interacts with some richly described circumstances.

Reno is something of a blank canvas against which the narratives and characters paint. Other characters frequently get the best lines.

After the start, where she's doing something deliberate, we live often in Reno's head. Another character, Giddle, almost explains this, when she describes how she'd taken a role in a cafe in order to observe and learn.

There's a discussion of the China Girl leader on movie films (used for colour calibration) and in the way that China Girls flash past as part of the startup of a movie reel, I guess we get a similar effect with Reno in Chapter One, before we cut to the various scenes of the main movie/narratives.

I enjoyed the structure, wasn't phased by the jump cuts and enjoyed the twists in the writing.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A talented author, but stylistic choices make this a real slog., 31 Aug 2013
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Hardcover)
In brief, the premise of The Flamethrowers is that Reno, a young woman from the American Midwest, moves to New York in the 1970s with hopes of becoming an artist and, maybe, finding love. This leads to her falling in with the in-crowd and traversing the art scene amid the feelings of alienation and distance she has from the people she meets.

None of the above, however, was what led me to buy this novel. I'd read in various reviews online and in the broadsheets that this was a novel about a female biker and biker gangs, a macho book from a female perspective that challenged gender roles and which also included some adventures among artists. I was intrigued by this premise but unfortunately didn't find that the book at all conformed to it. There is some description on biker gangs in the early going and Reno rides her bike a few times at the start and a bit at the end but that's pretty much it as far as this strand is concerned. The vast majority of the novel involves Reno attending dinner parties and various other soirees with rich and extremely pretentious members of the art scene, people who talk at one another in non-sequiturs and rambling anecdotes. This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing in terms of the story but, as I'll try to outline below, the author in my opinion has made a number of stylistic choices which seriously encumber the enjoyability of the novel.

The first of these is the character of Reno and the manner in which she narrates the story. In her feeling of distance from the various other characters, she constantly drifts out and observes things from afar. This leads to her merely reporting what is going on in long descriptive passages without getting involved, expressing her feelings on events or making much in the way of commentary. The reader is left feeling that our narrator is an observer-cipher and not really a player in the events. As such, it's difficult to get emotionally invested in her. On the few occasions when Reno was in trouble, either emotional or physical, I found myself not caring at all.

The only times Reno really starts to express emotions is when she talks about Sandro, her boyfriend, and Ronnie, Sandro's friend to whom she is attracted. But this too felt like a negative. Both Sandro and Ronnie are arrogant, selfish, pretentious womanizers who constantly patronise Reno and treat her and every other woman like dirt. Neither exhibits any redeeming features. But wait - Sandro is rich and Ronnie is handsome. That Reno is so attracted to two such superficial men makes her appear superficial herself and is what, for me at least, takes her from being merely uninteresting to slightly irritating.

Another stylistic choice with negative impacts for me was the dialogue. Kushner rarely lets her characters speak for themselves. Most discussion intended to move the plot forward, indicate character development etc. is reported and paraphrased by Reno rather than put into direct quotation. This leaves the reader unable to get a hold on any of the other characters through their speech patterns and behaviours and, since, like Reno, they're kept at such a distance, it's hard to care about them either.

When the non-Reno characters do get to talk for themselves they're usually telling an anecdote, often about someone who otherwise doesn't appear in the novel. I'd read in reviews that the novel turns on a lot of `set pieces' but in many cases I'd describe them more as `contrivances', anecdotes shoehorned into a particular scene in an attempt to convey some great philosophical meaning or affecting snapshot of life. Sometimes these are successful but most of the time, for me at least, they felt laboured. Examples of this would be a dinner party where everyone decides to stop apropos of nothing to listen to some cassette-recorded musings on life that the host once made, the rambling story Ronnie makes in lieu of a toast or the bizarre rant out of nowhere about war criminals shooting babies by an American novelist at a dinner party in Italy.

Another point is that, despite the many reviews lauding The Flamethrowers for being `fast-paced', `thrilling' and `exciting', it in fact (in my humble opinion at least) moves at a very slow pace due in large part to its extended descriptive passages. Even when there are exciting events going on around Reno it's hard to get involved simply because she doesn't, and the descriptions of strangers doing things around her go on and on....

A final note I'd make on stylistic choices is that I found the structure of the narrative very unsatisfying. In the beginning the narrative switches back and forth between 1970s New York with Reno in the first person and Sandro's father, the founder of the Valero automotive empire, in the third person during the First World War, in Alexandria, in the Brazilian rainforest and as part of a biker gang in Italy. But after about a quarter of the novel Sandro's father's part of the narrative peters out and comes to an abrupt and unexplained stop with no resolution whatsoever. The ending of the novel, the last ten per cent or so, is very unsatisfying, too. Reno's narrative is also left without any resolution. After hearing her describe a riot going on around her, during which she of course does not get involved or speak to anyone, we are taken back to an earlier point in the story to see a scene acted out that had already been mentioned in passing - without any new information coming from that. And there the novel ends. Or, rather, it stops. For some reason the lion's share of the final portion takes us into Sandro's point of view (in the third person) for the first time in the narrative - and a good half of this is devoted to a long descriptive passage of the boy Sandro playing with his toy soldiers. Perhaps this was intended to shed some light on Sandro's character development and actions but, if so, it really doesn't succeed. And by this stage I already had zero interest in the character (too little, too late) and was only reading to get to the end.

I'm sure it's all very philistine of me to mention price when discussing literature but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this title, as an e-book at least, costs roughly twice as much as most of the literary fiction available from top US authors (Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon etc.). Being the uncouth that I am, I'd expect this to mean that the book should be twice as good. It isn't though. Not by a long shot. So that's something people may want to factor in before making a purchase.

It can't be denied that the author has an abundance of talent. There are many beautifully constructed passages and clever observations on display but, for me at least, these were too few and far between and not linked with enough in the way of character development or plot to keep the book interesting. I'm afraid The Flamethrowers does nothing to assuage my suspicion that once an author has already been feted as a genius by the literary establishment, they would be able to publish their shopping list to universal acclaim in the press.

I'm sure there will be people who enjoy it but for me at least The Flamethrowers really didn't live up to the hype.
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2.0 out of 5 stars The book of the (unmade) movie?, 27 July 2014
By 
Simon Barrett "Il penseroso" (london, england) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Paperback)
'Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you're not going to get it.' Sounds more like the disenchantment I was feeling by page 71 (of 383), when I quit

This is a very girly book dressed up as a historical novel and a Work of Literature. Kushner has heaps of talent, if erratic*, but it is in the service of hokum. Does her other novel feature guns quite so prominently, I wonder? A schizophrenic mix of noir, pretension** and cucumber oil that left me frustrated, exhausted and gasping for less

Ingeniously, enmeshed as we are in the heroine's travails we're never offered that talismanic piece of information, her name (needless to say, it's not Reno) - in this, as in much else, cinematic to a T

* she can also display a remarkably tin-eared gaucherie, as in 'my concentration was in film' or the clumsy, would-be ironic use of gay in the traditional sense ('You look so gay!') - in 1977!! The Stonewall riots, need one point out, were in 1969, as no Noo Yawker could be unaware. Dollar signs evidently blinded her publisher's eyes (this is brazenly pitched at American book clubs; no time for art's slow maturation)

** Pretension? I dare you to read #17 (all one page of it) without losing the will to live. (Yeah, I did dip a toe in past page 71; my gut feeling wasn't wrong.) Pretension? Sebald-style, they've even given her pictures!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but flawed, 2 Jun 2014
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This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Paperback)
Wonderfully observed and written, but could have used some serious cutting toward the end. It just went on too self-indulgently.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A slow burn., 15 April 2014
By 
Sue Kichenside - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Paperback)
Anything as over-hyped as The Flamethrowers is bound to disappoint. And it does. However, I would say to anyone struggling in the early stages of the book to hang in there. It does improve.

This is the story of a young woman who leaves her Nevada home to try and become a successful new-wave artist in 1970s New York. The charismatic Ronnie, with whom she has a one-night stand, nicknames her Reno after her home-town; we never get to know her real name. Her attraction to Ronnie persists, even after she becomes coincidentally involved in a long affair with his best friend, Sandro Valera, also a successful artist.

Sandro is a scion of a fabulously wealthy family who own Milan's vast motor tyre company, Valera, and it is when Reno stays in the family's palatial Lake Como retreat that the novel finally catches fire. It's during the New York strands of the story that Rachel Kushner's narrative seems to go adrift. Along with the tiresome figures from the New York art scene, there's also a sub-Bolano section about a renegade group of anarchists. All Kushner's characters suffer from a distancing effect and even Reno herself is difficult to engage with. And whilst Kushner's prose is clever, the coolness makes it difficult for the reader (or, at least, this reader) to give much of a damn about any of them. It has its moments though.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The strength of this book is in the voice of its narrator, 13 April 2014
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This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Kindle Edition)
I identified with the narrator in this book, which made me appreciate her story. She is a young artist, full of doubts and unsure of herself, who embarks on a relationship with an older, confident man. There are moments where she follows her own desires instead of his, though what he, and the rest of the world, thinks of her is clearly important enough in her eyes to make her act differently. I found this book very realistic; though now I may frown upon this kind of dependence on others, I remember all too well a time when I would have done the same. For me, the first three-quarters of the book were the best. I found the end, which takes place in Italy, confusing and bizarre, and didn't gain much from it. The book is well writing, which saves it from its lack of plot.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Well written book which laks a great ending, 21 July 2013
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Kindle Edition)
The book is very well written and covers periods of history that I found interesting. The characters where engaging but the book lost its way at the end in my opinion. Instead of concluding the story the writer gives you a reprise of the main characters which left me unsatisfied and dissapointed.

David Aminzade - :ondon
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant in places, 20 Jan 2014
This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Kindle Edition)
Okay, there are lulls in this books, it is patchy and some sections and perspectives work far better than other perspectives. But when it's good it's the most original and interesting writing I've read for a while; a proper literary novel which provokes thought and prose envy; the sort of novel that should be judged on the genius of its exceptional passages and not on the relative failure of its weaker ones.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flamethrowers: A Counterpoint, 25 Jun 2013
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This review is from: The Flamethrowers (Hardcover)
This review is mainly a response to the one star review by Chris Roberts who for some reason seems to give all books one star followed by a non sequitur review.

I have actually read the book and found it immensely enjoybale. The main characters sense of displacement is easy to sympathise with whilst the book itself is generally very entertaining with much food for thought along the way.
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The Flamethrowers
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
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