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The Flamethrowers Paperback – 2 Jan 2014
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"Scintillatingly alive... It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures" (James Wood New Yorker)
"Kushner is rapidly emerging as a thrilling and prodigious novelist" (Jonathan Franzen)
"One of the most thrilling and high-octane literary experiences I have had in ages" (Colum McCann Sunday Independent)
"It's so good, it's a little frightening… it makes any fretting over the state of the novel look plain silly" (Guardian)
"An adrenalin-fuelled coming-of-age novel" (Sunday Telegraph)
"Unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember" (New York Times)
"An ambitious and serious American novel. The sentences are sharp and gorgeously made. The scope is wide. The political and the personal are locked in a deep and fascinating embrace" (Colm Tóibín)
"Dazzling... The Flamethrowers is a virtuoso performance; a ride of ache and pleasure, handled with pinpoint command" (The Times)
"This glittering novel is both carefully structured and exhilarating" (Daily Telegraph)
"Rachel Kushner’s fearless, blazing prose ignites the 70s New York art scene and Italian underground" (Vanity Fair)
"A bright burning flame of a novel" (Spectator)
"The Flamethrowers is a strange, fascinating beast of a novel, brimming with ideas, and sustained by the muscular propulsion of Kushner’s prose… Kushner emerges as a wildly gifted artist filling a sketchbook with thrilling, eye-catching scenes" (Robert Collins Sunday Times)
"There is an exhilarating freedom to Kushner’s writing… Taut, vividly intelligent prose" (David Wolf Prospect)
"Sparky and inventive...a riot of a novel" (Daily Mail)
"Ms Kushner’s kaleidoscopic prose carries the novel’s shifts in location and person, and the fast-paced rhythm harnesses the thrill of adventure" (Economist)
"Swells with a daunting bravado" (Irish Times)
An extraordinarily ambitious big American novel about a young artist and the worlds she encounters in New York and Rome in the mid-1970s - by turns underground, elite, dangerousSee all Product description
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Top customer reviews
"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.
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.
T.P. Valera is the father of Sandro Valera, a famous and successful artist in the 1970s who has fled his wealthy and distinguished life in Italy. Sandro is the lover of the novel’s main protagonist and narrator, Reno (so called because that is where she hails from) a young woman in her early twenties who after finishing her art degree has moved to New York. She is obsessed with speed, engines (specifically motorbikes) and land-speed records. Reno is a conceptual artist and in New York she is sucked, willingly, into the bohemian world of artists, revolutionaries and menace.
The novel is set (apart from the flashbacks) post-Watergate, post Nixon, post-Vietnam. Watergate and Nixon’s involvement not only polarized America but also politicized it. The Baby Boomers had decided that the older generation could no longer be trusted to run their country and what America needed was a grassroots revolution, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Reno though not directly involved with the radical revolutionaries in New York falls within their orbit as she becomes part of the Manhattan Soho scene.
Reno is fascinated with capturing “the experience of speed” which she readily displays when she photographs the tracks left by her crashed motorcycle after a speed trial on the salt flats of Bonneville. This “experience of speed” is not limited to fast motorbikes but to the rapidity of her move to New York, her inclusion into the Soho art scene and her sexual relationship with the fast talking, storytelling Ronnie Fontaine the photographer, (whose photographs we get to know very little about).
‘“Speed is every man’s right’ was Honda’s new ad slogan, but speed was not a right. Speed was a causeway between life and death and you hoped you came out on the side of life.”
This need to “experience speed” is not only limited to Reno but also to many of the other characters, especially Sandro who needs to live his life at an abnormally fast speed and this includes his apparent need to live with Reno as soon as possible after having seen her face in a film.
Though we know that Reno, Sandro, Ronnie etc are artists we are never fully aware what the art they are producing is. What descriptions there are, are vague, nebulous and opaque. One has to assume that this was the intention of the author.
“There were tacit rules with these people, and all the people like them I later met: You weren’t supposed to ask basic questions. “What do you do?” “Where are you from?” “What kind of art do you make?” Because I understood he was an artist but you weren’t allowed to ask that.”
What art they produced was irrelevant in the time they lived. Any art they produced was created through their actions, their lives their own bodies. Maybe conventional art such as it was in the seventies was dead and the ‘performance’ of life was what ‘art’ had become.
Rachael Kushner has written a fascinating novel that sets fire to convention not only in terms of art but in terms of the written novel. The author’s turn of phrase is creatively honest and raw; Roy Orbison’s hair is described as, “black as melted-down record vinyl.” While talking to Ronnie and others in a bar for the first time she writes;
“I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, you’re place.”
The novel reeks of machismo and testosterone with its chapters full of motorbikes, violence and misogyny. The New York art scene seems primarily male-dominated with women being allowed to be part of it but still expected to fill the male engendered roles of housewife and sexual plaything.
The title refers to Sandro’s childhood love of the his father’s assault regiment flamethrowers,
“with their twin tanks and their gas mask…The flamethrower was never, ever defensive. He was pure offence…”
Rachael Kushner appears to be suggesting that the characters in her novel are “flamethrowers,” everything they do is not in defence of their way of life or who they are but is attacking those around them and those who came before them. The artists and revolutionaries are committed to a scorched earth policy; destroying the present and the past and leaving only the future for people to feed on.
First Line – “Valera had fallen back from his squadron and was cutting the wires of another rider’s lamp.”
Memorable Line – “Ronnie said that before his brother robbed banks he sold heroin in Bushwick and that is was a stupidly hard job., sixteen hour days, and his only pay was a morning and evening fix. “That’s the thing about junkies,” Ronnie said, “they work like dogs, it’s all day out on the streets and they think they’re cheating the system. I told my brother you make twelve cents an hour.”
Number of Pages – 405
Sex scenes – Yes
Profanity – Yes
Genre – (Historical) Fiction.
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