I won’t say that this is the best book of all time, because I can’t quite substantiate that, but holy shit is The Flamethrowers AMAZING. I mean, I loved it so much. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it and can’t wait to read it again. I’m also trying to keep composure and wait until I calm down some before I write Rachel Kushner a slew of fan letters. I don’t want to worry her.
In some ways, this is a book about a young woman growing up a tiny, tiny bit. That’s something we’ve all read before (except maybe she even changes less than in other protagonists change over the course of their narratives). In other ways, this is a book about a million things I’ve never read about before at all. Reno (not her real name) is in her very early twenties and, influenced by Land Art and a love of motorcycles, sets off at the start of the book to race across salt flats and then to photograph the line her motorcycle makes in the salt. Wow, right? She works as a China Girl, a woman whose photo serves as the color standard for a film. There are passages about Brazilian rubber workers, the Red Brigade, World War I flamethrowers… so much that was new to me. And then the book went deep into the late seventies Soho art scene. It was so cool how the real history mixed with Kushner’s invention. Her fictional artists and gallerists mix with art historical figures; narratively, there’s no way to tell if John Dogg or John Chamberlain was the fiction. (I won’t erase that because I think it makes my point–I just googled and John Dogg is actually real and I just didn’t know about him). I loved that although Robert Smithson and Dan Flavin exist in the world of the book, Donald Judd doesn’t and because he doesn’t, one of the main characters, Sandro, gets to make Judd-esque art.
So the scope and the depth of this novel were huge parts of what I loved about it, but it was Kushner’s deep understanding of Reno that I think I loved the best. Reno is young and appealing, slightly left of beautiful, so passive that the only name the reader knows her by is the nickname she is given, after her hometown. She is ambitious and creative and obviously talented, but extremely new to New York and to adulthood. The night out she has at the beginning of the book, falling into a debaucherous bar-hop with an eccentric couple, was just so dead-on. I would be surprised if in twenty years it doesn’t live in my own memory as something that actually happened to me. When a younger man arrives (but still substantially older than Reno), a friend of the couple, with “Marsden Hartley” written in MARKER on his t-shirt–I mean, Kushner somehow wrote him as the sexiest character I’ve ever seen on a page. Obviously it takes a certain type to find that super-hot, but, like Reno, I am that type. When she decides to take his hand on her hip as a sign that he wants her–consciously saying to herself, don’t just dismiss this as that he needs somewhere to put his hand–I just couldn’t believe how intuitive that was.
Similarly, I got why Reno was with the man who became her boyfriend–Sandro, the first man’s friend. This book has very broad appeal, but a lot of why I loved it was because I just felt that I would act and think in the same way that Reno did in so many situations. Part of that is about inaction–much has been made in reviews and discussions about Reno’s passivity, and her exploitation–almost being pimped, or passed around, by men. BUT THAT IS WHAT HAPPENS TO TWENTY-TWO YEAR OLD WOMEN. It was so honest. Reno wasn’t dumb and she wasn’t self-hating, but she was learning and experiencing and infatuated and flattered and scared and confused and intimidated, all the actions and emotions that real women, not plucky book characters, have. When she was seriously betrayed in a way that she should have seen coming–and literally told the reader was coming–I was still as shocked as she was and sat on the beach, where I was reading the book, and stared, devastated, at the horizon.
The sentences are perfect, too. This was essentially my ideal novel.