I had Rachel Kushner on my TBR list for a long time – for long enough that I almost forgot why I wanted to read her books in the first place and was reminded by the interview she gave for Jacobin a month ago. I always love an author that is able to speak about writing without treating it as if writing and art in general happen in a vacuum and cannot be related to the materiality of the real world. Even a lot of authors who do give their writings political meaning do so in a very covert manner: it’s always just a possible interpretation, but the text can be read without it too. Kushner doesn’t do that, she’s not afraid of being radical, of being unambiguously interpreted as such and that’s why she can allow herself the luxury of expression.
(I guess you could still read The Flamethrowers as an ordinary novel, a sort of bildungsroman, but that would require a real effort of ignoring everything else.)
The Flamethrowers is the story of a young woman we only know as Reno who is trying to navigate the world as an aspiring artist in New York in the 70s, but her artistic career is somehow put aside once she meets Sandro Valera, the heir of an Italian company manufacturing motorcycles and more. She ends up beating the speed record and being the fastest woman alive. After spending so much time with Sandro, the human representation of the bourgeoisie, Reno ends up for a short time in a group of people taking part in the Italian anti-fascist movement with Gianni, a complete stranger. Sandro and Gianni seem to be the two opposing poles, but somehow they aren’t so different, or Reno does not really register any significant differences.
Reno is a sort of narrator and character that is not really there, things happen to her more than she does things. She likes to listen because she feels she doesn’t fit anywhere enough to be the one speaking. She feels like an imposter in both worlds – she’s not in the same class as Sandro and his family is fast to notice that, but she feels like a class traitor around Gianni too. So she just does whatever she’s told and only reacts to other people’s actions and not to her own thoughts (which are, however, very rich, just perpetually ignored). While expressing feminist thoughts and feeling a natural solidarity with the working class, she doesn’t really act upon any of those unless the circumstances are favourable, unless they just flow out of herself.
Sandro is not much different. He just accepts his position as the heir of the company. He understands and supports the goals of the anti-fascists movement and he even has a very close Marxist friend from Argentine. However, he does not revolt, he does nothing evade his own condition:
The anger and radical acts of the young people in Rome were a kind of electricity, an act of refusal and beauty, something Italian that was, for once, magnificent. But it was against him as long as he occupied his role as a Valera. It was against him and he had no right to take part.
Sandro’s perspective of the whole movement is just a clear sign of his privilege – for him, it’s about the energy, the beauty of it, while for the actual people participating, it’s all about freedom and survival. Even when admiring the working class, he cannot be further away from actually understanding it. He can only register is at art, but he’s incapable to empathise on a human level with the movement. He’s simply not part of it, he is unable to shed his origins and become himself, because he is too much of a Valera. Sometimes material inheritance is a smaller issue than the heaviness of the past – you cannot reject being a capitalist without rejecting who came before you and that means you’ll just be another capitalist and hope the future generations will be braver, while knowing they won’t be.
I loved Rachel Kushner style of writing, the rhythm is very alert and manages to create the dynamic atmosphere you might expect from the events happening, but this is moderated by Reno’s passivity.
As far as I can tell, the book also manages to paint a more nuanced picture of the radical movements from Italy in the 70s than I previously had from my very little knowledge, but that might just be me being ignorant.
I’m not sure how to end this. I loved it and I’m writing this after reading the last 200 pages in one sitting so I am not yet able to articulate everything I felt, but I’m not trying to. I’m trying to say that any book that makes you feel like you need to finish it NOW is worth it. And this was one of those for me.