Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Stories of ambitious men, held together by the journey of a young woman wanting to be an artist

The unnamed narrator, an aspiring artist from Nevada, arrives in 1970’s New York knowing no one, but is soon pursued by the handsome Italian expatriate Sandro who makes art from metal boxes and who introduces her to major figures in the art scene. Sandro, heir to the Valera industrial fortune, reluctantly assists the narrator in her artistic quest to race the Bonneville Salt Flats by getting her the latest Valera motorcycle. Soon afterwards, she is invited to Italy to promote the Valera brand. Again reluctantly, Sandro accompanies her to his family estate, where his aristocratic family is simply nasty to her. Our narrator flees to Rome, which happens to be convulsed with proletarian riots. Somehow she gets involved in something secret, mysterious and revolutionary and the novel concludes with her keeping watch over the white snowy face of Mont Blanc. Her story is interspersed with the stories of daring men who don’t care what people say about them. Revolutionaries perhaps.

There is a series of certain repetitive images in this novel; one is that of blank spaces – the unbroken snow, the expanse of salt flats, unmarked spaces that the young woman plans to mark as her artistic project, with her will. She is an artist of the blank space. Sandro’s father, Valera Sr., the fascist industrialist, is also an artist. An artist of destruction. And Ronnie, Sandro’s intriguing friend, is another sort of artist – his art is never specified but here he is an artist of the spoken word perhaps.

The unhappy love story of the narrator and Sandro is interspersed with glimpses into gangs of violent men, the Arditti, the Motherfuckers, the Red Brigades. Men believing they understand the future of humanity.

The book is structured with a number of bravura set pieces – beautifully detailed highly ambitious scenes critiquing war, greed, human nature and artistic endeavor. This magnificent tapestry is held together in key spots with Scotch tape/gimmicks, specifically, the romance between her and Sandro. She becomes a completely passive woman, dependent on him for her identity/wellbeing. It’s hard to believe this tough competitive girl falters when she visits the evil mother in law and I didn’t buy her diffidence. The scenes after she goes to Italy are static and dull, probably because she is completely an observer. Is that deliberate?

Also, the photos embedded in the text feel a little gimmicky, not moving or eerie like in the Sebald novels. I liked how at the end the chronology gets mixed up. Mystery helps. I loved the behind the green door metaphor, and the cake box girls.

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