The Flame Throwers. Rachel Kushner

The Flame Throwers. Rachel Kushner. Scribner New York, 2013. F; 2/14.

I imagine how I read fiction depends on two things. The form and content (the thing itself) and the art gallery experience which I’ve described elsewhere. Both of them got me in this story, although Ms. Kushner I think intentionally avoids a smooth delivery. The book is edgy, turning away from the ordered, pretty to look at, clearly visible, and comfortable. But it is ordered, pretty, straight in your gut with its diction and idea, and finally satisfying. Reno, the everyperson female romantic lead is exactly the same: hard to read, but very easy to read.

The plot bounces around, Reno as tomboy racing a motorcycle and crashing in Nevada, finding her way as a sweet little ingénue in New York scooped up by rich Italian artist twice her age, torn from his castle and huge Italian enterprise into local communist revolution, and then returned to the city having, we can surmise, learned a few things.

Great writing. I had an eerie déjà vu until I realized I’d read Chapter 4 in Paris Review. Our girl Reno is hard-edge on a motorcycle but her roughness is intercut with formal descriptive language (potential boyfriend in a motel doesn’t try to seduce her “… while (she) slept, leaving (her) alone, (he) hung over, bereft.”). Sacks of garbage hang from tenement windows “like colostomy bags”. A late scene packed with multiple significance in New York crackles with ambiguity as “lightning flashed. The city sky clicking from off to on to off.”

Art is unavoidable. Characters are involved with modern plastic art and the idea that it’s finally aesthetically accessible only to a very few informed enough to participate in the conversation, like 15th-century Medicis, but at the same time advertising, magazines, and reality TV bear usual life’s representative meaning and the art Reno wants to do is scratched on the earth’s surface as she lives it.

This proceeds to direct confrontation with the central artistic idea. Reno tries to photograph and film the tracks of her motorcycle as art in the world. Waitress friend Giddle says you live your art if you are serious, and says she is performing as a waitress. Although we take her to be a caricature openly faking it, “the thing is, (she) became authentic” from putting on the performance. I imagine Rachel Kushner even shows herself playing at writing the book. “Winter came early… the water jeweled itself to a clear frozen drivel from the fire hydrant…” This may just be nice figurative writing, but I take it to mean that along with the ambiguity of the characters and the artistic significance of their lives, we are reading a line of irony underneath this type of authorial sparkling jewel.

Then there’s Ronnie. Reno first meets him when she is an overwhelmed new arrival in New York pleased to encounter his sleazebag friends and go party-hopping, have sex with Ronnie, and then be disappointed he has disappeared when she wakes up. But he’s back later as a friend of her rich Italian lover, and encumbers the last third of the book with an obviously false but enthralling ambiguous-sexual sea-story escapade autobiography with which he regales a celebratory art-exhibition audience. Nobody takes him seriously but everybody takes him seriously. He tells Reno her Italian boyfriend sleeps with all sorts of girls “to show you the uselessness of truth.” He schools her: eye-ron-ee. Diss-sim-you-la-tion. Ronnie is another even more dangerous and serious side of art than the one Giddle is talking about.

A complicated climactic scene pulls Reno into a pornography theater full of fat masturbators who think they are invisible but are still hyperalert to how they look in the moment, the cinematic show interrupted by a power failure that spreads chaos in the city, reflecting the sixty-years earlier allied bombing of a Roman movie theater featuring escapist fantasies in World War II, neo-realistic accounts of which didn’t appreciate that displaced-person orphaned children were actually living in the bombed-out movie house.

This is a beautiful presentation of the aesthetic philosophy. People as represented to others and themselves are a blend of good and bad characteristics and to pretend to sort that out is an insult to human complexity. The closest we can come is to make a thing also ambiguous and finally beautiful. I can’t characterize technically why and how this author keeps me interested without barely any of the kind of plot or beguiling smooth surface I usually fall for, but she does. Maybe if you could maintain, easily and without effort, a flamethrowing ambiguous representational stance toward yourself and the world everything would change. Maybe it does change each time you figure that out and catch a glimpse of it. My impression is impressionistic but … good. 9.0/9.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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