I have a writer's crush on Rachel Kushner. Maybe it's just a plain old crush. I don't know. I've read almost everything by her - which isn't a lot The first book I read was The Mars Room. So good; about a woman - an "exotic dancer" in San Francisco who is in a woman's prison out in the Central Valley. Then I read Telex from Cuba and now, most recently, this book. I'm just going to gush over and over again it's sooo gooood it's soooo goood Rachel Kushner is soooo awesome. And I feel like that; I feel like she just stole all my words. This is exactly the style of book I would write if I could focus and get past the anxiety and mental illness bullshit. And Rachel Kushner shares such a similar background, I mean except she rode a motorcycle and motorcycles terrify me, and she actually left her room, and I'm positively terrified to do anything, or I was, unless I was loaded. But we have the same rock-n-roll sensibility. My wife even pointed that out. She reminds me of you. You should write. In particular there was this article from the New Yorker, about growing up punk rock in San Francisco, which is my era, through the looking glass.
I guess the first order of business of a real writer is to be interesting - and if you don't take risks and make interesting mistakes in life, then your internal life better be absolutely scintillating.
What's The Flamethrowers about?
It's about a young woman - an Art Student from Nevada-Reno - who moves from Reno to New York City and gets involved with the 1970's Art Scene as well as romantically involved with two guys, avant garde artists and friends, Ronnie and Sandro.
Does the narrator have a name? (Okay, so this is a leading question).
Well, we never find out, I don't think. Throughout the book she is referred to as "Reno" which is her backstory, attached by the artists that she gets involved with. It's interesting that young woman has no name. She's young, and definitely has a point of view and ambition, but she is just sort an outline and she allows other people to color her in.
One of the guys, Sandro Valera is the disaffected scion of the an Italian motorcycle and tire company called Moto Valera - which is basically a combination of Moto Guzzi and Perrelli, with maybe a little bit of Ducati thrown in. This is the basic through-line and off of this basic narrative are diversions, detours and digressions into Italian history, land-speed records at the dry lakebed at Bonneville, Italian class unrest in the 70's. There are excellent portraits of the Italian scene and countryside around Lake Como, as well as travel-lit worthy descriptions of the American West and High Desert; Rachel also has a gift of putting speeches and stories into the mouths of men, of old inebriated and/or young handsome avante guard artists and playing with the reliability of these stories within stories - ie, am I supposed to like and/or believe this person? But there is truth at the basis of this, right? It seems like even somehow more based it truth than the normal fictionalized like that points at the truth. Perhaps this is even a true story that the author has placed in the mouth of a fictionalized character?
The narrator says that men talk too much. They are always talking. Especially men over 50 - one of the characters in a fit of self-awareness records himself, because he knows he can't stop talking but maybe if he just talks and talks and talks, he can talk it alllll out.
There's a game of brinksmanship the author plays between narrative and digression - just when you think the story is about to lose momentum entirely she brings it back. And the narrative always keeps you guess and the flashbacks and time jumping end up being a narrative tool - part of the what happened? that keeps you turning pages is the expectation that you will revisit a missing piece of the story or a question about a character at some point - this is backstory as narrative tool - back-and-forth story, as it were.
At any rate - there are plenty of better, more informative, more insightful professionalish reviews of this book but I'm going to talk about some personal stuff. I'm just going to barf it out and then I'll probably come back and fix it. Or maybe even not. Who cares. No one will read this.
Again, the best place to hide who really are is in plain sight, because a) Everyone is too self-obsessed to notice what you are doing; 2) I'm invisible; that's just one of my super-powers 3) everyone is too busy, and 4) No one believes the truth when you say it straight anyway.
There's something Gen-X about this book in terms of sensibility and voice. I envy it greatly. Not just the fact that Rachel is a talented writer and was able to complete a well-researched beautiful book and have that experience, but I am very envious of the basic truth of a life dangerously lived at the core of the book. I share a generational sensibility and a love of rock-and-roll and Gun Club etc with Rachel, but she's obviously isn't scared of life and life terrifies me. I didn't really ever stick needles in my arms because I was indulging in risk taking behavior, like people that drive motorcycles or sky fast or set landspeed records; from the moment I fell off my bike when I was 8 or whatever I've been terrified. And because of this, life was something that always happened to someone I know, in the next apartment over, tomorrow or yesterday but never to me right here and now. I have a lot of grief in a way because I - like the narrator in a sense - let the world color me in. Of the many things i feel deep and abiding guilt over, is that I'm really not sure if I lived. I don't know if I ever got to sing My Way like Sid or Frank. I've spent my life wanting to be someone else, somwhere else, some time else and I missed the opportunity in front of me.
Okay, I'm getting a little maudlin but there's something much, much more interesting about a young woman on a motorcycle than a middle aged Ad Guy.
One other associated note - Rachel Kushner comes across as a young writer, and she's been part of the scene forever, but the truth is she's my age - and it's taken a lifetime to develop this sensibility. Because of her experience with the Art World and the fact that she's a woman - as well as incredibly talented and insightful - makes her voice more welcome assuredly, but the point, ah yes, the point - It taken a LIFETIME to create these three small (by Dickensian standards) books. But that's what it takes to create this sort of researched masterpiece.
I book as unforgettable as the stickiest nightsweatiest nightmare, glorious in poetic language and pitch perfect in its details of New York and Italy and people everywhere.
This book plays into my general grief and sense of lost direction right now. Of possibilities missed. It's all a bit like Midnight in Paris, except instead of different eras I missed by seconds and inches - something interesting happening to the kid in my 8th grade class, the stranger on the subway, someone at work having the entrepreneurial home run or the story idea that I'd sketched out 75% and never followed through. It's all sliding doors and I never saw that movie either, but I know the concept.
Rachel Kushner is one of ours, one of me, thank you for the beautiful book you've written. I guess I"m off the hook and relieved of responsibility once again.