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Rachel Kushner lights a fire in 'The Flamethrowers'

The Writer's Life

A sense of displacement permeates the 'Telex from Cuba' writer's second novel, set amid the social and political unrest of Manhattan and Italy in the 1970s.

April 12, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Novelist Rachel Kushner, author of "The Flamethrowers".
Novelist Rachel Kushner, author of "The Flamethrowers". (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Rachel Kushner's house in Angelino Heights feels about a million miles — and a million years — from the tumult embodied in her novels. There are books on shelves and stacks of children's games; in one corner, a music stand holds a beginner's songbook for guitar. And yet, even on a quiet afternoon in early spring, one finds traces, echoes of the broader world. Perhaps most prominent is the large framed map of Cuba, the setting for Kushner's first book, "Telex from Cuba," a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.

"The way I would describe it is looking at the forces of history, the social, the political milieu," she says, sitting at the dining room table, engaged, intelligent, choosing her ideas with care. "Even class for me is important, and ethnicity, because all these things pressure character. The idea that character is a bundle of timeless and essential human traits is a sort of ideology. I think character is very much a product of where you live, who you are, what is happening in that time of your life, and I'm interested in those pressures, those forces. A political context, a social context, really determines if not who people are then how they treat one another and what they say, how they speak."

Kushner's second novel, "The Flamethrowers," is very much an expression of these intentions, a white-hot ember of a book that takes place in Manhattan and Italy in the late 1970s, a time when each was awash in turmoil. This both is and isn't the point of the novel, which has been receiving glowing reviews and traces the experience of one woman, a young conceptual artist known only as Reno (a reference to her western origins), as she navigates these disparate landscapes, a protagonist who is a part of the action and yet always on the outside.

"You just seemed too young," an artist-provocateur named Ronnie tells her late in the book, after she's found her way to what feels like if not quite a resolution then a denouement. "And you were. But honestly I don't even know if you'd be different older. I like you. But there's something you never seem to get."

Such a posture — a mix of worldliness and naiveté — permeates "The Flamethrowers," a necessary tension, given the subject matter of the novel, and one defined by Reno's voice.

"She's not a rube," Kushner observes of her narrator, "but I wrote her experience in a way meant to be keyed to my sense of what life is like when you're in your 20s. I think sometimes writers can get themselves into trouble trying to exert a totally controlled and super-knowing tone. This kind of knowingness is not the most promising tone to be sustained throughout a novel, to have a young woman who understands everybody and is always reading a room perfectly. For me, there's creative energy in trying to negotiate myself into the space of not understanding and to see what comes out of that."

What Kushner's getting at is displacement, which emerges both through Reno's experiences and the times in which she finds herself. "The Flamethrowers" begins with a remarkable set piece in which the character rides a motorcycle west from New York to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, where she wipes out while trying to challenge a land speed record. For Reno, though, speed is just a catalyst; her real purpose is to photograph the traces left by her bike upon the earth.

"When we arrived at the crash site," Kushner writes, "I saw that I'd broken through. What seemed like endless perfect white on white was only a very thin crust of salt. Where the crust had been broken by the force of impact, mud seeped through. I photographed all this, a Rorschach of my crash."

The implication is that art is, or should be, a provocation, that even the most abstract expression exists in (sometimes) violent reaction to the world. Kushner develops this through Reno, but also by interweaving a parallel narrative that goes back in time to trace the rise of an Italian industrialist named Valera, a former Futurist and Mussolini supporter, whose company builds the bike she rides.

"I was interested in industrial history," Kushner explains, "because in the 1970s it was about to vanish" — an anxiety that speaks to both the political unrest in Italy and the economic unrest in New York, a city beset then by financial crisis and the collapse of its manufacturing base.

To tie all this together, Kushner introduces Sandro, Valera's son and Reno's lover, an artist in lower Manhattan who produces empty boxes, carefully constructed to appear mass-produced. It's a kind of minimalism that, Kushner notes, "was still very much in ascendance in the 1970s, a response to the death of the industrial age in the United States of America," made more vivid by the fact that it was being created in lofts and studios that were themselves converted industrial spaces, in which the lines between art and industry, art and commerce, had come to be irrevocably blurred.

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