In a February 9th interview in the New York Times, Rachel Kushner says, “I don’t read for plot.” After finishing (finally!) The Flamethrowers, I would suggest that she doesn’t write for plot either. Certainly, there are things that happen, but after an initial burst of energy, they seem to happen to Reno, the protagonist, rather than because of her. There’s much in here about the 1970s New York art world and what it takes to belong and to succeed. Though I don’t know much about art, I was interested in the idea of storytelling (and blurring fact and fiction) as a kind of art. (I’m sure others will discover things that are more profound.) In the end, though, everyone in this book is a kind of artist – from those who make art to those – ranging from Italy to a diner in New York – who make and re-make themselves in order to become something or at least a part of something.
Kushner writes well, her prose can often build to a sustained and quietly devastating insight. But the book itself meanders, perhaps intentionally, like the 1970s movies it seems meant to emulate, but if intentional, Kushner never makes it work. There is some power in things left unaccounted for or postponed, but the book as a whole left me flat. Reno never really rings true – too much the wise child. When she gets caught up in a riot in Rome, her detached observations strain credibility.
This book was a National Book Award Finalist and called one of the 10 Best Books by the New York Times Book Review (2103). I can’t account for either label. There’s certainly much that is new here and, as I tried to suggest above, parts are really powerful. But the book itself is not something I can recommend.