In Rachel Kushner's ambitious second novel, a young motorcyclist from Nevada reinvents herself as an artist and becomes involved with leftist militants in Italy, writes Saul Austerlitz
Book review: Rachel Kushner's second novel a taut ride involving a motorcyclist and Italian militants
A crowd gathers on the vast salt flats of the Utah desert, waiting. The salt flats, mute and endless, are tailor-made for attempts at land-speed records, lone men hurtling themselves against an abstract ideal, seeking glory, and deaf and blind to the risks. But the crowds are too far removed, literally and metaphorically, from the drama, present mostly for a grislier reason: "We weren't there to see. We were waiting on news of some kind of event, one that could pierce this blank and impassive and giant place. What else could do that but a stupendous wipeout? We were waiting on death."
Rachel Kushner's ambitious second novel, The Flamethrowers, lingers in the stillness, awaiting the wipeout that will mark the end of this in-between time, and this in-between place. Reno, a denizen of the Nevada city famous for its casinos and no-hassle divorces, recently, quixotically relocated to New York to remake herself as an artist of the vast empty West, is here to ride the sleek Italian motorcycle built by her boyfriend's family's company, and to photograph the traces of her ride - the slick lines of salt formed by the tracks of her wheels, the faint impression her journey leaves on the unforgiving desert. Instead, she crashes, destroying her brand-new Moto Valera, but the stupendous wipeout is still to come.
Kushner's highly assured first novel, Telex from Cuba, was about Americans in search of redemption in 1950s Cuba, their tropical idyll being nibbled away at the margins by self-doubt and the approaching hoofbeat of capital-H History. Aimless moderation was to be tested by impassioned extremism, and found wanting. At the salt flats, Reno hangs around with the crew of a famous Italian racer whose assault on the world record is delayed by a strike in Milan. History recurs, first as farce, then as tragedy, with the art world's raucous, if vague, interest in revolution ceding pole position to the armed revolutionaries themselves.
The Flamethrowers adheres to a similar template to Telex, smashing together disparate unfamiliar pieces of a vanished world. Reno, lost and adrift in grubby 1970s Manhattan, slowly joins a loose circle of artists that includes her boyfriend Sandro and his best friend Ronnie, with whom she sleeps one night shortly before meeting Sandro. She dreams of speed and freedom, a passion exemplified by her motorcycle, with which she acquires intimate knowledge of the deserted New York streets: "I had to watch out for potholes, and cabs that came to sudden stops, but crossing Broadway, zooming up Spring Street, passing trucks, hanging a left onto the Bowery, the broadness of the street, the tall buildings in the north distance, the sense of being in, but not of, the city, moving through it with real velocity, wind in my face, were magical."
Art is already a kind of violence, whether it is the snapshots of Reno's wrecked bike, or Sandro's photograph of himself sitting next to renowned composer Morton Feldman, shotgun gripped in his fist. Kushner intersperses glimpses of a young man we eventually realise is Sandro's father, an early 20th-century Italian futurist whose love affair with technology begins after being spurned by a girl in favour of a man on a motorcycle: "Don't despair, he told himself. Be patient. And get a cycle with a combustive engine". Valera, like Reno, glides through streets transformed into playgrounds and carnivals, embracing an alluring new world of power and frictionlessness: "He grew bold and began moving forward between riders, under neon signs that looked like bright, hard candy, reflecting from the tram wires and the tracks in smears and gleams." Kushner's playful language translates the world into a work of art, with this de Kooning streetscape joined by a ski chairlift resembling "still lifes on steel cable".
Reno works at a film laboratory, and poses for her coworkers as a "China girl" - a female model appended to the headers of film stock to assist projectionists with properly capturing skin tone. The China girl is a ghost presence, a projection of idealised feminine propriety. "The girl cut into the leader, wouldn't you say she's as much as part of the film as its narrative?" wonders one of her coworkers. "Her presence there in the margin, her serving to establish and maintain a correct standard of appearance, female appearance."
Reno is a potential star relegated to invisibility, serving as helpmeet to a motley array of artists and radicals. After her crash, she is invited to Italy to tour with the Moto Valera racing team, and spends a month with Sandro at his family's lavish villa. Reno catches the feckless Sandro in a clinch with another woman, and drifts into a new life with a crew of student revolutionaries. The world of Robert Smithson bleeds into that of the Red Brigades. The slogans are different, but not much else is.
Art and revolution are united in their male proponents' agreement that neither is a proper place for a woman. An ageing 1960s radical informs Reno that his group's unprintable name was quite literal: "Because we hated women … You think I'm joking. Women had no place in the movement unless they wanted to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down." He goes on to describe some "choice cuts" from his group's efforts to smash the state, with murder and the rape of mental patients recounted in the mock-heroic tones of the insurrectionary. This rape fantasy, despoiling the recumbent status quo, is the coil that loops through progressive movements, past and present. Futurism, too, was a kind of assault on the prone femininity of the metropolis. "Neon was electric jewellery on the lithe body of the city," Valera observes of his crew of motorcyclists, "and he and the little gang were the marauders of this body."
Women are afterthoughts, present only to bear witness to the valiant deeds of men, or to provide a distinctly temporary solace. Ronnie brutally compares a female friend of Reno's to "a piece of furniture, necessary but ultimately insignificant, something to lie down on occasionally". Men seek glory and women bear the scars, even when those marks are all but invisible. "I am still … so … pretty," one woman remarks with a kind of horrified astonishment, her face reflecting nothing, a blank scrim attracting men's desire, and little else.
Kushner's book is bustling, its pages faintly groaning under the weight of its historical and narrative ambition. Past meets present, art tackles politics, America shakes hands with Europe. It is the right side of the equation that catches Kushner awkwardly shifting gears, not entirely comfortable with her machine. Kushner intends the Italian leftist student movement to serve as a counterpart to the denuded Manhattan art scene, its vibrancy and assurance a taunting finger wagging at the pampered American artist. They are, for this book, inspired by futurist odes to modernity, a vision of the future: "The anger and radical acts of the young people in Rome were a kind of electricity, an act and a refusal and a beauty, something Italian that was, for once, magnificent." Sandro's brother Roberto is kidnapped by the radicals, and his fate is reminiscent of the former prime minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped in 1978, and abandoned by his compatriots for deviations from the rightist faith. If Roberto is willing to negotiate with the reds, then ipso facto he must no longer be himself, and now unworthy of Valera family protection. All of Kushner's radicals, political and artistic, share a goal that Valera and the futurists might have proclaimed in one of their manifestos: "To make the heart burn. With something." But not all somethings are created alike; the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government is not the same as a successful solo exhibit. The electricity of the real-life futurists, their burning passion for modernity, led to an uncritical embrace of the First World War, and a belief in combat as a cleansing tool for society. The burning hearts of the student militants had a cost in human lives still being assessed by Italian society.
The radicals Reno meets seethe with political fury, but treat themselves like Molotov cocktails, flinging themselves with suicidal abandon in the hopes of setting off a wider conflagration. They are the flamethrowers, each one a "harbinger of death" serving as "pure offense, overrunning enemy lines". And the people they killed, who they viewed as enemies of the system, were often ordinary men such as Luigi Calabresi, a police officer unfairly hounded for the death of a leftist militant in custody, and ultimately murdered in 1972. Kushner's romantic take on the student movement is deliberately undercut by evidence of its lingering sexism, but the political ideals themselves are only lightly interrogated. A glance at the moving memoir by Calabresi's son Mario, Pushing Past the Night, might have granted Kushner a slightly more jaundiced, less starry-eyed viewpoint on this historically fraught moment.
In fire and in water, with our words and deeds, we all seek to sear ourselves into history. But history has its own ideas about what will be remembered, and what will disappear beneath the currents. Ronnie, inveterate teller of tall tales, entertains Reno and a dinner-party audience with a story about sailing the high seas as a cabin boy for a middle-aged couple. He imparts a piece of wisdom imparted by this flawed father figure, a life lesson disguised as nautical information: "The commodore took hold of me and said the sea was not for us or against us. 'It doesn't know we're here,' he said. 'It doesn't know'." The characters of The Flamethrowers are all sailors on the same ocean, insistent on burning their names into the water, even as the waves unthinkingly douse their every effort.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.