Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rachel Kushner. The Flamethrowers, 2013

It is an ambitions book, a stab at "great literature" and it works...

One of the big American novels from recent years.

 It offers a sweeping representation of radicalism - in life and art - in Italy and New York of the 70s. Reno, the main character, a young girl who wants to make it in the art world in New York of that time, guides us through the lofts, studios, galleries, and pubs of modernist NY and her observations draw the sad picture of art once trying to be "revolutionary" and "subversive" to the point of its annhilation and its becoming an obscure ornament pinned on the big egos of self-absorbed, manic, and sad people posing as artists. Tragically, the only thing beyond this "radical" art world depicted by Reno/Kushner that has a greater claim to authenticity, is the lurking menace of political violence and terrorism. Reno's brush with the underworld of Gianni and his comrades (the Italian Red Brigades) is a sobering experience which feels almost like a nightmare and can be told only in a matter-of-fact language which describes actions but does not attempt to wrench out meaning. While the art world is stylistically exuberant, narcissistic, and ridiculous, the Italian radicalists, indulge in a different kind of self-importance - the scary claim on ultimate justice, and on delivering that justice. By punishing and killing.

 There is a lot more in this novel except the story or Reno and her passage into adulthood and her initiation into cynicism -- for what else can we call her coming to terms with reality...The narrative involves heavily metaphorically laden images of metal, rubber, and velocity (the Valera motorcycle), the fetishes of industrialism, film stock, photography, futurism, war, etc... In the end, there is a sense of too much "research" being ingested into a fictional work. In the end, one may wonder if the novel's complexity is not an effect of the diligence of this research, of the too many important themes being juggled with (a sense that lingered in me after reading Don DeLillo's "Libra" or "Underworld"). But the writing occasionally is so good, that it redeems the author for having been so ambitious.

 I shouldn't be complaining about this, actually - it is a rich book and reads with pleasure. That is rare.


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