Rachel Kushner’s second novel – her first to be published in the UK – seems to have created somewhat of a kerfuffle. Proofs arrived adorned with glowing comments from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and lots of critics agree that The Flamethrowers is a bloody good book.
However, Adam Kirsch writing for The Tablet suggested that the reason for this praise was due to the book being ‘a macho novel by and about women’. What Kirsch appears to be suggesting is that Kushner deliberately chose to write about motorbikes, land speed records and activism as some cynical ploy which would see her hoisted into the big boy’s realm of ‘The Great American Novel’.
In a period which has already seen A.M. Homes take The Women’s Prize for Fiction with May We Be Forgiven (a definite contender for The Great American Novel), a book which concerns itself with the domestic sphere as a microcosm of contemporary America, and Hilary Mantel claim a double Man Booker Prize win with the first two installments of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, you’d think we’d have moved away from the idea that women are only interested in, and therefore can only write about, marriage and babies.
Kushner’s protagonist, Reno (nicknamed after the place she’s from), has been riding motorbikes since she was 14. As the novel opens Reno’s on her way to take part in the land speed records, a venture that is as much about art – ‘I was bringing to that a New York deliberateness, abstract ideas about traces and speed…’ – as it is her love of speed:
American legend Flip Farmer had shot across these flats and hit five hundred miles an hour, driving a three wheeled, forty-four-foot aluminum canister equipped with a jet engine from a navy Phantom…
Growing up, I loved Flip Farmer like some girls loved ponies or ice skating or Paul McCartney…
When I was twelve, Flip came through Reno and gave out autographs at a casino. I didn’t have a glossy photo for him to sign, so I had him sign my hand. For weeks I took to the shower with a plastic bag over that hand, rubber-banded at the wrist.
Reno assumed that her move to New York, a move which she sold her Moto Valera motorbike to finance, would lead to her losing interest in bikes and speed. But her move sees her meet and enter into a relationship with Sandro Valera, one of the sons of the Valera motorcycle manufacturer.
Sandro has left the running of the family business back in Italy to his brother, Roberto, and come to New York where he’s established himself as a successful artist.
The novel is set in the 1970s and also concerns itself with the social and political unrest of the time. An entire chapter’s dedicated to a group active in New York in the late 1960s, calling themselves Motherfuckers:
“Because we hated women…Women had no place in our movement unless they wanted to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down…We saw a future of people singing and dancing, making love and masturbating in the streets. No shame. Nothing to hide, Everyone sleeping in one big bed, men, women, daughters, dogs”.
While in Italy, industrial action by workers grows throughout the novel, playing a major part in the book’s denouement.
The Flamethrowers is a meaty, ambitious novel. It is not a book that asks you to empathise with its characters but to stand back and consider its themes and ideas, to assess it as work of art, in the same way that the art created by the characters within its pages is assessed. It is a work that demands to be taken seriously. And it is deserving of that demand, regardless of the gender of its author.
Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.