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Rachel Kushner is an American living in LA. Her first novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in 2008. Now comes her second, acclaimed by Vanity Fair for its “blazing prose”. Both writer and novel are being hyped to the skies. Do they deserve it?
Reno, the central character, is a feisty young woman with a thing for motorbikes and speed. But she’s also an artist who wants to make films, art films — more Warhol than Spielberg. She’s from Nevada, “the hard-hat-wearing, dump-truck-driving” west, but when she turns 21 she sells her motorbike and moves to New York. The rest of the novel moves between the 1970s New York art scene, motorbike racing in the west and political violence in Italy. There are several love affairs as well.
The Flamethrowers, like Reno, is young and feisty. The prose rushes along, the book is full of characters with names like Didi Bombonaro or Giddle. There are lots of knowing 1970s references, to films like Klute and artists like Marsden Hartley (but do we have to be told three times that someone is wearing a Marsden Hartley T-shirt?). At one point, Reno says she doesn’t want to interrupt another character: “Not interrupt the flow, be the person they had to stop and explain things to.” So, you either know what Klute is or who Marsden Hartley was and, if you don’t, Kushner’s not going to interrupt the flow and tell you. It’s that kind of novel.
The politics is knowing too — or annoying, depending on your taste. Reno used to ride a Moto Valera (she later has an affair with Sandro Valera). Someone tells her the Valeras “used Polish slave labour to make killing machines for the Nazis”. They also used slave labour in the Amazon to make their tyres.
Much has been made about Kushner’s style. Colm Toibin says her “sentences are sharp and gorgeously made”. When Reno arrives in New York, she calls it “a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh”. Sharp? She has a motorbike crash. “The darkness folded around me like thick felt.”
Gorgeously made? A few sentences later: “I saw glowing yellow spheres. They were moving in an elaborate formation, garlanding their way down a mountain face.” This is just mush.
For more than 20 years, the next big American novel has come to Britain, hyped by critics and fellow-authors. Sometimes, like Chabon, Foer and Krauss, they deserve the praise. Sometimes they really don’t. There is nothing about this novel, from the cute references to Marsden Hartley and Polish slave labour to the poor prose, that works.