Wednesday, August 21, 2013

FLAMETHROWER takes on art, privilege, love, and revolution with a courage as rare in literature as in life

FLAMETHROWER by Rachel Kushner (Simon & Schuster)

The heroine of Rachel Kushner’s FLAMETHROWER is not unlike the young woman in Joan Didion’s Play it Like It Lays. Both are truth seekers, curious about how to find their way in capricious professional worlds, are unflinching observers with spot-on perceptions, and have more on their minds than men. But while Didion's heroine has a similar integrity, she hasn't the sense of risk and physical courage that makes Reno an epic heroine.

When Reno, an art school grad from Nevada, sells her cherished Valero motorcycle for money to go to New York, she’s pushing destiny. She's ridden motorcycles since 14, is comfortable with speed and the desolate highway but has risked the familiar for a Mott Street walk up, in a city where she's completely alone. Her response is to film the neighborhood so she's got a comfort zone in alien New York.

Then one night in a Chelsea Bar she allows herself to be picked up by denizens of the art world. Quietly playing the naive young blonde, Reno takes in the self-protective non-sequieturs of art world chit-chat.The people are intriguing, and though their exhanges are off putting, Reno sifts what’s authentic from fabricated imagery, and, when she can safely, she inserts her real thoughts. Ronnie, an artist, who uses found headlines for social commentary, suspects Reno's got more going on than her role as reflector. But even her name, given to her that night, is where she comes from. 

Raised poor in the trailer park back roads of the West, Reno becomes an insider’s outsider, an observer of the moneyed art world, who retreats into her uncomfortable role as young beauty. But as Ronnie notes, her sweet face has a suspect gap in her front teeth. His friend and rival, Sandro, becomes aware of Reno, when he sees her going to her job at a film stock house. He pursues her and she becomes (and plays) the lovely novice to Sandro’s successful older artist. Still Reno's constantly studying. While she appreciates the perfectly constructed metal boxes that made Sandro a famous minimalist artist, she also sees connection between the mechanistic production of his art and the role he rejects—an heir to the Valero fortune. Her distancing only recedes once she believes he understands her and appreciates her developing art. Inspired by the earthworks artist, Robert Smithson, she makes patterns in snow and documents them but wants to deepen her tracks. Reno, who grew up respecting risk, believes it's intrinsic to all serious art.

FLAMETHROWER contrasts Reno's journey from novice to player with the evolution of the Valero family fortune. Young Valero develops an early fascination with a German motorcycle and his experiences during WWII, including the crazy asbestos dressed "flamethrowers" in his division, cement both his desire to make his own inventions and a ruthlessness at taking what he wants, which becomes his way of doing business. To understand the origins of this aristocratic family and its fate, you travel through Fascism and the role of industrialists in post war Italy, to the radical Italy of the early 1970's.

There's a class war in Italy between the major industrialists, who control the economy, and the working poor, the Red Brigades, and the student movement. In a parallel in New York, Reno is at an intersection of working class origins and privilege. Though she moves into Sandro’s loft and his art scene, she keeps her job and her friendship with Giddle, a one-time aspiring Warhol actress, who loses herself in the role and reality of being a greasy spoon waitress. Giddle’s a kind of warning of what could happen to Reno if she loses her moral compass.

Instead, Reno gives herself a challenge. She will enter the racing competition at the Nevada Salt Flats and document her tracks on the earth—her passage. Ronnie helps her obtain a state of the art Valero motorcycle from Sandro and she rides to Reno. But her quest is so dangerous she’s warned by a truck driver, “You won’t look so good in a body bag.”

Hands icy, so numb it's hard to steer, Reno’s a smarter Steve McQueen, calculating the consequences of speed. But when she crashes in FLAMETHROWER, not just on the course but later in her constructed life, she takes time to find the next step. Reno rises from the wreckage of the Salt Flats, yet when she goes with Sandro to the lavish Valero family estate, she's vanquished. The cruel matriarch treats her as another disposable American girlfriend. And when she realizes Sandro may really be playing her, she flees without money and his protection to Rome’s radical underground. The odyssey through Italy’s revolutionary movement, is a study of the uprising's roots in ruthless business practices, and the dire consequences to Italy's industrialists. Reno also observes the hypocrisy of radicals, who film a pregnant homeless girl. They offer her their beds, instead of one of her own.

Reno's life of privilege is gone but she's an outsider to the radicals, the blonde with the American passport. Then she's asked to help the one individual she respects, who provided her with escape. It's a great risk for a dubious reward, and Reno knows she’s being used, but the decision is completely her own. 

As a commentator on America's elite art world--successful artists and the patrons and galleries that pursue them; Italian aristocrats and revolutionaries--Reno’s got uncommon sense. She gets the sophisticated sensibility of the rich, their duplicity and pain. She also understands the desperation of the poor, using what and who are available. Her reality is a prism of perspectives with compassion for suffering (she’s had her own share). Yet, like any epic hero, Reno stands apart. She’s proven herself to her chief critic, herself. And her status in the art world has also shifted. Ronnie talks of her looking different but better. And she’s able to laugh, thinking of her previous blindspot--the girl she was before.

“Where are the serious women writers?” Hiding in plain sight, I think. Novels of similar ambition by male writers, seem to more easily receive accolades of “genius.” While I’m not fond of that word, this is an enormously significant novel. It signals a moment in time, when notions of women's worth, were turned inside out, along with class, the purpose of art, and the role of love in women's lives. Reno's courage is as rare in literature as in life.