Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rachel Kushner, _The Flamethrowers_

NOT SURE WHAT we have here, exactly. A hybrid of Judith Krantz and Kathy Acker, perhaps? As in the work of the great eighties schlock-mistress, an attractively plucky young heroine finds herself circulating in realms of colossal wealth and power…at the same time, as in Acker, trailer park grit meets high art knowingness.

Unstable as the compound sounds, it's a darned good trick, if one can pull it off, and probably accounts for the novel being both critically honored and book-clubbable (the May selection for ours). We get not only some fairly sophisticated depiction of Italian futurism and radical politics of the 1960s, but also the aforesaid plucky, motorcycle-racing heroine and her affair with the scion of a fabulously wealthy Italian  family, who also happens to be an important avant-garde artist and pretty damned good-looking into the bargain.

This all made for an engrossing read, even as my assessment wavered--but by the end I was impressed, really.  For one thing, the novel works as a dramatization of Peter Bürger's theory that the avant-garde sought to bridge the gap that had opened between life and art; Reno (plucky heroine) seeks to turn her (very real) motorcycle crashes into art, the Motherfuckers (Diggers-like radicals sowing anarchy in mid-60s NYC) seek to put imagination in power, etc. This all felt like a convincing portrait of the era.

(Didn't credit the anecdote that the Motherfuckers beat up the Stooges, though. Maybe Iggy could be taken, but Scott and Ron would not have been so easy.)

Clincher, though, was that Reno did not ultimately prevail, as she would have in Krantz-land, but by the end felt like the true heir of Lucien de Rubempré, Julien Sorel, Fréderic Moreau, and all the other bright sparks from the provinces who got their foot in the door in the capital only to get amputated at the ankle.

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