When Rachel Kushner sat down to write her second novel, she had three images taped to the wall above her desk: A pretty young blonde woman, face painted for war, with an X of tape across her lips, which eventually became the cover image; a well-heeled engineer standing with his creation, a 1971 Ducati motorcycle; and two men racing by in a primitive cycle and sidecar, circa World War I.
The Flamethrowers, then, is a sort of weaving together of these disparate lives. Set partly in prewar Italy at the dawn of the Futurist movement, partly in the art world of New York in the 1970s, and converging briefly in the riots of the Autonomist movement in 1970s Rome, this is ultimately the story of a young woman called Reno who is reborn again and again through her acts of defiant grace.
In this story, art is not just an imitation of life but also life itself. Acts of life begin and end as performance, within the inescapable prison of self-consciousness. But this isn’t boilerplate postmodernism either; it’s a complex tale of youth and the need to escape oneself and one’s past, a story about time and speed and violence, about the roles we play, willingly and unwillingly, in the vast, closed system of the human stage. And it’s about a young woman, confused and yet self-possessed, remarkable in her search for meaning.
When Reno meets Sandro Valera, famed sculptor and prodigal heir to Italy’s greatest moto-empire, she has just moved to New York to live as an artist. He takes her in, and through him she meets the art-world elite. Her own work is still nebulous, unformed but for a notion of line and a love of movement. Chance intervenes—or as one of the characters has it, Reno “put herself in the way of life”—and her first serious project begins to take shape. But in The Flamethrowers, momentum has a way of swerving into the ditch. In Italy, on her way to make a film with the Valera race team, events bring Reno crashing down hard.
Battered and bruised, she finds herself in a world of violence and anarchism, a brief encounter that is ultimately more positive and humane than the high-flying world she fled. Because life is not simple, nothing meaningful can be easy. And so away we go, this novel seems to say, racing off-road into the future.
Read a Q&A with Rachel Kushner about The Flamethrowers.