Getting Burned: A Review of ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

by iaians

Because it takes me forever to do most things, I’m finally getting around to writing down my thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. That’s it. G’night, folks!




For the uninitiated, The Flamethrowers came out three years ago and was quickly praised by critics (culminating in a second National Book Award nomination for Kushner—the only author to ever be a finalist for the award with their first two novels), and shared a run of success on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being sold around the world (I saw its German-translated hardcover while spending some time in Frankfurt last summer.)

So good for her. No, really. I’m glad to see this kind of literature being well-received and appreciated—at least relatively. There have been some people who have quibbles with its passive main character, and more aimless-at-times plot (there was a podcast of this argument on Slate: starting around 7 minutes or so: interesting to note that the two men didn’t enjoy the novel as much as Hanna Rosin—not writing any meta-narrative, just interesting), but I don’t really give a shit about that. Plot is great and all, but as many wonderful novelists have taught us over the years, a novel doesn’t always need to lean on a solid plot. So fuck plot. And the idea that a character (in this case the main character) is rather passive and allows things to happen to her/him somehow makes the book less appealing seems to rely heavily on personal taste—which is fine, but generally unhelpful when considering the larger merits of a work.

No, plot or character aren’t what I want to talk about at all. What spoke loudest to me, and it is not a revolutionary observation (many other critics have picked up on this, too, in one fashion or another), are the notions of exploitation, and the inflammatory quality of a globalized world dominated by capital. To me, that is where part of the brilliance of The Flamethrowers lies.

First, let’s look at this notion of exploitation, for it is perhaps the most prevalent (and therefore easiest) motif in the novel. The nameless main character (I will be referring to her as “Reno” for convenience) recounts her experiences from the art scene of 1970s New York, and a brief window of time in Italy during the violent, frightening epoch of the Years of Lead. The nameless main character allows for a universal quality, inviting the reader to implant her/himself into the character’s shoes. There is also a quality to this namelessness that allows the novel to focus on the events and other characters happening at this period, rather than about “Reno.” For the novel really does have larger ambitions than to tell the story of some 21 year old’s experiences during the 70s. This ubiquitous quality to the naming convention (or nameless convention) reminded me of Ellison’s Invisible Man—also another character who allows a great deal to be forced upon him and allows the world and characters surrounding “Invisible” to speak just as loudly (if not louder) than the main character/narrator.

In her long journey, vacillating between New York and Italy during this provocative period, “Reno” experiences the constant fetishism of her male counterparts. Whether it is former lovers, current boyfriends, or random strangers, “Reno” is never without a man who is “using” her for his personal gain. This certain “utilization” of her, over and over, is reflected in the other habits of exploitation occurring throughout the novel. The reader first witnesses it as “Reno” and other women are treated poorly in the “boys’ club” of the New York art scene, then it morphs into the form of violent suppression of workers and students by the Italian state (its important to note that some of those workers and students during the Years of Lead were murderous terrorists—a point Kushner does not ignore), and lastly mentioned in a story about how the natives of Brazil were duped into labor during WWII to extract rubber for the Brazilian state to be sold to the United States’s war effort, only to never be paid and furthermore never be told the war was over until thirty years later (no really, this shit happened; fuckers kept working the poor bastards letting them believe there was a fat check waiting for them in the end). As “Reno” continues on through the story, either flitting from New York to Italy and back again, the reader becomes aware of how the story, too, flits from one example of exploitation to the next.

Sticking with this idea of “flitting” draws to mind how capital flits from one location to the next in its constant search for new means of accumulation (often through appropriation). In the novel, the reader learns of “The Flamethrowers” in the Italian army who constantly charged their enemies flames a-throwin’, and had their lives ruled by these violent bursts. Stay with me now, because if we think of capital accumulation in this way, we can begin to see more connections being made throughout the book, and we can begin to see how the novel chronicles the ways in which capital bounces from location to location, generating new piles of wealth—often through exploitation—before hopping off to some newer untouched area, leaving a path of destruction behind it in its constant charge forward. [Going back to “Reno” and her passivity for a second, it begins to make more sense as a creative choice when the main character is understood as a universal stand-in for people who continue to be subjected to the “flamethrowing experience” that is capitalism.]

This, to me, is what stood out most in Kushner’s work. This idea: Violence is inherent (and key) to capital’s success: is present in almost each page of the book. From enslaving indigenous people in the jungles of Brazil, to violently suppressing workers and unionists in the streets of Italy, to objectifying and exploiting women in the “open-minded” circles of the New York art scene, all these translate one into the other. So we must bear this in mind, not only as we read this wonderful novel, but as we live our lives: in a land of flamethrowers, we can’t help but keep getting burned.