April 10 (Bloomberg) -- As “The Flamethrowers” opens, Reno (not her real name, which we never do learn) is hurtling on an Italian Moto Valera motorcycle toward the land-speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
She’s 22 and an artist. “The two things I loved,” she tells us, “were drawing and speed.” She photographs her tracks -- ski tracks, bike tracks -- to make her art; speed is a way of putting risk into it.
“You won’t look nearly so good,” an affable trucker tells her, “when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.”
Rachel Kushner’s big, rich wonder of a novel takes place in the mid-’70s, mostly amid the downtown New York art scene. It captures the post-Pop moment when minimalism reigned, conceptualism flourished and a group of artists had burrowed so far inside their own heads that to see what they were doing you had to follow them there.
Sandro Valera, art star, heir to the Moto Valera fortune, 14 years older than Reno and her mentor and lover, makes gleaming Donald Judd-like boxes:
“The objects were not meant to refer to anything but what they were, there in the room. Except that this was not really true, because they referred to a discourse that artists such as Sandro wrote long essays about, and if you didn’t know the discourse, you couldn’t take them for what they were, or were meant to be. You were simply confused.”
“The Flamethrowers” treats its subject too soberly to be considered a satire. But it has room for the comedy of art-world self-importance and self-absorption, and Kushner’s skepticism darkens everything she views.
The social rules of this milieu are as elusively codified as its aesthetic ones. Reno is like a country maiden who’s stumbled into the court of Louis XIV: Sandro does what he can to show her the ropes while “politely overlooking,” she tells us, “my inability to take cues.” The sexual codes, on the other hand, are dishearteningly conventional.
What kind of future awaits her? Her passivity and her attraction to “egotistical jerks” don’t bode well. On the other hand, if Kushner’s prose can be seen as a reflection of Reno’s talent, she’s on her way to stardom.
Kushner certainly is. Her polychrome sentences (at the speed trials, “pink gasoline and synthetic red engine oil soaked into the salt like butcher shop residue”) are shot through with all the longing and regret you find in those of Thomas Pynchon, whose influence is all over this novel.
But Kushner, a mature artist, is ready to move past her mentor’s influence now. One thing that would mean for “The Flamethrowers” is jettisoning several chapters -- all gorgeous, I admit -- on the life of T.P. (can those initials be coincidental?) Valera, Sandro’s industrialist father.
She shows him amid the Futurist explosion circa 1912, in World War I and during his motorcycle company’s expansion into rubber imports. She makes vivid the horror of the rubber harvest, accomplished with the slave labor of Amazon Indians.
In the persuasiveness of their detail and the punch of their cruelty, these chapters might have been lifted out of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” But the main plot of “The Flamethrowers” has an intensity that shouldn’t be interrupted.
Which makes it a flawed novel -- but also a glittering, grave, brutally unsentimental book that’s spectacularly written enough to touch greatness.
“The Flamethrowers” is published by Scribner (383 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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