‘let’s take this city’: Rachel Kushner on The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner talks with The Literateur about her second novel The Flamethrowers’ heady mix of radical politics, the New York avant-garde, Futurism and fast Italian motorcycles…


Photo Credit: Lucy Raven 2012

Everyone is talking about Rachel Kushner. Her first novel, Telex From Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. Her second novel The Flamethrowers, published in June this year, has been the subject of wide and mostly rhapsodic praise. James Wood called it ‘scintillatingly alive’ in The New Yorker; Kushner’s editor at Scribner – admittedly not a neutral party – suggested that it might be the Great American Novel. My friend from New York told me that the writer Tao Lin decided to make asking people whether they’d read The Flamethrowers ‘his thing’, despite not having read it himself.

But behind the hype and meta-hype is a bold and expansive novel, alive to the clean lines of a motorbike, dinner party monologues and oil leaking onto white salt flats. Kushner’s prose explodes off the page, racing from early Futurism in Rome to the post-minimalist art world in 1970s Manhattan. And at the centre is an unnamed narrator who moves to New York in 1977, intent on making art about speed. She falls into the scene there when she starts dating the artist Sandro Valera, heir of an Italian motorcycle empire.

I sat down with Rachel Kushner during her brief visit to London in August. I’ll be playing excerpts from the interview on First Edition, the books show on NTS radio, from 1-2 pm on Saturday 14th September. You’ll be able to listen or download the podcast afterwards here.
Interview by Carrie Plitt
The Literateur: In your novel The Flamethrowers you make a link from Futurism in the early 20th century, to Italian political unrest in the ‘70s, to the New York art scene in the ‘70s. It’s not an obvious line of progression but I think it works, partially because you’re not overbearing about the connections. Could you talk a little bit about how you found that line?

Rachel Kushner: Sure – it’s a good summary. I knew I wanted to have a Futurist character, so I’d been reading Marinetti’s (author of The Futurist Manifesto) diaries. I’m very interested in early Futurism – I just think that stuff has an intensity that you don’t come by very often. But it occurred to me that the Futurists, strangely, never had any real relationship with industrial culture in Italy – they made all these brushy paintings of speed, but none of them ever entered into the realm of Italian industrial design, which is a huge component of life in Northern Italy. The economy there after the War was highly industrialized; they built the fastest motorcycles in the world in the 1960s and 70s. And a through line of this character just started to occur to me as I built him, that he could be the guy who would open a motorcycle factory.

The connection between the 70s and Futurism happened in a very subtle, momentary way when I was writing the chapter where he meets this Futurist gang and they offer him a ride on one of their motorcycles. Marinetti has these – they’re a little corny – mythical accounts of how he had his epiphanies, like the car crashing into the ditch. So I created my own version of that, but it’s these guys roaming around the streets on motorcycles, and one of them turns to Valera and says ‘lets take this city.’ That was an inside joke with myself because that was the mantra of the Autonomists of the movement of ‘77. The whole idea of taking a city was a new atomised strategy for rejecting bourgeois values, of claiming and colonizing territories, and that’s by various accounts what happened in places like Rome and Bologna and even Milan to some degree in the 70s.

Of course, the Futurists went in a Fascist direction and the Autonomists are ultra-leftist, and I wasn’t really trying to point out that left and right had so much in common so much as I was interested in a more rebellious and even revolutionary character that may have been latent inside of the Futurists before the more dark phase when Marinetti just became an aesthetic propaganda wing for the Mussolini regime.

TL: Your narrator is unnamed in this book – she’s nicknamed Reno, which is where she’s from, but people don’t refer to her as Reno very often.

RK: Yeah it just happens twice, I think.

TL: It made me think of the unnamed young narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, and how in that novel being nameless is an erasure but it’s also a power position. Why didn’t you give your narrator a name? 

RK: I re-read that book actually, when I was working on mine – I think you’re the first person who’s made that reference. I had been very reluctant to name the narrator: every name just sort of slid off of her. It wasn’t so much ‘oh this name doesn’t sound right’ or ‘that name doesn’t sound right’ – it just seemed wrong to name her.

The first person, for me, is a way of avoiding some of what I think of as the trappings of a more classic third-person fictional narration, where there’s a lot of attention to the psychology and the family background and even the physical appearance of the character. I wanted this first-person narrator to have a very uninflected voice, see everything around her. And the emphasis is not on her and who she is and where she comes from and what she’s going to do, it’s on her experience of the world. Because to me that felt like the experience of being inside a mind, which is what I like to locate as a reader, and what I want to create as a writer. I just don’t know if people can be explained by causal psychology – ‘oh this event happened in her childhood, and that’s why she is the way she is today’ – and I think the name is just the beginning of the end.

The Flamethrowers, published in the UK by Harvill Secker

And then I re-read Rebecca while I was on vacation with my in-laws and I found it so haunting and charming that she doesn’t have a name. She’s very powerless in the scheme of the house and in the role of the second wife, but she’s powerful as our companion through all of these various creepy situations. I read afterward that Daphne du Maurier said she just couldn’t come up with a good name, but I think it’s more than that. And I thought, ‘well she doesn’t have a name, so mine’s definitely not having a name’.

TL: She’s quite a passive figure, which can be frustrating. She keeps saying she wants to make art, and be an artist, and yet she spends most of the book listening to Sandro and his friends tell her what she should be doing. But to the reader she is so present, so alive to her world and so observant. Did you mean to emphasize that contradiction between how she appears to other people and how she appears to us, the reader?

RK: Maybe, only in so much as I was trying to replicate something that seemed true to me, or could be true, for someone who moves to New York City when she is twenty-two years old and is an outsider to the art world. There’s a way in which it might seem like a way in [to the art world] to have a romantic partner who’s really powerful in that world, but it can also be another kind of erasure because you’re just so-and-so’s girlfriend. She immediately falls into that role, and I was just thinking it wouldn’t give her much power. I also just wasn’t interested in her being a kind of heroic figure. I don’t know why – I guess when I was in my twenties I spent a lot of time listening to other people who seemed to take up more room at the table. I personally think you can learn a lot that way.

But I did intend something of that contradiction that you asked about. She gets to have the final say on everything because she’s the narrator of the book, and there are lots of observations about other people. She’s learning along the way, I hope, and making notations and sharing them with the reader. But I didn’t see her as the kind of personality who would start arguing with people. I don’t know where that would have gotten her, necessarily.

TL: We’re doing this interview in England but we’re both Americans. And I do think Americans are much more prone to speak and not listen.

RK: Maybe that’s our whole problem. I think once the mouth opens the mind shuts down, at least for me. When I’m talking I’m not really thinking.

TL: What did you think of Laura Miller’s piece in which she suggests that some male reviewers are scared of The Flamethrowers because they don’t believe that women can write with such an authoritative and ‘eerily’ confident voice?

RK:  I have a lot of respect for Laura Miller. I think she’s a serious critic, and was trying to intervene there in a way that seemed to matter for some people. So I guess I’m glad that that article exists, but I similarly don’t think it’s my role to comment on Laura’s piece because Laura’s piece is a comment on the critical reception to my book. I just don’t really think that I get to have a say about how other people read the book, even if some of it I disagree with or it might upset me.

TL: At one point in the novel, the narrator Reno is waiting up for her artist boyfriend Sandro and watching a film they’d seen together previously. And she says:

‘The point of the film was not the stark life in a coal-mining town, although that was how Sandro had read it, the human element of industry. It was about being a woman, about caring and not caring what happens to you. It was about not really caring.’

There’s something about that line that’s really effective, and I thought maybe that’s because it seemed to be about how our experience always changes the way we’ll interpret things. The characters in the book are always making – not those mistakes of interpretation – but interpretations that have something to do with what they are most interested in. And I wondered if that’s meta-commentary on how you want people to read your own fiction.

RK: No I never thought about it like that. I’m not at all opposed to meta-commentary, but for me the meta-commentary is never about how I want anyone else to look at my book, although there may be some deep unconscious framework of that. The book is a gesture, it’s a way of speaking to the world out of your real and true sensibility and saying ‘this is me’. It’s pretty vulnerable in that way – at least this book was for me, because my sensibility is all over it. And not just in the female narrator – in every character.

But I was thinking about the film: it’s a real film that I used called Wanda that was made by a woman named Barbara Loden. It’s my favourite film of the 70s – an absolutely beautiful, amazing film. With Wanda I thought an artist like Sandro would look at it for the industrial stuff, because those artists were interested in industrial aesthetics. But for [the narrator] it’s something else. The female character in the film is extremely compelling: she has this flicker of life in her, but she really does throw her life away.

And I’m that way too. I was just re-watching the very end of an early Michael Caine movie called Get Carter. And there’s this incredible scene on the beach near Newcastle with a cable with cars that dump coal waste into the ocean. It’s where the two final characters are each killed. And to me that scene – I don’t really care about the murder plot and the human beings in it – it’s just about these coal cars dumping coal waste into the ocean and the waves coming up blackened with pollution. It’s incredibly beautiful in a way that the artist Robert Smithson, I think, would have been taken with. But you could look at that film from a completely different perspective.

TL: You must have spent a lot of time researching and living in the world of the ‘70s to write this book.

RK: I don’t know how much research I really did. Now it’s all a blur – I definitely bought a lot of big monographs about ‘70s art, but I had been collecting those for years because I write about contemporary art sometimes for ArtForum. If you want to understand contemporary art, [the ‘70s] are still referentially the major baggage of the art world, and all of the reference points are to this post-minimalist milieu: Robert Morris and Richard Serra and Eva Hess.

A lot of those artists were having retrospectives while I was writing the book. Gordon Matta-Clark had a retrospective right when I first began the book, and that’s when I first got the idea that I should write about this milieu. And Richard Serra – there was a big show because he opened the new Museum of Modern Art. I was walking by and I got a text that there was a press preview so I went in. Richard Serra was giving comments, and he was talking about – it was amazing actually – he was talking about how the museum had put in special reinforcing springs to support the weight of his sculptures. It’s like his legacy is built into the foundation of the building.

TL: Speaking about her novel Wolf Hall, which is set during the time of the Tutors, Hilary Mantel said ‘the novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in. You must work with intractable facts and find the dramatic shape inside them.’ Do you agree with her?

RK: In a way, but I wouldn’t put it like that. My first novel [Telex from Cuba] deals with what I think is a pretty crucial moment in history: not just the Cuban revolution, but the phenomenon of decolonization. I was interested in the historical fact of national liberation movements the world over, and I would never screw with that by making it into a domestic story or using the facts of it in a manipulative way in order to tell my story. Rather, I used the structure of history and put people into that structure through whom history could flow. I felt a great responsibility to the history itself, and trying to render something that spoke to it or activated or realized it. I guess with this book I felt the same way. There are key moments in my book that are real key moments – the [New York 1977] blackout is an obvious one, and the march in Rome that occurred on March 12th 1977. I read everything I could about that day, and I wouldn’t have made it on some other day or in some other city or have something entirely different happen than what occurred.

But, for instance, I used the name of a real group from the 1960s, The Motherfuckers, but the chapter I gave them of their accounts is fictional. Because to me it’s not about this real group The Motherfuckers, it’s about a set of conditions of possibility for a way of responding to the Vietnam War. And I thought that they didn’t seem unbelievable – I don’t like to go into sort of like surreal goofiness, I want everything to seem kind of believable. And it needs to speak to the larger truth of the situation.

TL: Which other authors inspired The Flamethrowers?

RK: Do I want to name them out loud? I love [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline – his sense of humour, for me, is inimitable. I don’t have that kind of poison in me, to write in such a sardonic manner, but he’s a writer I’m interested in.

Like many other authors, [Roberto] Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666 had a huge influence on me. I had this whole epiphany about those two books being one vast tapestry that’s trying to ask the question of the nature of evil. Also, The Savage Detectives is basically all narrated by Arturo Belano, but [Bolaño] creates these spaces where the narrator is in the background and other people are the predominant storytellers; he’s just a conduit onto a world. That was freeing for me, because I wanted a first person narrator who was a very uninflected narrator and not a very active narrator. In the case of that book nobody’s ever said ‘oh he’s so passive’ – it’s really not the point. He’s not a classical protagonist who has to act and go through a process of change and revelation by the end of the book. He’s looking for something and by the end of the book they don’t find it – you just get the dotted square.

I like William Gaddis a lot, The Recognitions. It’s sort of relentlessly fun; it’s funny on every page, and there’s never a moment when he’s trying to just paint in the mechanics of the plot for you so that you can move forward. That book is far beyond me – he just had a vast amount of knowledge, and I don’t write that way nor do I think that way – but I am inspired by the relentlessness of his insistence on humour.

TL: Do you think that you read differently as a writer?

RK: Well probably I only read as a writer. Definitely in terms of what I choose to read. I like to have conversations with people about what they’ve been reading and you hear a lot of ‘oh you have to read it, it’s so amazing’ but I secretly know that I never will, unless it comes into the stream that I think of as my cause. I only read in a very directed way, according to what I’m interested in and trying to find. But that can be pretty loose sometimes. You have to perambulate through ideas to hit upon some unexpected or conjoining mechanism for your new book.

TL: When you say ‘your cause’ is that thematic, or in terms of form, or structure?

RK: The whole thing is bound together because they have to be seamlessly formed as one thing. But there are things I’ll read just for form, and there are things I’ll read just to remember what real innovation is. I’ll look at Molly Bloom’s soliloquy [in James Joyce’s Ulysses] just to try to keep the level higher. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I don’t find a lot of writing like that in contemporary fiction.

TL: The critic James Wood, in a rather glittering review of the Flamethrowers in the New Yorker, said ‘Novelistic vivacity, the great unteachable, the unschooled enigma, has a way of making questions of form appear scholastic.’ Were you thinking about form and your place in the current literary landscape when you wrote this novel?

RK: I did read that review – and I was glad that he said that because I agree with him.

James Wood had written a review a while back about a Chang-Rae Lee novel. And maybe it wasn’t a very kind review, but he said something at the beginning: that it is false to think that certain novelists want to hew to tradition and others decide to break out of it, something like ‘all novelists are looking for a way to do something fresh’. I felt that was true, something that he understood.

I’m always thinking about that. I don’t know if I felt that way with my first novel – I was just trying to see if I could pull it off, just be a novelist – but with the second book I thought, okay I’ve written a novel and this is my chance to do something new with it and use my real sensibility. With the third one I’m starting now, I feel the same way.

As I set out to do something new, I do call upon certain realist techniques, but I try to subvert them and move outside of them in ways that make sense to me, that are very idiosyncratic and personal. I don’t use an Oolipian program for subverting narrative – I’m interested in the new novel, but I don’t really think that’s the trajectory: that we just get weirder and weirder and start using less and less letters of the alphabet. There may be something for me in shifting tones – going from one narrator to another, or one storyline to another. Or having one character completely dominate the scene and tell a story for forty pages. There are ways in which these instinctual things that I wanted to do turned out to be things that a traditional novel doesn’t normally accommodate and my job then is to not compromise and limit them because the traditional novel doesn’t accommodate them. My job is to include them and to see what happens.

Carrie Plitt is the host of First Edition on NTS Radio. She lives in London.

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