Rachel Kushner's second novel opens with a striking set-piece. It is 1977, and Kushner's nameless narrator – a young artist who will later be christened "Reno", after her hometown – races her motorcycle across the salt flats of Utah. She's doing a land-speed trial, while performing an artistic experiment: through speed, she aims to achieve an "acute case of the present tense". When her bike wipes out, the crash captures the message of Kushner's novel: that life can't be lived, nor art made, purely in the present. History will always hit us and send us spinning.
Reno's collision with history begins with her entry into the New York art world of the late 1970s. Here she falls in love with Sandro Valera, whose inherited wealth funds his own ahistorical works of art: minimalist metal boxes, apparently autonomous. But ensuing events argue against any such autonomy. An ill-fated vacation at the Valeras' villa on Lake Como unmasks both the capitalist basis of Sandro's "revolutionary" art, and his unfaithfulness. Fleeing to Rome, Reno witnesses a real revolution, as the Red Brigades rise against the Valera factories.
Kushner's book blends the Bildungsroman with the picaresque. Reno is swept along by events beyond her control. But every derailment accelerates her education, driving her nearer to reality. Her trajectory takes her through a series of male-dominated milieux. Again and again, she is betrayed and abandoned by men.
The book ends with an emblematic scene of separation. Fleeing across the Alps with Gianni, a leader of the uprising, she finds herself left alone, looking up at Mont Blanc: "a monolith of doubt", from which she must "leave, with no answer". This is an inspiring feminist image: on the one hand, we see the world in all its rock-strewn resistance; on the other, a lone female figure, facing up to it where men have failed.
For all its political passion and rigorous research, The Flame-throwers is propelled by the sheer energy of storytelling. This energy puts the book into a state of perpetual revolution and enriches our awareness of history.
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