The Flamethrowers

I wonder if it’s fair to say that The Flamethrowers is a book about a number of people who believe they are living profound, meaningful lives, who may not actually be doing so. That could probably be said about a lot of books (and a lot of people). But their desperation for recognition stood out so prominently to me — and all but one really failed to leave an impression — that I thought it’d be worth mentioning. Leading with, even.

Rachel Kushner is a fucking talented writer. So talented, in fact, that 4 pages in I stopped writing down well-written quotes and instead wrote down “too many quotes to write down.” I even read the praise that preceded the book, thinking it would inspire me in my own writerly pursuits, or maybe take down the epic literary journey that I was about to embark on a few pegs, but it just filled me with envy instead. She did inspire me a little, to attempt to use more creative verbs and adjectives than I’m inclined to, so maybe I’ll try that as I hash out my feelings about this book.

Going back to that all-but-one thing I said before, the “one” is the main character, Reno. She’s a biker, an artist, a person who doesn’t take herself nearly as seriously as the people she associates with. She has context for her life. She knows she needs to work hard because she chose professions that won’t make her rich. She knows that she chose things that aren’t really even professions, actually. And yet she makes plenty of mistakes, because she’s human. She indulges herself by making those aforementioned associations and seeing what life’s like with them.

The biggest “mistake,” and reason for the whole story, is her relationship with Sandro, an older man who’s got family ties to a company that owns racing bikes. (It all works out pretty nicely for her for awhile.) She travels to Italy with him — the plot points of which I won’t get into, because I can’t recall them, and because they were my least favorite part of the book — and mingles with his friends and becomes a different person around him, but never really makes me (the reader) believe that he was worth falling for. Of course, she’s recounting her story after the fact, when the proverbial dust has settled, when she sees him for the dirt he is, when she’s moved on. But, as is customary in prose and in life, even this bad experience gives her a mental manual with which she can go through life, with which she can improve and grow and dream. It all feels very cliche when I say it, but to hear her (er, Kushner), reduce these painful moments into precious gems makes you see how worth it it was. For example:

p. 4 // “People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.”

p. 19 // “On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch’s idea of me was.”

p. 70 // “I was doing that thing the infatuated do, stitching destiny onto the person we want stitched to us.”

p. 204 // “It seemed important to convey that I understood. Isn’t that what intimacy so often is? Supposing you understand, conveying that you do, because you feel in theory that you could understand, and you want to, and yet secretly you don’t?”

p. 344 // “You couldn’t hate someone who saw the world so differently.”

Despite having never been a visual artist, or a biker, or the lover of an older man whose family owns racing bikes, these distillations made complete sense to me. They must make sense to everyone, too. They’re new universalities, reworded from cliche and filtered through Kushner’s eyes.

Like Reno, and perhaps Kushner, I do fancy myself some kind of artist, eventually, if I get around to writing that [insert type of written composition here] one day. While I can’t claim to want or be able to make the large-scale visual installations that Reno produces, I also found myself identifying with how she waxed poetic about the creative process. It sucks being one of the many, trying to “make it,” and her words — some of which were downright apathetic — make it suck less. We all know we’re not alone, but it feels that way. A friend, even a fictional one, is comforting.

p. 8 // “It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to be come an artist of the West.”

p. 154 // “…I had not put myself out there yet. I could delay it until I knew for certain that what I was doing was good.”

p. 364 // “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.”

And so, throughout this book, I latched onto these nuggets of wisdom, knowing that if Reno felt this way, surely the real person feeding her words did, too — and she produced a book because of it. Yet I also grew frustrated with Reno’s lapses in judgement, probably because they felt all-too familiar to me. One character, Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend and Reno’s one-night stand, was insufferable any time he showed up. He took his art too seriously (of course he was an artist to begin with), he cared about no one, and he found fault with the opinions of his friends for the sake of hearing himself talk. He’s the kind of person you’d claim never to be friends with, and yet you are because there’s no way to get rid of him. Maybe you, reader, would know how to, but I, and Reno, don’t. We’d let this person stick around because he’s not really doing much harm other than annoying us and sucking all the attention out of whatever room he’s in.

And then there was her relationship with Sandro, of course. Letting the romanticism cloud reality. Wasting time in Italy when she should have been in New York, fulfilling her dream. The Italy part of the book, as I mentioned, was my least favorite, because it dragged on. It wasted my time. Maybe it was intended to feel that way. Maybe the author wanted us to grow tired of Sandro and Italy so we’d be able to break ties with it before Reno could. By the time she returned to New York, I felt even more relieved than she did. She got rid of her sensationalist fantasies and she ditched a number of Sandro’s annoyingly political friends — these stragglers dragged her and the plot down as well, and made me feel just as isolated as she probably did. And I was elated to experience her re-discovery of the city she was supposed to love, and know that this time, she really loved it. Maybe I need to leave New York at some point to know if I love it.

I think I might eventually read some of Kushner’s other work, because I love her prose construction so much, and I have a feeling that not all of her books are about racing bikes. But mostly I want to read it to keep reminding myself that she’s out there, and that the feelings of jealousy and admiration can coexist peacefully. And that the latter can eventually blot out the sentiment of the former.

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