THE American novelist Rachel Kushner will appear at next week’s Kilkenny Arts Festival. Her debut novel, Telex From Cuba, was shortlisted for the 2008 National Book Award, and her follow-up, The Flamethrowers, is already being hailed as one of the finest novels to be published this year.
The Flamethrowers’ scope is sprawling. It has sex and big ideas, and it flits between different worlds — the salt flats of Utah; the ’70s New York art scene; Italy’s radical political movement in ’77; and detours to steamy places like late-19th century Egypt and Brazil’s rubber plantations — as Reno, a 23-year-old ingénue, makes her way in the world of art and motorcycles.
“When I finished my first novel,” says Kushner, “which was about a completely different subject — Cuba in the 1950s — I really wanted to set a novel in the downtown art world of New York City in the mid-1970s. It’s a milieu that I have acquired a lot of information about from writing about art, and from knowing older artists who arrived in New York in the early ’70s. I’d heard a lot of stories about the time and had a set of ideas about what it was like. I visited New York quite a lot as a child in the 1970s.”
Kushner had many reasons for choosing this time and place to set her second novel in. “It’s the decade in which the industrial economy came to the end in the United States, and all these artists were moving into former manufacturing warehouses. The city is more interesting to me in a sense when it’s a blighted place that is inexpensive to live in because it offers itself as a place of play for creative people rather than what it became later, which is a space of play only for the rich.”
When she began to write The Flamethrowers, Kushner became aware of what is known as the Movement of 1977 in Italy. “It wasn’t researched,” she says. “It was very organic to my life. I know some people in Italy. My husband writes about 20th-century French and Italian philosophy and he’s very familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of the Italian leftist movement in the ’70s. We began to meet a lot of people in Italy who had either studied that era or were involved in it directly.
“It seemed like a natural counterpoint to what was happening in New York at that time. The two just flowed together, not in the sense that they were inter-related, but that they happened at the same time and there was a question. And a novel for me is always a sort of question of how do these things fit together, and how do they not fit together.”
Reno is from Nevada, but sells her motorbike and moves to New York at 21 years of age, hungry for life, and eager to realise un-sketched ideas about a career in the art world. The Manhattan art scene she arrives in is intoxicating, full of drifters, charlatans and coy artists.
“There were tacit rules with these people,” she notes at one stage. “You weren’t supposed to ask basic questions. ‘What do you do?’. ‘Where are you from?’. ‘What kind of art do you make?’. Because I understood he was an artist, but you weren’t allowed to ask that. Not even ‘What is your name?’. You pretended you knew or didn’t need to know. Asking an obvious question, even if there were no obvious answers, was a way of indicating to them that they should jettison you as soon as they could.”
Kushner’s writing is a kind of marvel. She’s good at describing geography and things, and in particular at finding the bon mot or epigram to capture someone’s essence or a feeling. President Jimmy Carter’s homely wife, Rosalynn, is dismissed because “people who want their love easy don’t really want love”. Flip Farmer, a speed legend from her youth, has “a breakfast cereal smile”; Spam, that processed gunk popular in the States, is “pig marmalade”. Kushner says she was careful, however, not to get bogged down in chronicling the cultural flotsam of the decade.
“I tried to keep the classic clichés of ’70s detail to a minimum. No one’s wearing bellbottoms or platform shoes. Maybe those aesthetic details can seem like window-dressing. I definitely wanted the feel of the time and because they’re in New York City I made reference to the architecture and geography of the city. I did live there for almost 10 years, which made that easy.”
Reno’s pivotal relationship in the novel is an affair she has with Sandro Valera, the disaffected scion of an Italian tyre and motorcycle empire. He takes refuge from his family’s wealth and privilege in minimalist art and radical politics. He’s 14 years older than Reno. “He acted smitten but I was the smitten one,” admits Reno. He sponsors her adventures as a “land artist”; she briefly becomes “the fastest chick in the world” although there isn’t necessarily a fast lesson for her to take from her peripatetic meanderings.
“There are tiny moments in the book where she has a take-away notion about people and the way that things work, but I don’t think there’s one, big aggregate lesson. Maybe there isn’t because I’m not interested in that type of narrative arc where you move through a set of experiences, you’re irrevocably changed/strengthened/improved, and then the novel comes to a close and the reader can be sure that the main character will continue on through life with a new resolve.
“When you think about your own understanding of people in life there are people who encounter the same problem over and over again — friends who always get in a bad relationship or always make a bad investment. People make mistakes. Sometimes they learn from them, and sometimes they don’t.”
- Rachel Kushner will be reading with Elizabeth Day at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, The Parade Tower, Kilkenny Castle, Castle Rd, Kilkenny, 6pm, Friday, Aug 16. Further information: www.kilkennyarts.ie.