The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner

Published by Vintage UK 2 January 2014
400pp, paperback, £7.99
Scribner US 14 January 2014
416pp, paperback, $17

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Anarchists and Futurists, installationists and motor cyclists, Minimalists and Fascists. Rachel Kushner’s dazzling second novel overflows with material and stories, a cornucopia of historically rooted invention. Speed trials in the American salt flats, fatuous artistic dinner party conversations in New York, Italian snobbery on the shores of Lake Como, hand-to-hand combat in World War I, political uprising and repression in Rome – all these and far more are delivered in prose so supple and electric that the only applicable term is virtuoso.

The span of art and history is yoked by the subject of speed/ time/ modernity, but the novel’s connecting thread is the progress of Reno, an aspiring film maker, establishing a toe hold for herself in the Manhattan art scene of the 1970s and developing a relationship with Sandro Valera, an older artist and scion of an Italian motorcycle company.

Reno both observes and acts. She is the lens through which we witness the self-indulgences and solipsisms of the art world but is also herself an embryo creator, involved in a project to photograph tire tracks left by a speeding bike.

Around her swim fascinating and fearful figures of art and association, politics and sport – vain bike riders with important hair, ridiculous performance artists, nihilists, true geniuses. Real or researched, these figures personify their eras. Riding motor bikes round Milan, for example, discussing propulsion as a concept, her Futurists brilliantly embody an idea and a movement.

This is only Kushner’s second work of fiction, yet it demonstrates a great leap forward from her debut, Telex from Cuba, itself an award-winning achievement. The Flamethrowers, recently shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, is tighter, smarter, drier in its wit. If you seek diamond-bright, impressionistic fiction at its most polished and original, look no further.

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