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Throwing Flames, Taking Names: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers delivers on the promise of its title; it’s full of destruction, misanthropy, and wanton nihilism. Guns are constantly going off, so the pyrotechnics aren’t merely linguistic.

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Throwing Flames, Taking Names: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner’s latest novel, The Flamethrowers, steps up and slaps you across the mouth with its ambition. Wrapped up in its narrative are at least seven decades, four continents, revolutions, radical underground movements, various -isms of 20th-century art history (futurism, minimalism, etc.), and a deep plunge into the anarchic lower Manhattan of the 1970s. The story reveals itself to us via multiple narrative viewpoints, lists, and a selection of illustrations. Amid these pyrotechnics are some of the most familiar tropes of the Western novel: the ingénue setting forth to find adventure and romance; the American innocent in Europe; egotistical, creative men and the women who love them. In other words, this is a novel that very self-consciously strides into Great American Novel territory. The reactions—and the reactions to the reactions—have been ardent (more on that in a bit).

Reno, so nicknamed because of her hometown, arrives in Manhattan in 1976 fresh out of art school, equipped with vague ideas of making films and photographs inspired by her love of motorcycles and speed. She becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a successful older artist who also serves as her art-world Sherpa. Additionally, Valera happens to be the second generation of an Italian industrialist family made vastly wealthy by its rubber, tire, and motorcycle business. Reno’s story is punctuated by the coming-of-age tale of Sandro’s father, T.P. Valera, also a lover of motorcycles, but in all other ways Reno’s opposite. Reno is tentative and vulnerable; Valera Sr. is ruthless and misanthropic. He takes up with the Futurists, a group of largely aristocratic young men eager to throttle Italy out if its nostalgic malaise and send it lurching into the modern 20th century by embracing industrialism and war as cleansing mechanisms for obliterating the past—and much of the present. (By the way, if you have never read F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, you should take five minutes and do it now.)

A series of personal tragedies sweeps Reno into a radical youth movement in Rome: the Red Brigades. In 1977, Reno in their midst, the movement launches a full-scale assault aimed at overthrowing leftover fascist power structures—including the Valera corporation—still in place decades after WWII. The Red Brigades aren’t fooled for one moment that Reno’s personal umbrages are a piece with their radicalism, but they’re willing to co-opt her rage and pain for their purposes nonetheless. In other words, Reno is in way, way over her head.

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The Flamethrowers delivers on the promise of its title; it’s full of destruction, misanthropy, and wanton nihilism. Guns are constantly going off, so the pyrotechnics aren’t merely linguistic. Yet at the center of all this commotion is Reno, quite possibly the most passive protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. Things happen to Reno, not the other way around. Even her nickname, the only name we know her by, is bestowed to her by a man. Sandro Valera chooses her to be his girlfriend, and she goes along. The materials she needs to create her work are given to her: film from her bosses, a motorcycle from Sandro. She never completes or sells a single piece of work by the time we reach her final scene, in which we leave her, waiting…for a man to show up.

Reno wants to be a badass, but she’s a stock character in her own narrative. One of her friends even calls her out on it. She’s “the gamine,” and Reno is aware of this. She knows she’s naïve, out of her league. She knows she’s cute-pretty, but not gorgeous or alluring. She’s bright enough to see what the fallout of a situation will be, but lets it happen anyway. Upon meeting a social rival, she immediately senses that this woman “is going to take something from me.” She knows which people will hurt her, then lets them hurt her.

None of Reno’s inertia is to the novel’s detriment though. Twentieth-century modernism was a rowdy boys’ club, and many of the period’s female artists are still regarded as derivative hangers-on. The male artists Reno finds herself among talk and talk and talk—the young men and the old men, blathering away at interminable, smoke-filled dinner parties. The women who do manage to get a word in edgewise are either ridiculous or vicious. That Reno is intimidated and more comfortable as an observer is both believable and a knowing piece of commentary on how history has shaped the status of women art makers.

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Reno’s diminutiveness and passivity also provide a stark contrast to Kushner’s bravura performance. While Reno hems and haws and listens to what other people have to say about the kind of art she should make, Kushner charges ahead with confidence in her own creative efforts. Kushner isn’t going to be cowed by the overbearing male voices that keep Reno sidelined, and The Flamethrowers seems to be, in part, a reclamation of the yardage Reno surrenders to them.

Kushner’s assertiveness brings me to the varied critical reactions The Flamethrowers has garnered. As Laura Miller points out, numerous male reviewers find themselves blunted by Kushner’s aplomb. James Wood, who adored the book, was nonetheless a little startled at Kushner’s authorial confidence, which he mentions more than once, calling it “eerie” and “uncanny.” The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch, who’s resolutely—and perfectly validly, I might add—not taken with the novel, is also rattled by Kushner’s self-possession, calling the novel “a macho novel by and about women” and “too cool, too stylish.” His concluding paragraph begins, “But a novelist should not be a mythmaker,” which sounds just like something Reno would hear from one of the novel’s male blowhards. Still more ridiculous are the male reviewers who insist on interjecting their own motorcycle-riding cred, such as the poet Frederick Seidel in The New York Review of Books, whose review came out after Miller’s article. Curiously, the NYRB promoted Seidel’s review with a cover illustration, but the review itself is as dismissive as it is slight, only about one page long. Within that short space, however, Seidel finds room to discuss himself (“The bikes I myself have ridden have mostly been Ducatis…”), then belittles the book as operatic, a clearly gendered slight in this case, connoting a particularly feminine kind of melodrama, a hysterical (another word Seidel deploys) overwroughtness. “She brilliantly tries,” he says. Isn’t it cute, these hysterical (in every sense) ladies trying to make literature?

None of this is to say that there aren’t things to critique in The Flamethrowers. The relentless frenetic urgency throughout the book, what with the speed and revolutions and war, has a deadening effect toward the end. I was just as happy to stick my bookmark in the middle of Reno’s engulfment by a Roman mob as I was to check out in the middle of any one of the book’s blustery, mansplaining monologues. Additionally, the seams definitely show in many of Kushner’s attempts to stitch together witty dialogue, historical detail, and grand narrative sweep. No easy task to be sure, but great writers have done it. In my book, the current master of this feat remains Hilary Mantel (hey, it’s a woman, how about that?), specifically in her historical novels inspired by Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. None of The Flamethrowers’s rough edges threw me off course too much, however, and in any case, I’d rather read an ambitious, blazing piece of fiction than overly precious prose that’s had the life workshopped out of it. Even if The Flamethrowers isn’t an especially beloved novel of mine, I’m glad for Kushner’s “eerie confidence.” When Valera Sr. finally decides to take a fateful motorcycle ride with what will be his Futurist cohort, Kushner writes, “The night felt like it would burn. It was burning. Why had he waited so long? He surged into it.” She might as well have been describing herself sitting down to begin this novel.

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Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers was released on April 2 by Scribner; to purchase it, click here.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

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Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

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Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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