House Logo
Explore categories +

James Wood (#110 of 4)

Throwing Flames, Taking Names Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

Comments Comments (...)

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

The Two Paths of the Novel Zadie Smith’s NW

Comments Comments (...)

The Two Paths of the Novel: Zadie Smith’s NW
The Two Paths of the Novel: Zadie Smith’s NW

It only makes sense that NW, the fourth novel by Zadie Smith, was anticipated more for its statements than its story. Rarely has an author’s work been so paradigmed so soon, read and discussed less for its characters or memorable scenes than for what certain others had to say about it. Partially this school of career criticism was imposed on her at a very young age by the landslide of press over her debut novel, White Teeth, notably by the reviewer James Wood, who for New Republic made up a stupid name to encompass all of the books in the world he disliked most and declared the author its scion. Partially, however, it’s the author’s own doing, with the clear and many statements of her subsequent efforts: more than one response to the Wood fiasco; a second novel about the effects of fame on the integrity of works of art; a third novel that addressed any and all concerns once voiced about the thing called “hysterical realism”; and the series of high-profile missives on the values and shortcomings of contemporary fiction.

NW arrives in the wake of these ponderous and often pretty essays on Franz Kafka and David Foster Wallace and George Eliot, of a period between novels during which the author grew and grew as a writer of nonfiction and even followed Wood in hijacking one of her reviews for the New York Review of Books into a consideration of the “two paths for the novel,” creating her own name for the problem (“lyrical realism”) and hoping very elegantly for the possibility of “[shaking] the novel out of its complacency.” So it only makes sense that much was expected of NW—at least a glance toward that better path, if not a few actual steps.