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.)