Revolutionary road

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99/Scribner, RRP$26.99, 400 pages

Radical politics and the novel have parted company. No one today writes experimental fiction as though the very act of doing so – devising a novel without using the letter “i”, say – were a hammer blow to dull old bourgeois individualism. Such acts of literary subversion, when they existed, were failures. Bourgeois individualism survives; indeed, it’s dull old bourgeois individualists who buy books. The realist novel has managed to brush off every indignity hurled at it during the past century. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a marker of its resilience – a novel about 20th-century radical politics and art written in the conventional spirit of a 19th-century Bildungsroman.

The story opens in 1976. Reno, nicknamed for her Nevada home city – we never learn her real name – is an aspiring artist in New York. She lives with Sandro Valera, a successful minimalist artist and scion of a powerful Italian industrialist family that made its fortune in car tyres and motorbikes. Sandro has distanced himself from the family (though not its wealth). However, he cannot escape the political unrest in his homeland, where leftist terrorists such as the Red Brigades are challenging the authority of the Italian state through a wave of kidnappings and murders.

This isn’t the first time revolutionary politics have turned up in Kushner’s fiction. Her debut, Telex from Cuba (2008), nominated for a National Book Award, was about US expats in Cuba during Castro’s guerrilla campaign in the 1950s. In this follow-up, the themes of art and terrorism boldly stake a claim to terrain dominated by the master chronicler of US power, Don DeLillo. The Flamethrowers arrives with rapturous reviews and endorsements from Jonathan Franzen and Robert Stone. Yet for all its ambition and nicely turned phrases, it doesn’t quite ring true.

The action is narrated by Reno. She is 22, “tall, lean”, with “dirty-blond” hair. She comes from a working-class background and loves high speeds, on skis or motorbikes. But despite these dynamic enthusiasms she also has a passive side, a belief that chance “shaped things in a way that words, desires, rationales could not”. Her entry into elite New York art circles results from her relationship with Sandro, not from any innate artistic talent. Later, during a trip to Italy, she is sucked into the company of a group of youthful insurrectionists. Her sympathy for this “network of people who acted in concert against the government” is as vague as their sketchily drawn political beliefs.

She is meant to be an outsider, accepted by both groups but not of them. Her tendency to tag along and let things happen to her also gives her a sponge-like aura. When she lets some infuriatingly self-absorbed New York art bore bang on at tedious length during one of the novel’s numerous lower Manhattan gatherings, or silently allows Sandro’s ghastly aristocratic mother to insult her in Italy, you find yourself longing for a heroine with a bit more vim who will tell these people to shut up.

Reno is a thoroughly conventional narrator, one who could have turned up with minor embellishments in an Edith Wharton novel. But Kushner surrounds her with the appurtenances of a DeLillo text. Other characters, especially the New York art bores, have an aphoristic, disconnected, very DeLillean style of speech (“A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist”). There is a mix of real and invented people. Surreal plot twists take place without anyone batting an eyelid.

Themes running through the novel align Kushner with the postmodern generation of novelists who preceded her. There are ruminations about truth and falsity (“What transpired between us felt real. It was real: it took place”). A brief series of third-person flashbacks involves Sandro’s father, a 1910s futurist motorcycle nut who set up the family business, and examines man’s attraction to machinery. New York artists in their post-industrial loft spaces are contrasted with workers agitating in Valera factories in Italy.

These themes flutter through The Flamethrowers like grace notes, interesting but not fully developed, as though Kushner, like her heroine, was waiting for some chance catalyst to help them ignite properly. But that moment never arrives and, instead, the novel settles into an old-fashioned coming-of-age story.

Kushner seems to be suggesting that tricksy, anti-realist literary devices are now as historic as 1970s radical politics. The modern novelist must adapt accordingly, perhaps by attempting an alchemy similar to the one Reno improvises in an artwork: “It was half art and half life, and from there, I felt something would emerge.”

But the “something” doesn’t emerge. Instead, the joins show. The clunking mechanics of realism – Reno feeling compelled to explain that Il Sole 24 Ore is “Italy’s version of the Wall Street Journal” as though morphing into a tour guide – seem to clunk all the louder. A series of anachronisms – the video game that Reno spots a month before it appeared in arcades in real life; the hit single by Crystal Gayle that she hears a year before it was actually released – highlight the inexpertly glued links between the invented and the real. The Flamethrowers is caught between two competing literary ideologies.

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