It took a month and a half, with a few other books read along the way, but I finally finished Amanda Foreman’s long history A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War last Friday night. Along the way, I had decided I would next read a novel. I had several other books lined up, including another long history of a nineteenth-century subject. But I was ready for fiction.
Which novel? There’s the new one by Claire Messud that came out at the end of April. For a while I thought that might be it. There’s Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which also came out while I was reading Foreman, and was well reviewed. But there was some other April release whose reviews intrigued me. What was it?
The NYT to the rescue ten days ago with a feature article on Rachel Kushner. Ah, yes. The Flamethrowers. The article wasn’t all that enlightening, but it did link to James Wood’s New Yorker review of a month ago, described by the NYT’s Maria Russo as rapturous.
How rapturous? Let’s see what Wood has to say:
Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers”, is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading. Consider Kushner’s vivid descriptions, near the start of the book, of racing and motorcycling. The novel’s narrator, an artist in her early twenties nicknamed Reno (it’s where she’s from), is obsessed with speed, machines, and land-speed records. (Art seems to be a subsidiary concern.) When we first see her, she is riding her Moto Valera motorbike from Nevada to Utah, to take part in the land-speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In a cool, hospitable, ingenuous tone, she tells us about herself. Her mother was a switchboard operator, “and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which in a film was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father.” As she approaches the salt flats, the prose begins to glimmer:
On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree. . . . Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.
It is easy enough for a good writer (and this is very good prose—that “inner wedge of sky” perfectly capturing the living blueness of atmosphere) to do something verbally fine with the extremities of desert. What is impressive about these early pages is how easily Kushner also begins to tell stories of the desert.
And, in conclusion:
Her novel is an achievement precisely because it resists either paranoid connectedness or knowing universalism. On the contrary, it succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.
Hard to resist. I decided to begin.
I’m now a fifth of the way through. I haven’t fully succumbed yet. There’s too much else I have to do this week. And, the novel is almost too scintillatingly alive, the prose too glimmering. Small doses seems about right.
I’ll say more when I’m done.