“’I didn’t move here to fall in love,’” Reno, a young aspiring artist who is recently arrived in New York, explains to a man she’s in conversation with towards the beginning of Rachel Kushner’s astonishing new novel The Flamethrowers. “But as I said it, I felt he’d set a trap of some kind. Because I didn’t move here not to fall in love. The desire for love is universal but that has never meant it’s worthy of respect. It’s not admirable to want love, it just is.”
Reno, who has moved from the Nevada town from which she takes her name, to the big city, falls in with Sandro Valera, the heir to a motorcycle fortune he rejects, and spends the events of The Flamethrowers struggling between what she believes are Sandro’s expectations of her, and her own true wants. The novel is in keeping with other recent explorations of the desires and ambitions of young female artists, including Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, and Steve Martin’s novella and film of the same title Shopgirl, but it’s kinder than the former, and bolder than the latter in its consideration of what women are entitled to want.
While Hannah Horvath begins Girls by declaring herself a potential voice of her generation, but only truly becomes a writer when she’s broken by the actual process of putting words on paper, particularly under the conditions of contemporary publish, Reno comes to terms with her desire to be an artist more slowly, and with a more practical sense of the emotional work she’ll have to do to achieve it. And while Mirabelle Buttersfield’s great revelation is to discover that she deserves to be more than a placeholder in a wealthy man’s life, and to find that she can be happy with a love that’s clumsy but true and a small amount of artistic achievement, Reno ends The Flamethrowers having recognized her desire for both great love and great accomplishment, and prepared to pursue them. But what makes The Flamethrowers a slightly radical and immensely satisfying book is that Kushner suggests that neither love nor art need be primary in an artist’s (or really any woman’s) life, that, in contravention of the prevailing wisdom, it might really all be there for the taking.
In The Flamethrowers, men deal with the fact that their desire for love is embarrassing by rejecting it. Lonzi, one of the Futurists who introduced Sandro’s father to motorcycle racing, “said that in the future women would be reduced to their most essential part, a thing a man could carry in his pocket.” Burdmoore, a radical activist who travels in Reno’s circle of artistic friends, explains at a dinner party that the Motherfuckers, the group he was a part of, acquired their name “Because we hated women…You think I’m joking. Women had no place in the movement unless they wanted to cook us a meal or clean the floor or strip down. There are people who’ve tried to renovate our ideas, claim we weren’t chauvinists. Don’t believe it.” And Sandro, after he’s ruined his relationship with Reno by starting an affair with his cousin Talia denies that he was in love in the first place as a way of reasoning with his transgression. “He didn’t want to say he loved her, because is that how you treat someone you love?” Sandro thinks. “He might have loved her. Leave it at that. Something that might have been but was not, that he could have sustained but didn’t.”
Reno, by contrast, isn’t jaded enough to distance herself from her desire for affection. When she begins dating Sandro, she’s young enough to take “the attraction between me and Sandro as singular and specific, not explainable to types and preferences.” When they begin sharing a bed on a regular basis, “Whenever I stirred, he pulled me closer. Later I saw this gesture, the pawing habit of Sandro’s sleeping limbs, as a blindness, an unconscious registration: body. Body that’s near. But in those first months I thought he was reaching for me. “ She’ll soon come to the realization that something both more and less complex is happening between them. But The Flamethrowers doesn’t suggest that Reno is necessarily wrong to want that vision of passion truly grounded in the attraction between two compatible people.
Kushner suggests that sense of frivolousness that people in Reno’s circle attach to the search for love is a symptom of a more general suspicion of enthusiasm, rather an affliction of the young and feminine.. ““It was wanting something a great deal that made people embarrassing,” Reno reflects, “which was why I’d hidden my wants around Sandro and his friends, and Giddle, too, pretended I didn’t want an art career when I did.”And for Reno, coming to terms with the idea that she truly wants to be loved is part of coming face to face with the fact that she truly wants to make it as an artist.
In Girls, and in Hanna Rosin’s examinations of hookup culture, sex, for young women, is a way of gathering life experience that may make for valuable literary fodder, or simply contribute to self-knowledge and satisfaction. And it also functions as an effective delaying tactic against the entanglements of love, which might leave them less free to pursue their own careers. In Shopgirl, Mirabelle mistakes a love affair that her lover has always seen as temporary as the beginning of her real life, throwing her energy into him rather than into jump-starting her faulty ambition, something she’s able to do after their painful breakup.
Certainly, this perspective that men are an artistic drag on talented young women seems to inform some of the self-interested advice Sandro gives Reno. He tells her “You don’t have to immediately become an artist…You have the luxury of time. You’re young. Young people are doing something even when they’re doing nothing. A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist.” Sandro alternately encourages Reno, giving her an idea for tracing patterns in the Bonneville Salt Flats and photographing the results, and discourages her from becoming independent, particularly when a world speed record she sets at Bonneville gets her an invitation to travel to Italy to represent his family’s company. When she travels for her work, he’s petulant about the inconvenience she’s causing him.
But Sandro’s perspective is specific to him, and to his contradictory needs in the relationship. And other people in their circle advise him to think differently, and encourage Reno in her ambitions.“She’s the fastest chick in the world, Sandro,” their mutual friend Ronnie, with whom Reno had a one-night stand that neither of them acknowledges, tells Ronnie. “And you’re slowing her down.”
After Sandro cheats on Reno, and they undergo a wrenching breakup, Reno ends up with another group of young radicals, and following them to a protest, gets her camera smashed while filming the demonstrators. The dual loss produces a revelation in her: “When you’re young, being with someone else can almost seem like an event. It is an event when you’re young. But it isn’t enough. I was still young, and I wanted something else. I needed a new camera. The Bolex was smashed and I was alone and I wanted my life to happen.” In being with Sandro, Reno had made herself “the girl on layaway,” the adjunct to an artist who finds her sense of importance and her friends through him, as opposed to on her own. It’s Ronnie, who sees Reno for who she is and who encouraged her to go to Italy, who emerges as a potential love interest who could help Reno become both a better person and a better artist.
There’s a real open-heartedness to The Flamethrowers, which presents Reno as a heroine in the art world in which she lives precisely because she acknowledges her desires and her loneliness, because she “was the type of person who would call a disconnected number more than once,” as she does after she moves to New York with only one phone number to tether her to her new hometown. A work like Girls has an almost religious attachment to the idea that an artist, particularly a woman artist, needs to experience shame and public scourging to be worthy of her ambitions. But The Flamethrowers and Reno, much like Martin and Shopgirl, have a kinder perspective on Reno’s stations of the cross, understanding them as not as proof of her ridiculousness and immaturity, but as a necessary education that will help her avoid becoming like the damaged people around her who deny their own desires, and cripple both their art and themselves as a result.
At a gallery opening, Gloria, one of Reno’s art world friends mocks a young girl who is attending the event in pants with a plastic seat that makes her buttox visible.
“Barbara Hodes was making see-through dresses in 1971. Eric Emerson wore chaps and a jockstrap upstairs at Max’s, and Cherry Vanilla only goes topless,” Gloria critiques. “It is so done. Done done done.” “But it’s new to her,” Reno thinks. “She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s. “