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Art & sex in Rachel Kushner's 'The Flamethrowers'

"The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, April 2013)

"The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, April 2013) Credit: Handout

THE FLAMETHROWERS, by Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

As "The Flamethrowers" opens, Reno (not her real name, which we never learn) is hurtling on an Italian Moto Valera motorcycle toward the land-speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

She's 22 and an artist. She photographs her tracks -- ski tracks, bike tracks -- to make her art; speed is a way of putting risk into it.

"You won't look nearly so good," an affable trucker tells her, "when they're loading you off the highway in a body bag."

Rachel Kushner's big, rich wonder of a novel takes place in the mid-'70s, mostly amid the downtown New York art scene. It captures the post-Pop moment when conceptualism flourished and a group of artists had burrowed so far inside their own heads that to see what they were doing, you had to follow them there.

Sandro Valera, art star, heir to the Moto Valera fortune, 14 years older than Reno and her mentor and lover, makes gleaming Donald Judd-like boxes:

"The objects were not meant to refer to anything but what they were, there in the room. Except that this was not really true, because they referred to a discourse that artists such as Sandro wrote long essays about, and if you didn't know the discourse, you couldn't take them for what they were, or were meant to be. You were simply confused."

The social rules of this milieu are as elusively codified as its aesthetic ones. Sandro does what he can to show her the ropes while "politely overlooking," she tells us, "my inability to take cues." The sexual codes, on the other hand, are dishearteningly conventional.

What kind of future awaits her? Her passivity and attraction to "egotistical jerks" don't bode well. On the other hand, if Kushner's prose can be seen as a reflection of Reno's talent, she's on her way to stardom.

Kushner certainly is. Her polychrome sentences (at the speed trials, "pink gasoline and synthetic red engine oil soaked into the salt like butcher shop residue") are shot through with all the longing and regret you find in those of Thomas Pynchon, whose influence is all over this novel. But Kushner, a mature artist, is ready to move past her mentor's influence. One thing that would mean for "The Flamethrowers" is jettisoning several chapters -- all gorgeous, I admit -- on the life of T.P. Valera, Sandro's industrialist father.

She shows him amid the Futurist explosion circa 1912, in World War I and during his motorcycle company's expansion into rubber imports. In the persuasiveness of their detail, these chapters might have been lifted from "Gravity's Rainbow." But the plot of "The Flamethrowers" has an intensity that shouldn't be interrupted.

Which makes it a flawed novel -- but also a glittering, grave, brutally unsentimental book.

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