It’s kind of amazing that the NYRB published Frederick Seidel’s lazy review of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, one of last year’s “it books.” Not that I think Seidel is so far off with a lot of what he says, but he clearly couldn’t be bothered to write anything that attempted to be persuasive, instead just rattling off a series of boorish assertions. Seriously, this is borderline comical:
It doesn’t convince.
The book keeps being entertaining (except for the really bad bits) and keeps being unconvincing.
They are not very convincing motorcycles . . .
. . . nor are the accounts of how it feels to go fast particularly convincing.
Do you think he found it unconvincing?
The book has heat but lacks warmth.
Heat without heart.
It’s a glorious novel Rachel Kushner has written with heat but without warmth.
Okay, as poorly argued as those assertions are, at least they are within the realm of a legitimate critique. But then we get this, the review’s very last line:
What’s this book interested in? It’s interested in being made into a movie.
I’m sorry, but that’s offensive. Seidel may not have judged the themes Kushner sifts in The Flamethrowers to be particularly well-explored, but the book is obviously interested in much, much more than being the sort of disposable entertainment that someone will make into a film. And to assert this, without any sort of evidence that Kushner wrote her book just so she could have a film made of it, it shameful.
These things would make Seidel’s review dismissible if he hadn’t (in my opinion) gotten a lot right about the book. First, where I disagree with Seidel: unlike him, I did not find the book’s characters “unconvincing” (not any more than Don DeLillo’s characters, whom they resemble). And, unlike Seidel, I can’t brag about riding my own Ducatis, so I don’t really know how convincing the motorcycle parts are, but they felt quite real to me, or, at least, they were real enough to work within the aesthetic confines of the book.
However, Seidel is right that the book relies on a number of plot contrivances that are sloppy. For instance, the cliffhanger where Reno (the main character) falls off her bike going 160 miles per hour, only to miraculously come away without injury, strains credulity, as does the part where the Italian race team handily adopts her and lets her set the female land speed record. Similarly weak threads are found throughout the book in places big and small. I think Kushner is a better writer than this, and I wish she had taken the time to work on her plot a little harder.
Seidel is also right that this book looses its momentum about 200 pages in. Those first 200 pages are quite taut and very impressive, but then the book loses its plot, the tension and momentum die. There are still flashes of brilliance, but the book has ceased to cast its spell on the reader. I think it comes down to the fact that after Reno achieves her aim of racing her bike, she lacks much direction as a narrator, and the book becomes mostly a bunch of accounts of various things she sees around New York City in the 1970s. As an observer Reno is interesting, but a novel needs more than that to hang itself on.
I would also agree with Seidel that a good editor (Kushner or someone else) could have saved this book. The themes Kushner investigates are important, and the historical scenes she looks into resonate today. There is a lot here that is valid, and if this book had lost maybe 100 pages (out of 400) it would have had a lot more punch, and the plot might have been saved. As it is, though, much of its urgency is lost in those dragging 200 pages after Reno races her bike.
And also, Seidel is right that Kushner is too eager to prove herself with language. There are so many similes in this book. Try to find a single page without one, it is not so easy. Many of the similes are good, but the over-reliance on them shows that Kushner lacks confidence with all the other ways language can and must be used in a novel. it becomes a crutch—again, a good editor would have pointed this out.
I would read Kushner’s next novel. This book is fun enough and interesting enough to justify taking another chance on her work. For all of Reno’s drawbacks as a narrator, she has a real voice, and Kushner has interesting obsessions. She is clearly not a case of empty hype, but I do think a little tough love is needed to help her become the writer she should be.