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Tome On The Range

Voiceless Voices: An Interview With Rachel Kushner
Jess Cotton , February 3rd, 2014 04:12

Marking the paperback release of her much-talked-about second novel, The Flamethrowers, Jess Cotton speaks to author and journalist Rachel Kushner about the artistic magnetism of the 1970s, the influence of the visual arts and working with the idea of the gaze in her writing

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner's second novel, has been widely acclaimed and rightly featured among many critics' books of 2013. Set in the 1970s, it traces the journey of the narrator, a girl with no name – but who comes to be known as Reno, after her hometown – from the Utah Salt flats to gritty downtown New York.

Reno rides a motorcycle and has artistic aspirations – to photograph the traces her bike leaves in the sand. Her fascination with speed leads her to New York where she embarks upon a relationship with Valera, an Italian minimalist and scion of a motorcycle tycoon. Valera initiates her into the male-dominated New York art world, which brims with revolutionary verve and misogyny; and to Italy, where she witnesses protests of which Valera's family, because of their wealth, is a target. The novel seamlessly weaves together strands of World War One history, motorcycle racing, land art, '70s Italian and American counterculture, mapping some of the most defining isms – fascism, futurism, autonomism – of the twentieth century, but without forcing any connections.

Its narrator too is all things to all people – artist, racer, skier, model and camera operator; and the one thing she learns about the glittering cast of characters she meets along the way is not to ask any questions about who they were previously. The Flamethrowers is a seemingly exhaustive book; but it has a coolness of tone and a precision for language that has prompted some critics to compare it to Flaubert. The following is an edited version of a conversation over email with Kushner, whose lives in LA.

WWI history, Italian counterculture, land art, the New York art scene, pop culture, The Flamethrowers is a vast, sprawling novel, and yet it's so finely wrought. How did you manage to keep the novel's expansive ideas in narrative order? Did you have a pre-planned structure, or did the form evolve organically?

Oh thanks, that's really nice. I believe it's really the case with this book that the narrative order, as you put it, was what made a place for ideas. Then again, there is something like a pressure, a critical mass, of hunches that lead to the expression of an idea in a novel, be it in the form of dialogue or inward rumination on the part of a character, or something more repressed and in between, hinted at—clear to the reader, but not the characters in the book. But I'm not programmatic about the ground I want to cover, certainly not in the case of this book. I let things happen, and it was always a fun moment when the space of the narrative opened out and allowed for various themes and ideas to come into play. It had no pre-planned structure. Just the idea that the novel would include some artists in New York and some people involved in extra-parliamentary left politics in Italy, and some other stuff—industry, speed. But it all had to relate in some kind of natural, not forced way, or it wasn't going to work.

In The Flamethrowers, the reader enters into, rather than observes, Reno's world. Was the voicelessness of the narrative something that you particularly cultivated?

It wasn't something I was consciously aware of, but there were formal reasons I was attracted to a voiceless voice, and a general one of those reasons was a desire to avoid certain conventional traps that the close third person almost seems to force on the writer: A fictiony realm, smelling of fiction, feeling like it, where fictiony things, troubles and revelations, take place. I'm not saying "phew, I escaped all that." But I know I wanted to escape all that, and that the voice was maybe one aspect of that general ambition. I had been really charged by a re-read of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. Things happen, characters walk in and out, take over, tell stories, other stories, then we're back with the narrator, and the novel seems marvellously fresh and free of staleness, clichés, and part of it, I believe, is the blank voice of the narrator, who can let the world he encounters speak through him, without having to offer wisdom on it every few sentences. Life is more like that, in my experience of it. Sometimes you just want to get rid of yourself, embark totally on an experience of other people.

The Flamethrowers is narrated by a young woman overwhelmed by, and trying to make sense of, the history she's living through. Is her voice symptomatic not just of her youth, but of our sense of not being able to read and assimilate a situation as we experience it?

I feel like Reno's a quick study, but I'm biased, and perhaps in some ways maybe as naïve as she is. And yet not: I wrote all the characters, many of whom are more certain, or more slippery, less knowable. I just rendered a world that I found both personally familiar, and compelling. For the narrator, yes, as you say – it was my version of that sense, of not being able to read a situation and assimilate it at the moment it is being experienced. I don't think you have to be young to feel that way. I feel that way all the time, for instance …

"We weren't individuals but a surface he moved over," Reno says of Flip Farmer. "The thing was, if he had returned my gaze, I probably would have washed his autobiography from my hand." The book has a knowing attachment to artifice, to women that both reflect and refract our gaze. Visual art and film in particular have explored what it means to be the subject of a gaze. Do you find yourself turning to these mediums for inspiration?

Well it's funny, what you quote relates to something from my life I've not previously discussed, but it was a moment as a pre-teen having what for me was a punk icon/heartthrob sign my hand. But actually he was seedy about it and invited me to a party after the show and I realised he didn't understand I was a twelve-year-old virgin. So I guess he did return my gaze, and instead of that scenario, I was imagining how icons are meant to keep their icon status, but performing a kind of unreachability, so that they are symbols, unobtainable. But your question seems to be about something else, whether I'm inspired by visual art and film. Yes, very much so. Whether or not I'm writing about those mediums directly, as I sometimes do in Flamethrowers, I'm always thinking about images.

How do the black-and-white images inserted at the beginning of certain chapters contribute to the novel?

I always wanted to have images in a book, and with this one, after I got to have my choice of the image on the North American cover, I got a little bold, and asked about putting images inside. My editor said yes, so I quickly put together a short list of ideal visual passages. I didn't want anything that would illustrate the narrative. I wanted, instead, images as kind of pauses, or counterpoints, but that would complicate, function in a relation, but not an obvious one. There's a Richard Prince image, and he's a shadow presence over the course of the book (one of the characters is also the name of Prince's alter-ego, John Dogg). There's a photograph by Aldo Bonasia, of a riot and police tear-gassing the rioters, in Italy. There's a still from the movie Wanda, which figures in the book …

"The darkest phase, really, wasn't this 'Motherfucker' business, but when he gave up being an anarchist rough and started making figurative paintings," says Gloria: The novel looks at the connection between art and violence, with as many echoes of Marinetti as there are of Proust and Bolaño. Would you say that futurism is the decisive 'ism' of the novel?

That quote is Gloria pretending that a retrograde art maneuver—making "figurative" paintings - is a worse crime than activism; she's basically saying it's just so much tackier to make a bad painting than it is to stab a landlord. I was trying to be funny, I guess, but maybe it gets at something about art. Bad decisions—ugly and sentimental work - cannot be recuperated, but all politics and violence are there for the retroactive taking as subject matter by the artist. In a more general way, I do believe art—all culture, in fact—has complex ties to violence, but it's almost meaningless to say such a thing, isn't it? I can't quite say it outside of having written a narrative that draws some connections between the two. About Futurism, maybe! Someone could certainly make that argument. My book begins with the glory of the battlefield, aestheticized, Valera pretending he's playing rugby, while killing the enemy. But by the end of the book there are other ideas in motion too, I mean hopefully there are. Still, there is probably some radical admiration, if not identification, on my part with early (pre-fascist) Futurism, the words in freedom and a certain commitment, an intensity.

"Maybe women were meant to speed past," Reno says, "just a blur. Like China girls. Flash and then gone." How does the risk that Reno seeks in speed differ to Sandro's violence?

"Meant to speed past" was my feminist, or femino-centric reversal of something I encountered in a book of urban anthropology, or loose sociology, not sure of the genre, but it's a work called Soft City, by Jonathan Raban. Here is the quote: "On the streets, people wear strange clothes and cosmetics. On my own first morning in Manhattan, I was astonished by the made up faces of expensively dressed black women. Every feature was exaggerated: lips of lurid ultra-violet, scarlet tinted cheekbones, turquoise eye sockets . . . bright and electronic as the illuminated headboards of pinball machines. They were faces designed for long-range action; close-to, they had the same unnaturalness as actors glimpsed in a theatre bar still in their greasepaint. The proper way of seeing these women would have been through the window of a speeding car." There are many ways you could go with what he says. But, I think "bright and electronic"—that he had to machinise the women in order to place them in some visual logic, and then put himself in a machine, for a safe or appropriate viewing distance, was interesting to me. Now, when I read it, I wonder why it didn't occur to him that the women wear their makeup as they do ("turquoise eye sockets") because they like it that way, and not for his own pleasure or confusion. He could equally, in a different world, presume that they are regarding him, also, as dressing and appearing for them, and ask himself how best he might be viewed (from a hot air balloon?) I don't mean to make fun. Soft City is pretty interesting, actually. But in my own book, the women speed past and the men are slower, even stationary. That's just how I wrote it. It responds to a reality I know, too, having spent many years riding motorcycles.

We learn little, if anything, of Reno's past, and she leaves barely any trace of herself. Was it important to you to have an unknown – and potentially unknowable - narrator? Is she another "China girl"?

I can't say why a disappeared or ultimately unknown narrator is important to me. If I could, maybe the novel would be unnecessary. I feel like the final moment of the book, and just before that, the final portrait of her new life in New York, after all is said and done, ends at the end of the book. There is no dot dot dot for me, a message of "presume this character goes on to do X, Y, or Z." She only exists as long as the book does. When it ends, the world she has conjured ends too. That's it. And yet with the China girl, there are these fragments and pieces—literally pieces of film—that offer up the likeness of anonymous women. Who knows who they are or where they are. It doesn't matter, see? Just as it doesn't matter where the narrator of The Flamethrowers went off to. She exists in the book; the book (hopefully) will last as long as a piece of film in storage. What is relevant to me about the China girl is that she is an index and that she can spark a suggestion of identity, of womanhood. The book is one particular woman, though, and she gets to tell of the world she inhabits. So that's a big difference …

The Flamethrowers touches on the overt contradictions of NYC in the 70s: crime was rife and the economy was in dire straits. But at the same time there was this explosion of creativity. What was it about the '70s artistic scene that caught your attention?

Well, the things you so rightly outline in your question. The contemporary art world is still really parsing and contending with the legacy of the 1970s, no question, and so it's easy to be constantly exposed to the lore, images, documentation, and even the actual legends of that time, too, so I'd picked up some ideas about what it was like, and felt it would be a fun context for fiction, and a challenging one, in a good way, because I was also interested in the state of affairs in New York at that time, the death of industry in the US, and so forth.

You have said that you have been inspired by iconic female artists – Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Yvonne Ranier & Lydia Benglis. Would you say that there are any echoes of their work in the novel?

Not really, no. I was inspired by many great female artists—also Nancy Holt, Valie Export, Barbara Kruger. So many. Sarah Charlesworth made work at that time about the Red Brigades, so that was an explicit conflation of both the art world and Italian politics. The Living Theater and Judith Malina. Yvonne Ranier's autobiography inspired me a lot. She's an incredibly strong woman—Rainer is just amazing, a formidable mind and artist, but the way she was treated by lovers and various men, as she documents, is pretty horrifying. Nancy Holt lampooned the overseriousness of the New York conceptual/bookish artist in the film she and Smithson made together, East Coast/West Coast, and in a way I saw Gloria as the type Holt was making fun of. Gloria does a work in my novel, "Alone," that's inspired by a piece by Valie Export. I also was thinking a lot about Lee Lozano, and the tragic nature of her refusal to speak to other women. But that gesture is so specific that I didn't want to import it into the book: there are no romans a clef, only characters that inhabit the fictional space. No one is meant to represent anyone else. Giddle to mind, though, is a way to talk about the Warhol phenomenon, the playfulness, but also the snobbery and exclusivity. A lot of those people were from rich families. That's how Warhol liked it. He loved society; cherished it, almost. Lee Bontecou sparked ideas for me, because her work looks like the exhaust outtake of jet engines, and is probably consciously referencing machines, violence, speed. So I guess my answer is more "sort of" than "no," after all. Incidentally, Nancy Holt just read the book and was extremely complimentary, which was really quite meaningful to me.

You've mentioned Flaubert and Proust as being hugely influential. Are there any more contemporary figures that you could say the same for? Bolaño, for one, springs to mind.

I'm pretty inspired by Bolaño, it's true. It was somehow though only the second time I read The Savage Detectives that I saw him tear a kind of hole in story-telling to tell more stories, and then more inside those, all the while, keeping this very steady tone. His technique is still a bit mysterious to me, but maybe I felt a more confirmed permission, if you will, to let other characters take over the narrative from the narrator. DeLillo has also been someone I greatly admire. But there are many others: Anne Carson, Joan Didion (her novels, not her essays), Denis Johnson, William Gaddis (dead, but possibly still "contemporary?"). I like Bret Easton Ellis, and I like Michel Houllebecq, but I don't think either's influence is explicitly detectable in my work.

Can you talk to me about your next project? Am I correct to say that it is about contemporary America, women and race and set in prison?

That is correct. Maybe I can just say that women, race, and prison are my sub-topic within the general crisis of neo-liberalism. And the crisis of neo-liberalism is contemporary America. And I'd decided after a novel about the 1950s, and then one about the 1970s, to take on the present.

The Flamethrowers is available now, published in paperback by Vintage