Reading The Flamethrowers is like listening to a foreign language in which you are merely conversant: you can hear its rhythmic beauty instantaneously, but are obliged to let the words themselves wash over you and trust that the meaning will resolve itself in your mind at a slight delay.
Inspect, for example, the following excerpt of Kushner’s gorgeous prose:
There were stars overhead in a brilliant scatter, and we sailed on stars, too, which shimmered up from the water so smooth and inklike that the heavens were reflecting back at themselves, as if the sky were underneath us. I heard the commodore’s voice and felt that we were in an open-air capsule or sleigh, traveling through the vast universe, a great, pin-speckled sphere, a black egg rolled in glitter.
The scenery evoked is immediately, accessibly breathtaking. But it is part of a story being told by a character who will only speak about himself in allegory, and neither we nor the characters listening to the story have any idea whether the speaker has ever even witnessed a scene such as the one he describes. Kushner does a lot with the notion of storytelling and of language itself, which of course has the ability to constrict meaning as much as it constructs it, as the book’s young protagonist, Reno, is well aware: “Anything could be reasoned into being, or reasoned away, with words, desires, rationales. Chance shaped things in a way that words, desires, rationales could not.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, her belief in a certain kind of expectant passivity, Reno falls in love with the dominating Sandro Valera, a fellow artist in 1975 New York City who is attempting to distinguish himself from his wealthy family and their tire empire. Reno, as a budding photographer and filmmaker, leaves her native Nevada and becomes part of the NYC art scene, getting swept up with people who search for identity by protesting the establishment– some of them out of a desire to remake that establishment after their own designs, and some out of a pure love of tearing things down.
The settings are influenced as much by the changing sets of people Reno encounters as they are by the actual geographic locations through which she travels. As part of a photography project, Reno enters the speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and becomes, for a time, the fastest woman in the world. Later, she will follow Sandro to Italy and observe uprisings against the very type of big business on which Sandro’s family wealth depends. As an observer by trade, she admires people who seem to be driven, but she herself exerts very little intentional influence over the world around her. She is not quite ready to own her power. She tells Sandro about believing, as a child, that if she tried hard enough she could turn the kitchen stove on with her mind:
I was on the verge of doing it… and then I would ask myself, Are you ready for this? Are you ready to have your entire world turned upside down? (Because that’s what happens once you know you can turn the stove on with your mind?) I wasn’t ready. I always pulled back from the brink.
The Flamethrowers read to me as if it were at least in part a rebuttal to varied forms of misogyny in literature, especially in the works of male authors from the very decade in which the book is set. In many of these novels, the feminine was aligned with establishment, repression, and stagnation. This was explicitly opposed to what was vital, free, and “natural”—the masculine. In this novel, Reno is instead imbued with silence and passivity– you know, the traits women are supposed to embody instead of being emasculating ball-cutters.
But rather than demand that Reno become more vocal and forceful in order to mature, Kushner redefines the “feminine” by having Reno tell us flat-out that her ability to wait in silence has power– as long, it is implied, as she doesn’t wait too long. Maybe she isn’t making things happen, but maybe none of us really can. Sandro, meanwhile, charges headlong into relationships and events, abandoning each before he has the opportunity to grow from them, and thereby stagnating:
He’d grown up to be at times an asshole, he supposed. And it was so much easier to call yourself that after you’d acted like one, rather than to trot out a lot of remorse and do all the work needed to distance yourself from the acts that defined you…He looked at her face, so sad and angry. And he had thought, I’m an asshole. Which was a kind of remorse, but not the kind with any hope in it.
That Reno’s innate qualities can have power is a subversive idea in a world that either tells women they must embrace traditionally masculine characteristics in order to evolve, or, on the other hand, that they must only be passive, that they must relinquish their power. Reno tries her hand at both tactics in turn. She makes mistakes. She does some things that are very brave and some that are fairly stupid. Kushner’s story shows a woman not quite fully developed, but closer than ever to the brink, and always moving forward.