Photo: Rachel Kushner at age 22 on her first motorcycle, a Moto Guzzi V-50. © Pinky Kushner
ANY CONTROVERSIAL WORK of literature, if only by sheer probability, will have its fair share of detractors. Not every novel is for every critic. Rachel Kushner’s second and widely lauded novel, The Flamethrowers, seemed to buck those odds for quite awhile, with review after positive review lauding its inventive narrative voice and lively, often beautiful sentences.
So, unsurprisingly, it was only a matter of time before a critic saw fit to drop it down a few pegs, as Frederick Seidel took to the pages of The New York Review of Books to do in a gallingly condescending, often inadequate review. Seidel at times doesn’t even bother writing complete sentences, let alone a sound argument.
Here is one example: “As to whether Reno is an artist. As to whether any of these artists are artists. Ah well.”
I realize Seidel is a poet, an accomplished one at that, and the structure of this brief passage is clearly concerned with rhythm and style, not substance or even syntax. I’m willing to give him a pass, as a result — he’s made a clear decision to place style in front of substance. Ah well. Of course, Seidel does not extend the same generosity to Kushner’s novel. In fact, he cruelly summarizes key portions of the text until they are rendered mid-cult trash, giving it only a superficial reading while never daring to interrogate the novel’s core themes or interests.
“What is this book interested in?” Seidel puzzles, sprinkling this question like a refrain throughout his review. “Beside motorcycles. Which it’s interested in only a bit, and, as much as anything else, as a plot device, yeast to make the rest rise.”
There’s a lot of writing like this in the review — pithy, sharp, playful, but never quite maturing into anything. The review is actually a special little event of irony, as Seidel’s writing here is plagued by the very curse he ascribes to the novelist: heat, no warmth. Or to be less poetic — shallow, underdeveloped, without true cause. The review meanders, often with no transitions, reading like a stream-of-consciousness riff tinged with drunken irreverence and a sort of confidence one expects from someone who lists in his byline that he owns four Ducati motorbikes. It makes broad and severe statements about the text, most of them purely subjective, without ever supplying one textual example. It’s a back-room smoker’s rant, where examples and a coherent argument are excused and platitudes are welcome.
One of the problems of the book is that while lots of people in it have lots to say about many things, important things included, the things they say never sound like what real people might say, like real thoughts or real speech.
Well, how would we know? As with every statement, we’re deprived of an example to back it up. Seidel expects us to just take his word for it. In fact, his comfort as a presumed authority, in this case a de facto arbiter of reality, was recently discussed by Jesse Barron in The New York Observer, who writes, “I don’t envy him his certainty about how things are. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that a novel didn’t resemble the ‘real,’ because I’m not sure I know what that is.”
This doubt Barron admits to having as a reader is noticeably absent in Seidel’s review. But let’s excuse Seidel’s supreme confidence here. He is, after all, entitled to his opinion. And his subjectivity in this regard may even be excusable as long as the argument waged remains consistent. But Seidel drifts in and out of arguments the way Kushner’s narrator does lanes on her motorbike. Soon after this strong statement, in which he docks the novel for lacking a certain believability, Seidel hints, perhaps unknowingly, at why that might be: “There is a generous and exuberant artificiality to this book.” He’s right; artifice is one of the book’s key focuses. As James Wood pointed out in his review in The New Yorker:
Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers,” is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story.
Perhaps Seidel’s confusion arises as a result of the novel’s concerted effort to converge, often head on, that “grammar of verisimilitude,” as Wood put it, with the explosive, often theatrical artificiality of its main characters and the stories they tell. Kushner isn’t shy here, either. Early in the book, when describing her mother’s life as a switchboard operator, the narrator gives us a taste of what it looks like when these two worlds converge:
My mother’s life was not so glamorous. She was a switchboard operator, and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which in a film was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father.
This convergence of art and reality appears, in this passage, to be involuntary, simply an inevitable byproduct of a young, aspiring artist incapable of seeing the world any other way, but if one looks at the last clause, Kushner by way of Reno rips the veneer off in one violent motion.
Which is to say, Kushner tells us early on that our character is liable to create fiction, but will ultimately cede to reality. These worlds are not mutually exclusive either; instead they exist on the same plane, awaiting an inevitable collision. In many ways, the book is knowingly challenging the very nature of its world’s believability, so Seidel’s criticism is just plain off the mark.
Perhaps Seidel’s biggest slight is that he fails to interrogate the novel’s intentions — its project, and how its narrative strategies serve that project (as I’ve just done above). Does the book control this larger conversation — reality vs. art, art vs. artifice, creation vs. simulation? Is believability important to this work? Are the characters exaggerated for effect? Is the historical aspect simply table setting, or part of Kushner’s larger thesis? He acknowledges the “comical exaggeration” and the “downtown outlandishness” of Kushner’s “brilliant fiery invention” but all he has to say about it is that it’s not very funny, and “somehow lacking in feeling.”
Somehow, that “somehow” doesn’t cut it — probably because Seidel has yet to build a convincing argument one way or the other.
He moves from this “somehow” to his interrogative refrain, “What is the book interested in?” What follows are a few questions like the ones previously stated: “What’s the book interested in? Would that be Art, or rather the making of art, or rather how some of the people trying to create lived in New York in the Seventies?” He stops to undercut his narrow line of questioning with a statement — “It’s a novel so it’s interested in people. It adds politics to the people.” And just like that, Seidel closes the door on the big questions he’s just asked. Instead of doing a little digging, he satisfies his mind with a simple fact. The book is a novel, novels are interested in people, people are often interested in politics etc. And so the novel goes. Summary takes the place of interrogation and the book again is reduced to a cruel, shallow presentation of its interests.
None of what’s happening to Reno seems real because it isn’t. It almost is, it wants to be, or wants to seem to be, but isn’t. It wants to be more, it wants to invent to the level of persuasive reality, and still be a novel. But it’s only a novel, Kushner’s novel and it feels like it, reads like it. She brilliantly tries.
There’s quite a bit going on in that last passage, so let’s break it down. Seidel returns to his core criticism, but appears to double down: it almost is, but isn’t. If there were any room for self-doubt, he’s thrown it out the window. Then something interesting happens; Seidel writes “it’s only a novel,” and explodes the argument. It’s worth asking: What else could it be? And maybe just for a control: What’s an example of a novel, in Seidel’s mind, which achieves the level of “persuasive reality” needed to no longer simply be a novel? Or to phrase it in another way: What classic has achieved the “level” of novel/non-novel status? It would be nice to know. Instead he closes this passage with a series of pats on the back (one wonders if “good job slugger” was in an earlier draft): “She brilliantly tries. She writes like mad.”
Seidel is well within his right to criticize this book; like any ambitious work, it certainly has its flaws (his point about the novel “turning into the needs of its plot” is certainly valid), but in denying its depth and subjecting it to this one-dimensional reading, his criticism can only achieve so much. Not that much.
There’s a lot for which I excuse Seidel. I understand he is an important poet, I understand he’s built a reputation for writing in this often hilariously exaggerated persona and I understand he was alive and cognizant during the very time period this novel is mostly set (1970s). But his act, if that is what we can call it, does not work here. Sure, it comes off as callous, as a tad sexist (early in the review Seidel writes, “There is a lot in The Flamethrowers that is tiresome, histrionic, [and] hysterically overwritten”; this is dog-whistle terminology whether or not he realizes it), but mostly it comes off as self-absorbed and tone-deaf. The absence of even a mere mention of how this book treats sexism in his review is a sign of Seidel’s obtuseness. He doesn’t even consider it as a topic. Granted, besides plot and summary, he doesn’t really consider any subject offered in this book. Not really. But sexism matters: the book explores it bravely and sometimes brilliantly, and Seidel misses it or chooses to evade what is so obvious.
Reno is one of the most puzzling creations in recent fiction. As a narrator, she’s strong, smart, ambitious, articulate, and obscenely observant. As a character, she’s painfully silent and puzzlingly passive at times. There is a war of characteristics here, and it’s fascinating to watch unfold on the page. Kushner has created a frustrating juxtaposition in Reno — her voice is strong and unique, and yet her character is silent, sometimes forgettable. This could be passed off as simple character development, until you realize the many foils Kushner places beside her ostensible heroine (the “China girl,” the “Girl on layaway,” “Giddle”). The intentionality becomes impossible to deny.
Writing in The Paris Review, Kushner spoke of the tightrope she walked while constructing Reno both as character and narrator:
I was faced with the pleasure and headache of somehow stitching together the pistols and the nude women as defining features of a fictional realm, and one in which the female narrator, who has the last word, and technically all words, is nevertheless continually overrun, effaced, and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits.
And with Reno, Kushner does precisely that. We watch our character evolve from an independent and ambitious young artist in the desert to a silent, often ignored young girl. She moves in and out of scenes, of cocktail parties, of small intimate dinners. She watches the men in her life — Sandro Valera (the namesake of the motorcycles she rides) and Ronnie Fontaine — use her, and, to varying degrees, discard her. On one level, the novel is a test kitchen for sexism: we as the reader suffer as our strong and capable narrator allows herself to be, as Kushner phrased it, “continually overrun […] and silenced by the very masculine world of the novel she inhabits.”
In her stirring essay in Salon, Laura Miller best captured Kushner’s maddening juxtaposition:
So potent is the voice Kushner gives Reno that many of the book’s reviewers forget that the only character in the novel who can hear it is Reno herself; to everyone else, she’s just Sandro’s long-legged blonde girlfriend.
Miller, it is worth mentioning, was out front on this subject, both examining Kushner’s central accomplishment — the novel’s narrative voice and how it interacts in the novel’s world — and eviscerating her fellow male critics for missing it. She insightfully observed that many of her male counterparts seemed “flummoxed” and “scared” by Kushner’s exploration of sexism. Seidel’s essay appears to make her a prophet.
There is a scene late in the novel, when Reno finds herself stranded in conversation with a pompous old windbag of a novelist as he subjects her to a clueless lesson on skiing (he is the sort of man who must tell you he is important because no one else will). The man drivels on, discussing outdated and novice techniques, never inviting Reno to a dialogue and ignoring her minor contributions when offered. Reno, a “ski racer” in high school, allows the man his moment of, what Adam Kirsch in Tablet correctly identified as “mansplaining.” Reno remarks of the man:
He didn’t bring up skiing to have a conversation, but to lecture and instruct. I’d seen right away he was the type of person who grows deadly bored if disrupted from his plan to talk about himself, and I had no desire to waste my time and energy forcing on him what he would only will away in yawns and distracted looks.
One wonders if Seidel took notice of this passage, or of the “China girl,” or of the “Girl on layaway”; if he did, he didn’t see fit to mention it in his review. But these moments are crucial; they are patterns in a larger quilt that Kushner has carefully constructed. Reno doesn’t simply present a story, she presents a moment in time, and a reality most men, and certainly a man of Seidel’s generation and stature, know very little of, if at all: the deaf ears that receive a woman’s mind, a woman’s ambition. Seidel, by ignoring this key theme in the book — the matter of sexism — appears no different than the aging novelist expounding on outdated skiing techniques: tone deaf, and worse, apparently oblivious to his very limitations.
Ultimately, the problem with this review is that Seidel seems to think he, not the book, is the star of the essay, and so we are treated to endless personal asides — his motorcycles, his gasps, his pondering of why he was chosen to review this book — and unsupported opinion that blends into repurposed summary that blends into more unsupported but cruel opinion once more. The review doesn’t come out and say it, not explicitly anyway, but its form, its mere existence says enough: The book doesn’t deserve a proper review, Seidel is implying, so I haven’t given it one.
This final point is truly sad, because this sort of practice, this sort of arguing from smugness, robs Kushner’s ambitious novel of meaning, presents it as one-dimensional. Nowhere does Seidel point to the nuanced presentation of sexism in the novel’s world, nowhere does he examine the narrative choices Kushner made along the way, the research, the history, the careful structure. He dips his toe a few times, but never dives in. The sad thing is, practicing the technique Seidel employs here, no book, be it Augie March or American Pastoral, The Age of Innocence or Song of Solomon, would seem any different.
What is this review interested in? Frederick Seidel.