This is a curious novel in so far as there is much to admire, but, for this reader, less to like, within its nearly 400 pages. The scale and ambition of the book are impressive and the research that has gone into it is evident. But Kushner seems to have deliberately chosen to have run with a narrator, Reno, whose shallowness has the effect of undercutting any moral or emotional resonance the novel aspires to. The narrator’s voice feels out of sync with the author’s apparent intellectual intentions. The result is that The Flamethrowers all too often feels like a textbook, a slightly stilted guide to the mores of the New York art scene through the ages. This is the novel as encyclopaedia, which has the effect of nullifying any emotional attachment we might hope to have with Reno, Ronnie, Valera & co. The fictional artists with whom the narrator sleeps and socialises feel as though they have been drawn by Lichtenstein: bold colours and clear lines, but no depth.
The debt to DeLillo’s Underworld is evident, in particular as the narrator embarks on her Nevada motorcycle-sculpture adventure. At times the book has the feel of a cut-out-and-paste Great American novel, assembled according to a take-home kit. Epic Western landscape – tick; deprecating sub-Fitzgeraldian dissection of NY pseudo-sophisticates – tick; adventures in the old continent, (in this instance, Italy) – tick. Coming of age story – tick. Hints of a discarded experimental direction – tick. It has all the ingredients, but they make for a somewhat self-conscious, stodgy cherry pie.
Kushner’s prose mirrors this inconsistency. There are moments where it comes off the page. This reader enjoyed the slightly incidental sections dealing with the Valera back story. At other moments it feels turgid, (“The Colosseum, a great decaying skull whose grassed over arena was all but lost in a strange haze of thereness, unreal because it existed, now, without its former use.”), or downright pretentious: “In any case, death was death: it had its own gravity”, leading to moments where you want to ask – what exactly is that supposed to mean? One suspects that the vacuousness of the narrator’s voice inevitably clashes with the broader perspective of the authorial voice, leaving the book hoisted on its own petard.
The novel has received vast swathes of literary hype. But its brilliance is worn on its sleeve. It’s a novel that sets out to dazzle and has clearly achieved that end, but exactly what lurks behind the sparkle is open to question. Strangely, the book is at its strongest when it allows the listless Sandro Valera his moment, free of Reno, in the penultimate chapter. The writing exhibits both cruelty and insight in its examination of the artist’s vanity and success. For a brief moment we see how the whole art charade functions, why a type like Valera can achieve what he does in spite of his flaws. Koons, Warhol and Hirst are just around the corner. But it feels like the writer can’t bring herself to exercise the same sense of distance when dealing with her narrator Reno, whose navel-gazing naivety surely deserves the same cold-eyed treatment as her lover’s addled vanity.