W.S. Lyon

Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, alongside Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Peter Mathiessen, who won with Shadow Country. No small feat simply to have one's name printed next to those towering figures. She has also been an editor at the acclaimed magazine BOMB and the journal Soft Targets, and has published frequently in Artforum.

This month marks the release of her second novel, The Flamethrowers, about a young woman artist in 1970s New York. With Kushner's high-profile career, her sophomore effort will no doubt gain plenty of attention. But the charm and force of the novel stands clearly on its own. Following is an interview based on an email exchange with the author.

This novel is expertly assembled. You weave together some complex stories, develop rich characters and give them great names. How much fun was it to have a character named Reno?
Oh, well thanks. I did think about names quite a bit. I love to have fun with a good name. But the actual name of the narrator, who you refer to as Reno, is never revealed—the reader never learns it. Early on she gets called Reno by another character who is something of a wise-ass and calls her that because she is from Reno, Nevada. And later in the book, I think on just a single occasion, her former lover, Sandro, refers to her privately as young Reno, but really she’s nameless. Which, yes, was fun. It presented certain technical challenges and also kept me closer to her perceptions, to the inside of her mind, and less close to how she was being perceived by the others around her. That said, names are a great tool for characterization. But for the center of consciousness, I wanted a person without one, in that her name is simply never mentioned, even as every other character in the book knows it.

Though they do embody some of the typical SoHo artist clichés, I found myself really liking the characters who populate your SoHo. How did you pull that off?
Oh, thanks. I’ve been around a lot of older artists who were on that scene then, and I spent some time in that milieu as a child. Probably it’s inevitable that something has been gleaned from that exposure. Also, there is plenty to read about SoHo in the 1970s—not just in books whose aim is to narrate that history, but in artists’ documents, critical writings, etc. As far as clichés are concerned, I built characters who could enliven aspects of 1970s SoHo that I find amusing or strange or uniquely gone. It would be a different kind of cliché probably to make them wackily non-coherent with our basic impressions of the era. But maybe more importantly, I related to them, if not on a directly personal level. I identified or at least empathized with each of them and their hang-ups, egos, joy, obsessions, bluntness, dissimulations, and so forth.

You're no stranger to writing about art. What was it like writing about art in the voice of a fictional artist character, as opposed to using your own cultivated, art-critical voice?
Since it was a novel, it was totally different. The idea of a novel written in a cultivated art critical voice seems deadly boring, even disastrous; also, artists don’t think in that voice, and a novel is meant to be narrated in something like thought. There is, of course, plenty of room in fiction for “cultivated” characters to speak their minds and present ideas, but it’s just utterly different than writing something in an art-critical voice: it has to be good as dialogue. I can’t imagine an interesting or engaging novel that has a lot of art criticism in it, unless it was a parody, and even then . . . I kept art speak to a minimum. But I’m sure it helped in writing the book and setting up exchanges among the artists who populate it that I know a little about contemporary art, so that the reduced or shorthand ways people have of speaking about art and about the art world would not seem false.

Art is a way of leaving a trace. All traces erode, eventually. Still, it’s far better to leave something than nothing.

You wrote in the Paris Review that you "wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations" so that it would be irreducible, a character of its own. And yet you can't motivate a city, or have it make choices. What problems did you encounter in that process?
Yes, that’s from the text that accompanied a suite of images that relate to the novel. I wanted the city to be a place that would not easily resolve into history and sociology and urbanism—the city would a character, but in the specific sense that a fully complex character in fiction is not reducible to cause, reasons, event. Of course I was not suggesting that a city has an individual’s consciousness. A city is a mesh of people who move about in a structure, and the city is that structure, too, and history, and chance. I wanted the backdrop of the city to affect my characters, to be a place in flux, where an event, in the deeper sense, might take place—something unpredictable. A blackout, for instance, and inside that, a reaction to a chance event like a blackout—a riot? A new form of love and cooperation? Violence? Tragedy? The city, like people, can exhibit unpredictability—this is what I meant.

It seems to me there's a theme of masks buried throughout the novel—Burdmoore's war-protest mask, Helen's gazes, the masks Giddle wears in her "imitation of life," Reno's China Girl, even the death blow delivered in the opening chapter. What relationship do masks have to naiveté? To violence?
That’s a beautiful question. Yes, I suppose there is something to that. But these kinds of themes starting to echo one another are never intentional, in the sense that I would embed meaning and hope to “say” something about masks. Nevertheless, the face—and I have an entire long chapter titled “Faces”—is a mask of real mystery to me. I’m entranced and also horrified by the concept of the face. There are characters in my novel who operate under cover of theatrics, falsity or semblance, and so the face becomes a mask, since it does not present an unadorned honesty. In any case, in the larger sense, reality—“the real”—is never how it appears, ethically, politically, emotionally. The entire structure of modern late-capitalist civilization is a structure of appearances, in which war wears the mask of protecting and ensuring peace and freedom, prisons wear the mask of safety and security, greed wears a mask of choice and opportunity, and so forth. And yet the real function of the mask remains unclear. The question is not, Why do we need to lie? But rather, what’s the relationship between our need for semblance, and the things we mask? This difficult question aside, to unmask, which is sometimes necessary, can be an act of violence and destruction.

Your characters find meaning in the act of creating (and sometimes destroying) things. They also each have a special relationship with time. Do you think entropy and art are inextricably linked?
The earthworks artist Robert Smithson famously made a huge impact on conceptual art pursuing that logic. I’m not sure what I myself think, to be honest. A lot of artists are interested in entropy, and Smithson is one who made incredible gestures that involved that idea—like the Spiral Jetty, which appears and disappears depending on the water level in that part of the Great Salt Lake. Smithson understood something about industrial waste and time and the vast and abstract future. So did the Egyptians, maybe. Art is a way of leaving a trace. All traces erode, eventually. Still, it’s far better to leave something than nothing.

F.T. Marinetti is one of many historical figures with a ghost-like presence in this novel. What was your research like, and how did it inform the characters?
That’s true, about Marinetti—none of the characters are him, but he has what you say, a ghostlike presence. I was interested in his early years, around 1909, in Milan. I read the excellent collection of futurist manifestos that FSG published a few years ago, and did other bits of research on other futurists and of the time in which they acted. I saw exhibits, looked at catalogues, read books, lurked in certain parts of northern Italy. But research and character have a delicate relation. When I am in an early stage of things, I read and make notes on details that I think have potential, a kind of dynamism, or a hidden or secret meaning. I compile those notes and details, and try to make for myself some organized frame of reference—of a time, and of a number of agents who might pass through it. But once I’m into writing, the characters have to breathe the breath of whatever I know and understand by instinct, inside the trance of writing. They can’t be constructed from research. They have to come from something a bit more sullied and complicated—the writer’s unconscious. That said, knowledge is maybe underrated. It’s a writer’s friend. But not as a direct resource when she’s writing.

Two of your characters ask "what it means to call a magazine Time. The latent heaviness there. Infinity parceled into the integers of humans, the integers of death." What does it mean to call a magazine BOMB or Soft Targets?
Bomb is, I believe, named after Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, according to its founder and editor in chief, Betsy Sussler. I can’t say what it means. I’m too accustomed to the name. Something vanguard and jarring, I guess. My parents had Bomb magazine in the living room, and then I worked there, as an editor, which must be the reason you ask. Soft Targets journal, with which I was involved, was named by Daniel Feinberg and Dan Hoy, two poets who founded it together. The name is a military term referring to an undefended target, relatively easy to destroy. Maybe the name, as a literary/art/poetry journal refers to a readership? And to destroy, in that case, means to seduce and convert? 

Meanings aside, “Soft Targets” is catchy. It sounds good. “Time” is much stranger as a name, and for a magazine, which—unlike those two you ask about—has a readership of millions and a longevity of eons, or at least decades. Time. It’s simply called Time. I find that haunting and mysterious. Time is the water in which we live and die, are remembered or forgotten. A heavy concept that was chosen for a very popular weekly magazine with a friendly if slightly lurid red border whose focus is topical issues. Not death, eternity, ontology, as one might think.

Feel free to take this literally: What guns do you own?
Did you say guns? That I own? I did just write a novel in which there is a bit of posturing with, in one case, a Civil War reproduction cap-and-ball pistol, and, in another case, a handgun loaded only with blanks. But this is obviously fiction, and the characters who do the posturing are not real. They are invented. Also, they are all men. As for me, I don’t even have a proper kitchen knife. Which is fine because I don’t like to cook. I can’t imagine ever using an implement to hurt a person, much less owning one that was specifically designed for that purpose. Next question?

What are you working on?
A novel about warehoused and forgotten people. People who are all women. Women who would love to get their hands on guns, and might deservedly turn them on you and me when they finally get their chance, somewhere midway through the book.

RELATED CONTENT
Read our review of The Flamethrowers.

Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, alongside Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Peter Mathiessen, who won with Shadow Country. No small feat simply to have one's name printed next to those towering figures. She has also been an editor at the acclaimed magazine BOMB and […]

When Rachel Kushner sat down to write her second novel, she had three images taped to the wall above her desk: A pretty young blonde woman, face painted for war, with an X of tape across her lips, which eventually became the cover image; a well-heeled engineer standing with his creation, a 1971 Ducati motorcycle; and two men racing by in a primitive cycle and sidecar, circa World War I.

The Flamethrowers, then, is a sort of weaving together of these disparate lives. Set partly in prewar Italy at the dawn of the Futurist movement, partly in the art world of New York in the 1970s, and converging briefly in the riots of the Autonomist movement in 1970s Rome, this is ultimately the story of a young woman called Reno who is reborn again and again through her acts of defiant grace.

In this story, art is not just an imitation of life but also life itself. Acts of life begin and end as performance, within the inescapable prison of self-consciousness. But this isn’t boilerplate postmodernism either; it’s a complex tale of youth and the need to escape oneself and one’s past, a story about time and speed and violence, about the roles we play, willingly and unwillingly, in the vast, closed system of the human stage. And it’s about a young woman, confused and yet self-possessed, remarkable in her search for meaning.

When Reno meets Sandro Valera, famed sculptor and prodigal heir to Italy’s greatest moto-empire, she has just moved to New York to live as an artist. He takes her in, and through him she meets the art-world elite. Her own work is still nebulous, unformed but for a notion of line and a love of movement. Chance intervenes—or as one of the characters has it, Reno “put herself in the way of life”—and her first serious project begins to take shape. But in The Flamethrowers, momentum has a way of swerving into the ditch. In Italy, on her way to make a film with the Valera race team, events bring Reno crashing down hard.

Battered and bruised, she finds herself in a world of violence and anarchism, a brief encounter that is ultimately more positive and humane than the high-flying world she fled. Because life is not simple, nothing meaningful can be easy. And so away we go, this novel seems to say, racing off-road into the future.

RELATED CONTENT
Read a Q&A with Rachel Kushner about The Flamethrowers.

When Rachel Kushner sat down to write her second novel, she had three images taped to the wall above her desk: A pretty young blonde woman, face painted for war, with an X of tape across her lips, which eventually became the cover image; a well-heeled engineer standing with his creation, a 1971 Ducati motorcycle; […]

Fever tells the torrid tale of the life of Mary Mallon, an Irish-American immigrant who became the first known healthy carrier of the pathogen that causes typhoid fever, and the only one to be imprisoned long-term for her condition. She is better known to American history as the infamous “Typhoid Mary.” But readers will feel compelled to qualify that epithet after finishing Mary Beth Keane’s sympathetic portrayal of this woman scorned by circumstance.

Keane credits Judith Walzer Leavitt’s book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health as her “starting point and . . . touchstone” during the four years she spent writing the novel. Thankfully, Keane takes a few liberties that bring Mary to life beyond the historical account, like the wonderfully drawn friends and fellow immigrant-occupants of her 33rd Street tenement building. Most prominent among them is her lover and companion of nearly 30 years, Alfred Breihof. Their relationship is Mary’s thread to the world as she is whisked away and isolated, in truly Kafkaesque fashion, on North Brother Island in the middle of the East River. And it is the thread running wildly through the narrative, threatening always to tangle or to snap. It’s a faltering, ultimately tragic love story that leaves just the narrowest gap for the light of hope—hope that a strong woman, who bravely refused to concede her inalienable rights but who could never shake the love of a hapless cad, could in the end find some peace within herself.

The history lesson alone is worthwhile: the rich portrait of New York City during the early 20th century, an era of sweeping change. Its class divisions and immigrant life, its awkwardly young public health awareness, its teeming growth, all create a veracious space in which Keane’s characters move. Their dilemmas are never easy and their decisions are often questionable, making for a read that is as morally challenging as it is quickly paced. Fans of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will find stirring parallels in Fever. Ultimately, this is a story that provokes a deeper understanding of the tenuous relationship between love, personal liberty and the common good.

Fever tells the torrid tale of the life of Mary Mallon, an Irish-American immigrant who became the first known healthy carrier of the pathogen that causes typhoid fever, and the only one to be imprisoned long-term for her condition. She is better known to American history as the infamous “Typhoid Mary.” But readers will feel […]

The characters in Hush Hush, the latest story collection from Steven Barthelme, are drawn directly from life, with a precision that leaves sentences ringing in the reader’s ear. They seem to inhabit some infinitesimal space between the past and the present, and yet they are never trapped, always willing to move forward and try again in spite of the flaws that define them.

“Claire” is the most sympathetic story and perhaps the most richly imagined; it won a Pushcart Prize in 2005 and acts as a centerpiece for the book, which alternates between highly resonant pieces of flash fiction and more substantial, intimate narratives. Bailey Long is down a thousand dollars to his ex-girlfriend, who has moved on to a younger man—“breeding stock,” as Bailey sees it—and must decide when to quit as he goes on a roll with the loan money at a Biloxi casino. And so it goes with a lot of Barthelme’s characters, many of them gamblers of one sort or another, all of whom are willing to take the big risks in matters of the heart.

Risk is a familiar theme in Barthelme’s writing, most notably explored in the memoir Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, which he co-authored with his brother Frederick. Both brothers work at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Steven is a professor and director of the Center for Writers. But in Hush Hush his fiction cuts more sharply at the truth. The stories are a brilliant mixture of high-flying antics and tender reflection, his prose terse and his dialogue alive with recognition. Like in the unusually patterned “Good Parts” where the narrator tells us, “Bill bought a gun, .38 caliber. It smelled good. Maureen returned it and got his money back. $199.95.” What Bill planned to do with that gun, or what Maureen thought Bill planned to do with that gun, is left to the reader’s imagination, but also intimated by the rest of the story. Because like a good poker face, it’s what Barthelme doesn’t say that makes it all the more compelling.

The characters in Hush Hush, the latest story collection from Steven Barthelme, are drawn directly from life, with a precision that leaves sentences ringing in the reader’s ear. They seem to inhabit some infinitesimal space between the past and the present, and yet they are never trapped, always willing to move forward and try again […]

John Banville’s Ancient Light is a trip through a hall of mirrors, where memory unfolds into memory and is scattered into a thousand angles, each one staring back in lurid detail. It’s all source material for our narrator Alex Cleave, retired actor and now memoirist. But for him, for us, the material source of the images he recalls is the most elusive thing in the world.

Through Cleave’s narration, we shift among three time periods—two viscerally remembered and one presently lived—and all the women who have mattered in his life. The first is Mrs. Gray, his lover, him at age 15 and she at 35, and the mother of his then-best friend. Their tryst is recounted in striking detail, vivid to the point of upstaging his present. But when Cleave is unexpectedly cast as the lead in a film along with megastar Dawn Devonport, the present begins to claim more of his attention, while drawing increasingly close to his past. As Cleave stacks one crisp memory on top of another, the edifice of his story begins to quiver beneath the weight.

Recipient of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, Banville is peerless in his steadfast precision of language. Ultimately it is his masterful, high style prose that makes Ancient Light shine.

John Banville’s Ancient Light is a trip through a hall of mirrors, where memory unfolds into memory and is scattered into a thousand angles, each one staring back in lurid detail. It’s all source material for our narrator Alex Cleave, retired actor and now memoirist. But for him, for us, the material source of the […]

The sparse lyricism of The Yellow Birds elevates that most essential and dissembled aspect of warfare—the individual human spirit—to its rightful place on the dais of our conscience. If Kevin Powers had given us only the title, its allusive origin and the first thousand words of this novel, that would have been enough for a timeless contribution. And yet he goes on, wringing from this trope every last drop of imagination.

The novel is the first-person account of Private John Bartleby, alternating between his tour in Iraq and the time just before and just after. Ultimately Bartleby must reconcile these three disparate realities and come to terms with the self who has traversed this dynamic moral landscape.

Powers, who served in Iraq before studying English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is palpably vivid with his language, efficient, even if he occasionally favors a weak image—this isn’t a flawless book. And yet the blemishes serve as a testament to the overall power of his prose, which trades readily in perfect phrases, underscoring the effect of his soaring minimalism.

Read The Yellow Birds and hope: for the lives of our men and women in service, for the lives of those whom they fight and for the grace of further gifts from this budding master craftsman.

The sparse lyricism of The Yellow Birds elevates that most essential and dissembled aspect of warfare—the individual human spirit—to its rightful place on the dais of our conscience. If Kevin Powers had given us only the title, its allusive origin and the first thousand words of this novel, that would have been enough for a […]

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