Rachel Kushner’s brilliant and exhilarating new novel, “The Flamethrowers,” opens in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash. An Italian soldier loots the headlamp from his dead comrade’s bike when a German soldier wanders upon the scene and gets the same idea. Things end badly. The next chapter picks up with another motorcycle, this one racing across Nevada at 100 miles an hour, driven by a girl in a leather racing suit. Will things end badly for her, too?
“The Flamethrowers” dramatizes the overlaps and interstices between these characters, between the first part of the 20th century and the 1970s. Kushner — an art critic, editor of little magazines, and National Book Award finalist for her terrific first novel, “Telex from Cuba”— fearlessly tackles art, death, and social unrest. In so doing, she has written the sort of relentless and immersive novel that forces the reader to look up and make sure the room hasn’t disappeared around her.
The motorcycle, that universal symbol of coolness and speed, is the novel’s leitmotif. On a motorcycle, the Italian soldier, Valera, masters the streets of Rome, moving “under neon signs that look like bright, hard candy, reflecting from the tram wires and the tracks in smears and gleams.” He goes on to found a wildly successful corporation, one that builds motorcycles, exploits slave labor to mine Brazilian rubber, and ingratiates his family to the Fascist regime by funding public works and turning its villa over to the Germans during World War II.
Sandro, Valera’s youngest son, rejects his position in the Italian ruling class to become a minimalist artist and live in a Manhattan loft. He falls for the girl on the motorcycle, nicknamed Reno after her hometown, when she moves to New York after college to become an artist.
“The Flamethrowers” is Reno’s story, even if we never learn her real name. She comes to Manhattan a naïf, and her dawning consciousness — as an artist, a woman, and a witness to history — drives the narrative. A young, pretty artist turns out to be the perfect vehicle for showing just how strange things must have been during the sexual revolution when the popular culture cast the liberated woman as a figure to be desired and feared. “Did you see ‘Klute?’ ” a friend asks Reno. Of course she has.
The novel is preoccupied with the way the culture, especially film, shapes individuals and the way they perceive others. Reno makes films, and there is more than an echo of Marianne Faithfull’s character in “Girl on a Motorcycle,” with her black riding leathers and dirty blonde hair. After answering an ad in the Village Voice, she becomes a film subject herself; she is photographed as a “China girl,” a woman whose image appears at the beginning of a reel to assist lab technicians — usually men — in calibrating color during processing. The China girl becomes an astonishingly apt metaphor for the way people project their own agendas onto every woman they see: “Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were.”
Kushner addresses the feminist art movement of the 1970s through representative characters. There is Giddle, a hipster who waitresses as a kind of performance art; Gloria, an artist and patron who spends time inside a booth, naked from the waist down, as part of an art installation. As an oblique commentary on the famous Nan Goldin photograph, “One Month After Being Battered,” Kushner writes of a male photographer who encourages a group of drunk women to punch themselves in the face, then shoots their abrasions for a gallery show.
When these characters are not living their art, they talk endlessly and articulately about it — in galleries, at dinner parties, while walking down the street — often in long, elliptical, sometimes boring monologues. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would make for tedious reading. But Kushner’s considerable interest and critical intelligence shine through, even when her characters are spouting bromides that put their friends to sleep. She borrows a realist film technique popular in the ’70s, where ambient dialogue pierces the main conversation, transforming a tedious dinner party into a chaotic, living, and immersive environment.
While the artists come and go, revolution is afoot. Workers in Rome, including those at the Valera motorcycle plant, are striking. New York radical groups foment anarchy. Reno travels to Italy, visiting both the Valeras’ villa on Lake Como and an underground apartment occupied by members of the Italian radical movement. Kushner’s deft plotting prevents this from feeling forced. Reno feels just as out of place at a villa where she is “too low for a servant to feel I was an appropriate object of their attentions,” as she does among radicals who “remind [her] of plainclothes cops in Tompkins Square Park . . . too severe and ominous despite their efforts to pass for hippies.”
However out of place Reno feels, it is through her brutal, gorgeous narration of deadly riots that Kushner makes a case against lazy cultural nostalgia for the artistic and political insurrection of the ’60s and ’70s, while, with her extraordinary talent, making the case for its resurgence, too. The flamethrowers carried by the advance guard in the Italian army during World War I in the opening chapter become a metaphor for the political and artistic avant garde, willing to burn down the existing world for the sake of starting a new one. Who could long for a past that doesn’t include this book?