27 February 2014

Book Review: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

It's rare that I "allow" myself to read a book that has already been published.  As a bookseller, it really is my job to be reading ahead, to know what's coming out weeks, or even months, ahead of time, and (with luck) predict what the readers in my store will want to buy. I'm usually not very surprised by all of the Best Of lists that dominate the bookosphere/blogosphere in December of each year, but this time, one book kept popping up everywhere from seemingly out of nowhere. I'm talking about Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, which earned a lot of critical praise in 2013. I was only vaguely familiar with it and though I had purchased two copies for my store, only one had sold as of Christmas.

Thus it was that I decided to purchase the audio version of Kushner's book as a means of justifying my reading a book already published. Listening to it in the car, I rationalized, is entirely acceptable. I cagily waited until Brilliance Audio re-issused their compact disc set for $19.99 (down from the original price of $29.99) and I've been listening to it for the last two weeks on my drive to work each day.

The audio is read by Christina Traister, and let the record show that she was a capable performer, rendering even the male voices pretty well, easily switching among various English language accents and dialects: Western USA, Italian, and Brooklyn. The writing was occasionally noteworthy

"Reno" (we never actually learn her real name) is a young woman who moves to New York in the mid 1970s after finishing an art degree at a regional Nevada university. I hesitate to say that she makes friends among the art community, but she meets artists who use her, and whom she intends to use in return. Despite being the first person narrator for most of the book, Reno plays her cards pretty close to her chest.  It's almost impossible to tell, for example, what she really thinks of her lover Sandro, his friend Ronnie, the cafe girl Giddle (this is a phonetic spelling from the audio), or the outrageous and maddening anarchist group called the Mother Fuckers (they think women are only useful as cooks, cleaners, and sexual receptacles, they think work is for suckers, and that it's okay to loot stores and kill those people who try to tell them that looting stores isn't okay).

I certainly know what *I* think of all of them though: user, poseur, loser, and dangerously asinine and backwards-thinking, respectively. These are people whose idea of a brilliant artistic statement is to get women to punch themselves in the face, then photograph them and hang them in a gallery. Or to live outside for one year. Or to cut a house in half. Or to put a pool of water on a gallery floor and light it strategically to luminesce the walls. Or to get a job as a cafe waitress so your entire life is one big piece of performance art as a cafe waitress. I never did decide whether these people who take themselves uber-seriously were more laughable, pathetic or just plain boring.

Reno rides motorcycles and wants to make kinetic landscape art, and her big idea, the one that Sandro hails as being another brilliant artistic statement, is to ride her motorcycle on the salt flats in Utah and then take photographs of the marks left by her tires.  Uh huh. Okey-dokey.

Suffice it to say that Reno does that, but she wipes out and somehow falls in with an Italian company called Valera, who've produced tires for the car that holds the world's land speed record.  And Sandro just happens to be the son of the Italian scion Valera. So they travel to Italy together, where Reno discovers that Sandro's mother is extremely unpleasant and controlling, and she catches Sandro in flagrante delicto with his first cousin, Taglia.  She runs away, upset at his infidelity, and for the rest of the book I keep saying to myself, "Wait, does nobody else realize that Taglia and Sandro are first cousins? Why do none of the characters seem to care about that?"

I think I'm actually making this book sound a lot more interesting than it really was. Because mostly nothing happens, except people sit around talking in a self-congratulatory manner about how awesome and brilliant and revolutionary they are, when really their conversations are boorish, boring, and most of all, masturbatory.

There are a couple of bookend sections that refer to a group of soldiers during WWI who were known as flamethrowers. How they actually pertained to the content of the book is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. And while I'm on a rant, why the hell isn't there a hyphen in the title if flamethrowers is supposed to be one word, yet written across two lines?

You can color me supremely unimpressed by this book. This was a colossal waste of my money. With most books that garner such incredible accolades, even if I don't care for them, at least I can usually see what other people might see in them. This one, though? Not one little bit.

You may well wonder why I bothered to listen to the whole thing.  Partly was because I kept thinking it would have to get better.  Partly was because I was too lazy-cheap to buy something else to listen to.

NB: This book was published by Scribner in April 2013. In case you didn't already see my disclaimer above, I purchased my own copy of the audio book.

8 comments:

  1. Aw man, I'm sorry this book sucked so much. But yeah, this sounds terrible. I don't need to listen to people who are SUPER PROUD OF THEMSELVES for their brilliant artistic statements, even when they aren't being misogynistic assholes.

    Side note, I feel like I have a read a bunch of books that have first cousins get together and no one bats and eye and wha??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This book was shortlisted for the National Book Award AND it was one of the Top Ten books of the year in the estimation of the New York Times. I think they had their head up their ass with that one.

      Maybe I'm just being super-prudish, but the thought of two cousins in a relationship just squicks me.

      Delete
  2. THIS makes me happy. I have always wondered just how some books get published, they can't all be wonderful can they? Thank you for an honest review of a book I will definitely not read. But in your review you've reminded me what readers readers want: a good story, well told.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I generally don't like to take the time to write unfavorable book reviews--I mean, who am I to try to take a book down? I think in this case I was mostly angry with myself for listening to all 13 cds.

      Delete
  3. Ugh, bummer! I have a copy of this and was excited but .. I think I might not bother. Your comments make me think I'll feel the same way as you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, as they say, your miles may vary on this one. But I wouldn't peg you as a fan of this book, I don't think. If you ever do try it, though, I'll be super curious to know your thoughts.

      Delete
  4. Well, I feel much better about not reading this one. It just never sounded too appealing to me. I'm sorry you had to take it for the team, but thanks for letting us know!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh, taking one for the team. I love that concept!

      Delete

Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)