“What happens between bodies during an insurrection is more interesting than the insurrection itself”: The Flamethrowers, Activism, and History
by Andrew Seal
Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, has quickly become one of those works that finds itself overshadowed by its reviews, by the critical gamesmanship of position-taking and Zeitgeist-tracking that occurs with aggravating periodicity. It is this season’s novel about which Statements about the Present and Future of Fiction can be made. It’s a fate that this reader can’t help feeling somewhat sorry about—because it is a novel that really ought to be read, not just discussed—but it is also a fate I can’t help asking if Kushner has asked for. Indeed, the novel is itself directly about what women—and specifically women in the arts—ask for, and what they do not.
The novel is about a young woman from the West, an art school graduate of the University of Nevada-Reno, and her point of origin gives her the only name by which we will know her throughout the novel: Reno. She has moved to New York full of a quiet, diffuse ambition to enter the art world. It is the mid-1970s, and everyone lives in gutted, formerly industrial spaces, a scene so well described by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living. While working in a film-processing firm—both as an assistant and as what is called a “china girl,” a model whose image was used by projectionists to color calibrate their projectors, making sure (white) skin looked like “skin”—Reno is pursued by a well-established artist, Sandro Valera, who also happens to be the half-estranged son of a titanic Italian tire and motorcycle manufacturer. Sandro is a minimalist but Reno’s métier is speed, and, with Sandro’s help, she takes a cutting-edge Valera motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for a time trial, which she will also film and photograph. While there she falls in with the actual Valera racing team, and is invited back to Italy (to Sandro’s chagrin) to serve as a company spokeswoman. In Italy, she finds that the Valera family is not all that she thought, and she ends up fleeing into the middle of a massive wave of street demonstrations in Rome led by the Red Brigades.
Kushner has received a great deal of credit for improbably but entirely successfully combining these two sharply distinct worlds—the overripe hothouse of the New York art scene and the roiling discontent of the Italian revolutionary underground. But really Kushner gives us three worlds—those two and a window into a global ruling class, represented by the Valeras. Kushner is vague on dates, but the moment of the novel is 1975-1977, with the scenes in Italy taking place in the fateful year of 1977, and a quasi-climactic segment occurring during the 1977 blackout in New York. This matrix of times and places is inordinately rich, and also virtual terra incognita for the US novelist: while the Seventies art world may not be new to fiction, the Anni di Piombo (the Years of Lead) are, and the choice of the mid-to-late 1970s rather than the late 1960s as a moment of dangerous, febrile political intensity is an exciting shift.
It is a shift that mirrors the deep revision of the 1970s ongoing in current academic and popular historiography—from a decade where “nothing happened” to a decade where everything changed. In some ways, The Flamethrowers belongs on a shelf with Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, Alice Echols’s Hot Stuff and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, and the vividness of Kushner’s attention to Reno’s experiences in the street demonstrations—she is tear-gassed and witnesses armed confrontations with riot police, called celerini—not only inevitably evokes the worldwide anti-austerity protests of the past few years, but also pairs well with recent attention paid to the long history of US practices of surveillance and countersubversion, as in Alfred McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire, Jeremy Kuzmarov’s Modernizing Repression and the brand new, more popular-oriented Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill, Subversives by Seth Rosenfeld, and The Rise of the Warrior Cop by Rodney Balko.
Kushner also seems to echo current historiography in making her characters—even the potentially provincial Reno—fluidly transnational, less caught up in questions of national identity, expatriatism, or borders: Reno is no Daisy Miller in Italy, and Sandro is no Prince Amerigo in his dealings with Americans. Kushner takes for granted that her characters move about aware of the globalizing trends of late capitalism; full of class or national privilege, their horizons absorb multiple continents. (In fact, there are two brief scenes involving the Valeras’ rubber operations in Brazil; these scenes recall the offstage origins of the Bertrams’ fortune in Antigua from Mansfield Park, but in this case the colonial connection is frank and tangible.)
But most relevant to academia is the way The Flamethrowers treats something that has justifiably become an inescapable—though rarely formally discussed—topic: mansplaining. Kushner, like a number of other recent (male and female) novelists, is merciless and entirely credible in her depictions of the self-oblivious mansplainer: “I’d seen right away that 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… I’d been listening to men talk since I arrived in New York City. That’s what men liked to do. Talk. Profess like experts.”
Mansplaining is a term originated by Rebecca Solnit, who coined it in reference to a horrifying anecdote about a man lecturing to her at a party about a book that, it turned out, she actually wrote. The term has gained wide currency mostly in informal settings and especially on-line: on tumblrs, blogs, and other internet communities. In many of these communities, women (and sometimes men) share stories of incidents of mansplaining. The participants are not communicating these stories with any obvious goal or program in mind, but they are far more than outlets for bottled-up frustration. Instead, they are formally identical to the We Are the 99 Percent tumblr, which featured simple photographs of people holding signs telling their stories of hard work and harder luck. The online opposition to mansplaining is, I think it is fair to say, an anti-patriarchal occupation, the creation of space within a space that will otherwise, one can presume, be controlled by the opposition. It is not a frontal attack, it is not an invasion, it is an assertion of presence, an intentional ignoring of hegemony.
These are not Reno’s tactics in dealing with the mansplainers she runs across. Her modus vivendi is, more or less, trying to join the boy’s club, as it is for all the other women in the novel. But she also reflects—painfully and poignantly—on what this choice, forced or not, says about her, whether it makes her complicit, or foolish, or simply futile. When men betray her, she questions whether she asked for the betrayal; when she sees other women betrayed or abused, she is not sure if they just haven’t played the game right. But even though different, less self-lacerating tactics are not really available to Reno, one catches a glimpse of them in the negative space of the exceedingly masculinist tactics of the art world, the global ruling class, and the revolutionary underground.
One of the Red Brigades’ slogans seems to have been “Colpirne uno per educarne cento”—“strike one to teach a hundred,” a method that is at the very heart of both a culture of patriarchal violence and any of various cultures that pursue decisive, hypervisible gestures designed to ripple out to all those who can identify with the one struck. There are numerous displays of exemplary violence throughout the novel, from descriptions of the execution and defiling of the corpse of Mussolini to a dramatic scene of looting and vandalism during a long night of a New York power outage. The repetition of these eruptions throughout the book prompts us to consider alternatives, countering tactics to the disciplinary logic of violence.
Mansplaining is itself a form of exemplary violence, and Kushner’s interest in these problems follows an increasing number of novelists who are trying to parse the protocols and politics of male-female interaction at a time when, supposedly, we all Know Better but we certainly do not Do Better, when mansplaining and other subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of marginalization remain rampant even in the midst of conferences or classrooms ostensibly committed to gender equality. (The inadequacy of my situation as a man writing this is certainly not lost upon me.)
Much of the critical contretemps over The Flamethrowers has to do with the way men have been reviewing the novel. “Flummoxed” and “spooked” were two descriptions which Laura Miller, writing for Salon, threw out to characterize the hesitant, grouchy nonplussedness of this cohort. No one who pays attention to the gender balance of the book review sections of the leading intellectual publications in the US would mistake this field for one genuinely committed to gender equality, but the belief that there is a real problem there has been dauntingly difficult to drive home.
Kushner’s novel invites us—men and women—to question her own strategy in dealing with this situation, to ask questions about the possibility of her complicity with this boy’s club, and to ask what other strategies exist. These questions hover over the novel itself as they do over Kushner’s character Reno. If we read The Flamethrowers as an attempt to add to the log of incidents of mansplaining, to participate in a sort of occupation of the critical establishment, taking up an uneasy space within this world of male privilege, then the novel, like those online communities, inverts the logic of the Red Brigades: educate a hundred, many of whom know the lesson well already, and maybe you will strike one who does not.
Some anti-mansplaining tumblrs and blogs: