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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Flamethrowers

“Valera had fallen back from his squadron and was cutting the wires of another rider’s lamp.”

So begins Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers. This first line follows a sentence-like title for the first chapter: “He killed him with a motorbike headlamp (what he had in his hand).” Preceding this is a dedication and a page displaying the Latin phrase: Fac ut Ardeat.

This epigram is quite important to the process of making meaning of the story. It translates to English variously as “make my heart burn,” or “blaze it,” as in, set it on fire.

The New York Times listed The Flamethrowers as one of the top ten books for 2013, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award the same year.

Flamethrowers is a complex novel. The first thing I’d like to consider has to do with readers’ expectations as they approach the story. One important aspect of this is how did the reader learn of the book and become motivated to read it? I had seen advertising for Flamethrowers—just the cover image, rather striking, of a young white woman with blond bangs and what appears to be streaks of white paint below her eyes. Her mouth is covered by—apparently—a cross formed by two strips of white tape with the words, A NOVEL written on them.

Interestingly, at the end of the Scribner’s paperback edition, Rachel Kushner includes an afterword chapter entitled A Portfolio Curated by Rachel Kushner. In it, she describes several photographs, including the cover image. Authors often don’t get to choose what images are displayed on the covers of their books, so this is of note. She says that the photo hung above her writing desk and provided inspiration. “I didn’t think much about the tape over her mouth (which is actually Band-Aids over the photograph, and not over her lips themselves).” She calls this, “a creature of language, silenced.” It would seem that the publisher added the words, A NOVEL. In the acknowledgments section, the image is credited as coming from the March 1980 issue of I Volsci, a newspaper of the Autonomia Operaia group—an automotive group that connects with the story.

The author is a woman—has a woman’s name. The extensive advertising text talks about how the novel is a new offering by the author who had previously written a notable book. The text on the back cover states that, “The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist.” This was not written by Ms. Kushner, and we shall see if it proves an apt description of her novel.

We shall see.

I didn’t really have any particularly heavy thoughts about all this but remembered the book when a friend mentioned that he was reading the book and enjoying it.

Fate nudging me? Perhaps. (Thanks, Bill).

Now, some readers might come to this book because they read reviews of it and liked what they read. And there were a number of reviews; in fact, they contained a notable controversy.

The New Yorker's James Wood praised the book as "scintillatingly alive" and commented that it "[succeeded] because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive." The Guardian commented upon the book and its polarized reviews, remarking that while some reviewers such as Wood and novelist Jonathan Franzen have been vocal in their praise, other reviewers such as Adam Kirsch commented that the book was "macho," which explained "why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics." However, Kirsch's overall review also contained praise: he wrote that Kushner had "a real gift for grasping the prose-poetry of ideologies."

The New York Review of Books published a predominantly negative review by Frederick Seidel, which criticized elements of the book as unconvincing. The review remarked that the book was "tiresome, histrionic, hysterically overwritten" and was "desperate to show how brilliant it is". The review provoked a response from the Huffington Post's Nicholas Miriello, who published it through the Los Angeles Review of Books. Miriello remarked that Seidel's review was more interested in Seidel than the book itself and that it was "gallingly condescending" and "often inadequate." The New Republic in turn commented upon Miriello's response, suggesting that Seidel's opinions might have been more based upon differences in cultures between New York and the west coast.

‘Kay. A cynical individual might conclude that the book’s publishers were probably delighted with all the publicity. And it undoubtedly drew readers’ attention.

An interesting digression here concerns the fact that Flamethrowers was written by a woman, Rachel Kushner. Her photo is on the back cover, and she clearly identifies as female. We can see from the above that some reviewers (Seidel) characterize Flamethrowers as being histrionic and hysterical, appellations often used to criticize women for being too emotional. And there is Kirsch’s comment that the book is macho—as if it tries too hard to be masculine—although I don’t think he meant this negatively.

I have encountered other humans who assert they will only read books written by women, and I’m sure there are some who will only read those by men. As we read, are we aware of the author’s gender?

More so at first, I think. And do women write in a different way than men? That is, does gender shape the way humans express themselves?

Whoa, weighty question, my friends.

(answer, please).

I believe an author’s gender creates certain expectations in a reader—assuming one knows it before beginning a book. This relates very much to one’s own prejudices and to culture. Regarding Flamethrowers, I do not read it with much awareness that it was written by a woman. I do not believe there is a female or male style of writing, only the infinite variation of individuals. I do think an individual who is female, writing in our time and culture, will be influenced by her gender, her experience of being a woman.

In any case, there is no statistical evidence for bias against female authors by readers of any gender. However, it should be said that publishers favor male authors and charge more money for their books. Female authors are often associated with the Romance genre—centered on a love affair, happy ending, a lessor development of character and story. Novels that are less sophisticated in their use of time and perspective. They sell. Why are female authors associated with this genre? My opinion—sheer marketing. That’s it. Publishers think women are more romantic.

(You don’t send me flowers).

Could a potential reader study a copy of Flamethrowers and conclude it is a romance novel? Probably not, best B. As noted above, it begins with an epigram in Latin, and the story itself begins with a murder, a rather brutal one. The reader who gets beyond this first chapter will discover the second chapter is set in a different time with a different character with no obvious connection to the first. And there’s that cover. Not very romantic, my friend.

Literary, you say?


We find ourselves in the deep forest of gender, no?

Till next time.


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