What Did She Know, And When Did She Know It?
What is the narrational style of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers?
The first chapter begins in close third person and in simple past tense. “Valera had fallen back from his squadron…” This cues the reader that there is a narrator who is showing a story that has already occurred. This narrator—unnamed and apparently reliable—knows the story, knows the protagonist, Valera, inside and out, and also knows certain facts about other characters. “Copertini considered himself a better rider…” There are cues here that this story occurs during the first world war, “…they both volunteered for the cycle battalion in 1917.” “Combat was on the other side of a deep valley, near the Isonzo River.” “He heard the faint whoosh of a flamethrower…” (first mention of the book’s title).
The second chapter is quite different, and this difference may be a bit jarring to readers who expect more of the story of Valera in WW1. It is entitled Spiritual America, and begins, “I walked out of the sun, fastening my chinstrap.” A shift to first-person narration, still in simple past tense. Soon enough, there are cues that the story has shifted in time and place. “On that day, riding a Moto Valera east from Reno, it was an issue of wanting to move across the map of Nevada that was taped to my gas tank as I moved across the actual state.” Very perceptive readers might notice that the character in Chapter One is a motorcyclist named Valera, and that the “I” character in Chapter Two is riding a Moto Valera motorcycle—but in America, not Italy. So there is a connection of motorcycles, and that is significant. We get a gradual sense that time has shifted in that the protagonist is wearing nylon underwear, and has been traveling on a motorcycle at a hundred miles an hour—both situations not present during WW1 (I think). But there are no clear markers as to what the actual date is. (It’s in the 1970s, we learn later).
Valera, in Chapter 1, is male. When do we learn that the “I” in Chapter 2 is female?
As discussed last time, the reader who knows Flamethrowers is written by a woman might conclude naively that the second protagonist, the “I,” is female, that the author is speaking. Then we have this passage, several paragraphs in, a description of an apparently heterosexual relationship. “He (Sandro) pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one.” Then, “Women responded to this. They came onto him right in front of me…”
Finally, the first usage of a female noun. He introduced me…”not as his girlfriend, but as a young artist, just out of school.” Even to the densest of readers, this establishes this second protagonist as female, and as not Valera, somehow older and transported to Nevada.
An interesting fictional situation. The book begins with a narrator showing a story that has already occurred but then shifts to a first-person narrator, an “I,” who is looking back at herself from some future vantage point.
Another facet of Flamethrowers’ structure is that it is composed of scenes that contain stories—both stories that the protagonist hears, and stories she tells herself. Of course, arguably, the whole thing is a story told to the reader but I’m talking about something a little different—perhaps stories within the story. The first such story occurs in Chapter Two when Reno provides some background on her life with a story about being raised by “Uncle Bobby.” Of course, this could be taken as essentially a background story on the protagonist—an origin story, if you will. But the next one, occurring a few pages later, concerns someone unknown to Reno except by hearsay. It is the story of Robert Smithson, a real artist who created the Spiral Jetty in Utah. Then we have the story of Flip Farmer, a fictional auto racer whom Reno idolized. However, the story includes details that the fictional Reno couldn’t have known. So who is telling the story? The Narrator, I guess.
There’s a long, digressive story told by a character named Stanley Castle that is overheard by Reno (it’s actually a tape recording). It concerns, among other things, a husband and wife who act out a sexual game of the woman being an amputee. (?)
And there is the curious section entitled, The Way We Were, which recounts the escapades of the “Motherfuckers” criminal gang in New York City. It is told by the narrator; there is no sense of Reno, the protagonist, having overheard the stories.
What I hope is clear from this description is that the story may seem to be told by a first-person narrator, Reno, but is not. There is another narrator entity who tells the stories of Valera, who tells stories of characters that Reno is not privy to. This narrator is never named. Is “it” reliable? We don’t know, although there’s never a question raised of “it” being unreliable.
‘Kay, let’s wrap up for today.
(Wait, wait, Mr. Big Shot! So is this narrator the implied author you go on about so much?)
No, it’s not, best beloved. There is an actual unnamed narrator lurking in this story. A voice, a consciousness that knows things and shows them. It is a creature of the implied author, but they are not the same.
Till next time.