Who Am I This Time?
In a further refinement of our journey with Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, let’s look at some of the meanings the story contains. To summarize the narrational style: Ms. Kushner develops two characters, one is Valera, the Italian motorcycle enthusiast who begins the book during WW1. He is shown in close third person, a “he” and reappears in a significant chapter at the end of the book Then there is Reno, a young American woman who is shown as an “I,” ostensibly telling us her story of meeting several artistic types in 1970’s New York and later, Rome. Reno performs what James Phelan calls character narration. Her view of the whole story and other characters is limited in that she cannot see inside the others but only report on their behavior. And she is a remarkably malleable character. She is passive; she seems to mute her own reactions to others, often in an attempt to get them to accept her.
Early on, Reno moves to New York City, wanting to be an artist. She meets a series of rather odd characters who take advantage of her in different ways, ridiculing her, ‘splaining their understanding of the workings of the world to her. She has sex with some of them—there is an element here of her being taken advantage of, although she also enjoys the encounters. (I think).
There’s a sense of her feeling on the outside of a world she wishes to be a part of. She meets Ronnie Fontaine and is smitten with him. They go to a bar with some others. “People crowded around them to say hello. I had the sudden feeling they would shed me. I was a stranger they had picked up in an empty bar, and I was irrelevant now that they’d found their place in a familiar scene…I felt that he and his friends were unravelling any sense of order I was trying to build in my new life and yet, strangely, I also felt that he and his friends were possibly my only chance to ravel my new life into something.
“I was in the stream that had moved around me and not let me in and suddenly here I was, at this table, plunged into a world, everything moving swiftly but not passing me by.”
Reno is willing to accept the bad behavior of others if they will befriend her. She learns to be who they want her to be.
A key story in the novel concerns Reno riding her motorcycle to Times Square and finding herself by a theater that is showing Behind the Green Door, a pornographic film (it is, after all, the 1970s). This film is significant as other characters have told Reno she looks like the star of Green Door, Marilyn Chambers. Reno parks and goes inside, purchasing a ticket. She notes the audience is all male, “Each with a safety buffer of empty seats around him.” Reno sits in the last row, close to the exit.
This scene is approached without any showing of Reno’s inner decision making.
There follows a lyrical description of what Reno notices about the film as well as her sense that many of the other patrons are masturbating.
“…we, the Times Square voyeurs, in the theater, and who knew what the men seated sparsely around me were up to…”
There is a mechanical issue, the film stops, Reno and the others go out on the street.
“I could have stood there watching and deciding for hours. There was no city actively guiding me, the shops and walking masses and traffic lights giving their deep signals of what to do, where to go, who and what to see, what to buy, how to feel, what to think.”
Reno doesn’t judge the men in the theater, in fact, she feels a kinship with them, that they are all voyeurs.
An interesting clue to the meaning of all this concerns her friend Giddle who has associated with Andy Warhol. Reno meets her as she works as a waitress in a cheap diner in New York City. Giddle reveals her idea that the most artistic act is to make your entire existence a work of art. Her life is artistic because she’s playing a role as a waitress. In other words, she’s not waitressing to earn a living, but to act out the life of a waitress. I believe our friend Nietzsche actually had a similar idea of making one’s life into art. Giddle’s story has all sorts of implications—that her secret life is hidden from ordinary folk, making her secretly superior. That she cannot really be known by others who see her as a waitress. That being a waitress, like any job, is a role that must be acted out.
Is this our old friend a mise en abyme?
That’s pretty much what Reno believes, that to be an artist, you have to act the part. Even if you doubt you’re an artist, you should act the part.
I don’t want to deny this idea or criticize it. It is actually the case that most occupations require an apprenticeship—formal or not—that involves “acting” like the role you aspire to. Writers too, best beloved, go through a process of copying admired writers—whether or not they want to admit it.
Yet, many people do these apprenticeships with a sense of purpose and authenticity that the character Reno lacks. She is a tragic figure who is always waiting for what she wants, believing if she can only fit well enough into the world of those whom she admires, she will win the prize.
She does not judge others.
She begins the story wanting to ride motorcycles and to be an artist, actually to combine the two. Motorcycle riding as a work of art. Does she get her wish?
At the end, she rides motorcycles and is an artist of sorts. But there is a pervasive theme of waiting—that she’s waiting for particular people to be with her, to help her.
Here are the last lines:
“I’m alone at the base of the run, almost too cold to move.
The answer is not coming.
I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence and tear myself away.
Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.”
She has a sense that she must choose a point within her life that has up to now consisted in waiting, and break out of it. But things are left open. We don’t know if she can do this or not.
‘Kay, my friends. A provocative book. Are passive protagonists frustrating?
An answer comes. Yup.
But we must “move on” as well.
Till next time.