Rachel Kushner's ambitious new novel scares male critics

When Rachel Kushner -- not a venerable male auteur -- writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers are flummoxed

Published June 5, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

Rachel Kushner, Philip Roth  (Lucy Raven/AP/Richard Drew/Salon)
Rachel Kushner, Philip Roth (Lucy Raven/AP/Richard Drew/Salon)

In 1963, Esquire magazine's July issue was about the American literary scene, and featured an essay by Norman Mailer. Titled "Some Children of the Goddess: Further Evaluations of the Talent in the Room," the piece was a repeat of a survey of his "rivals" that appeared in "Advertisements for Myself." Few American novelists have ever been more invested than Mailer in the mystique of the Great American Novel, and it's no coincidence that his list of the authors likely to produce such a work (William Styron, James Jones, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow) consisted of exactly zero women.

The deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor. It is a book, in Mailer's words, designed to "seize the temper of the time and turn it." To attempt to write the Great American Novel is to surmise that you can speak on behalf of an entire, fractious nation. Plus, by all appearances, we're talking about a game of King of the Mountain: Only one winner allowed, and the competition is bruising. The photograph accompanying Mailer's piece showed him standing in a boxing ring, poised to deliver his punches.

The presumption and the belligerence embodied in this ideal have put off many American women writers. They weren't going to be allowed into the Room to begin with, but exclusion gave them the opportunity to discover something important: There's more than just one room. There are, in fact, an awful lot of rooms in American fiction, rooms in which Mailer contemporaries as brilliant and varied as Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Ursula K. Le Guin and Paule Marshall found ways to flourish creatively and reach many readers, albeit without the prestige accorded to the guys in the Room.

Often the debate about bias against women writers -- now regularly revived by the annual VIDA survey and its dismaying figures on the gender breakdown of book reviewers and authors reviewed in prominent literary publications -- focuses on genre. Why are some themes (courtship, family life) or forms (the short story) typically regarded as less significant than others (war, adventure, the epic novel)? How is it that purportedly lightweight themes suddenly become momentous in critics' eyes when the novelist who takes them up is a man (Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides)?

These are legitimate and essential challenges to the values embedded in Mailer's concept of the Room. It's also true that chipping away at the fantasy of a rigidly hierarchical aesthetic pecking order -- a typological crutch for structure junkies -- will open up the literary landscape to more writers and readers. It's important to challenge both the Room and the supremacy of the kind of novel the Room tends to prize: long, wide-ranging, idea-driven, full of social commentary and concerned with the American dream of self-invention -- "ambitious," as critics often call it.

Given how fiercely American male writers have fought for the Great American Novel laurels, many women authors apparently decided it simply wasn't worth wading into the fray. Furthermore, there's a grandiose self-presentation, a swagger, that goes along with advancing your book as a Great American Novel that many women find impossible or silly. Besides, critics longing for a silverback alpha male to declare the leader of the pack are never going to glance at the distaff side. Who wants to play a game whose rules are so obviously rigged against you?

So we don't have many novels of this type written by American women, even if the women who might have written them (Jennifer Egan, say, or Joyce Carol Oates, to name just two) have done equally impressive work in other rooms, such as composing prismatic explorations of style or exploding seemingly hidebound genres like the gothic. Still, it's possible to point out that a novel needn't be "ambitious" to be worthy of the highest acclaim and yet stop short of dismissing the "ambitious" genre entirely. American women writers have been so creative in the other rooms of our national literature that it's easy to miss the paucity of conventionally "ambitious" novels written by their hands -- until that is, a book like Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" comes along.

"The Flamethrowers" isn't a perfect novel -- but "ambitious" novels rarely are. Still, it is very good, especially in parts, and above all it is unsettling. It has a seamless confidence in itself and in the significance of what it has to say that you don't realize was missing from most fiction by American women novelists until you see it exhibited in Kushner. She seems not so much to be defying the masculine prerogative in this genre as to be unaware of it in the first place. As Franzen, a former teacher of Kushner's, told the New York Times, "I had the sense that she came from a place where nobody had told young women what they could and couldn’t be." She certainly writes like someone from that fabled land.

"The Flamethrowers" mostly takes place in the late 1970s, in New York, in Italy and a little bit in the salt flats of Utah. It is also mostly narrated by a young woman nicknamed Reno (after her hometown), as she makes her way through the Manhattan art scene. Reno makes films, but her real entree into those rarefied circles arrives thanks to her relationship with Sandro Valera, an older minimalist who specializes in metal boxes. She's working-class; he comes from an Italian clan that made a fortune in motor vehicles and tires. He insists on his detachment from the Valera dynasty, but she notices that even when he wears the same "work clothes and steel-toed boots" that her cousins did, "on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money." (Or, for that matter, not made effete by art itself. How much of the testosterone bluster of American literature originates in the anxious suspicion that writing is sissy work?)

But the boldness of this novel has more to do with its voice than its subject matter; you get a heaping serving of Kushner's virtuosity in the opening chapters, which describe Reno's journey back west by motorcycle, as part of a nebulous art project. I could present samples of her writing here, but better yet, just see James Wood's nearly gobstruck review of "The Flamethrowers" in the New Yorker; he is the maestro of the representative quote, after all. He does a good job of what may be an impossible task. It is fiendishly hard to nail down and demonstrate the quality that most distinguishes the work of a remarkable author -- that is, her authority. Kushner has authority in spades, seemingly without reaching for it, as if she were just born that way.

"The Flamethrowers" is mold-breaking, not only because it is written by a woman but also because its central character is a woman. In the books most often cited as candidates for the Great American Novel, male characters -- Jay Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Ahab -- have played that role, representatives, presumably, of the American experience. But (and do I really even need to say it at this stage?), the notion that a female figure might serve the same purpose undermines the very concept of the Great American Novel. Men are allowed to stand for the entirety of a national identity or for humanity itself, but women are only supposed to stand for womanhood, if in various flavors.

This is not to say that Kushner overtly presents Reno as the quintessential American, although the character's trajectory is as aspirational in its own way as Gatsby's and she seeks a rupture with the past as decisive as Huck's (even if she lights out in the opposite geographical direction). In fact, Reno's problems are very much a young woman's problems. She is in danger of coasting on her physical allure and prone to attaching herself to decisive men in order to obtain the forward momentum she professes to crave. Taking a job at a film lab, she poses as a "China girl" on film leaders, one among any number of female faces whose skin tones provide a base line for color correction by technicians, "real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were." It's the worst form of a representative identity: both generic and anonymous, a means to an end, an everywoman who is nobody.

So potent is the voice Kushner gives Reno that many of the book's reviewers forget that the only character in the novel who can hear it is Reno herself; to everyone else, she's just Sandro's long-legged blonde girlfriend. Even the motorcycle she acquires to execute her "art" on the Utah desert is a gift from Sandro, and one Reno promptly totals; she can't really handle its power. Only late in the novel does she genuinely come to own the vehicle; until then, figuratively at least, Reno is perched in a sidecar, and would be going nowhere if not for the horsepower provided by others.

All this makes "The Flamethrowers" a fascinating litmus test for reviewers, especially the male ones. Wood, whose ideal fiction succeeds in making itself felt as reality, admires the novel greatly, but seems almost spooked by it. He writes of Kusher's "eerie confidence … which constantly entwines the invented with the real, and she often uses the power of invention to give her fiction the authenticity of the reportorial, the solidity of the historical."

There is another breed of critic who gets drunk on high style, and will forgive a novel any manner of thematic or narrative stumbling if it offers enough pyrotechnical prose; they could once be seen swooning over Don DeLillo or John Updike. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner tacks toward this giddy camp in his review of "The Flamethrowers," praising Kushner's style for its "poise and wariness and moral graininess," before concluding that by the end of the book, Kushner has "burned down whatever resistance you might have toward her talent or her narrative." It is hard to hold out against someone who describes Roy Orbison's hair as "black as melted-down record vinyl."

But other reviews are warped by the novel's categorical instability. In a head-patting, plot-summary-heavy piece for BookForum, Christian Lorentzen interjects multiple, irrelevant references to his own past as the son of a truck driver and later a truck driver himself. He also questions the plausibility of Reno's description of an uncle who watched television naked, lazily ordering his kids to change the channels for him. These seem to be attempts to assert the reviewer's own working-class credentials, the better to question that "eerie confidence" of Kushner's, the uncanny, unfeminine authority with which she feels entitled to write about such things. Then he congratulates her for "growing up" enough to write about a reasonably contemporary period and hopes she'll do even better next time. (Kushner's first novel was set in pre-Revolutionary Cuba.)

But perhaps the most strident note of "How dare she?" came from Adam Kirsch, in Tablet. Acknowledging that "The Flamethrowers" "implodes all the usual assumptions about what gender means in literature," Kirsch goes on to complain that it is "full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool" and to accuse Kushner of "mythologizing." You could say the same of any novel by Don DeLillo -- whom Kirsch has rated among the "top ranks of American literature" (along with Philip Roth, John Updike and Thomas Pynchon). I would argue there's a lot less portentousness and cool in "The Flamethrowers" than in DeLillo's work, and that Kushner's novel is far less sterile. When Kushner does it, however, these qualities make for "a macho novel by and about women, which may explain" -- ouch! -- "why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics."

By this rationale, to stand among the top ranks of American literature (that is, make it into the Room) you must write in a certain way, but a woman who does so engages in a form of literary transvestism that may dazzle lesser critics but is not going to pass muster with Adam Kirsch, thank you very much. This Catch-22-style bind recalls a recent episode of "Veep," in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing the American vice president, Selina Meyer, is groped by the husband of the Finnish prime minister after they sneak off for a cigarette break. Although she's the wronged party, Selina, as her chief-of-staff warns her, is the one who must strive to cover it up: "Having your tit fondled by a Finn? It would define you. You can't build a statue on that." Selina concurs, bitterly, "because this is a man's world we live in." She takes a spectacularly venomous draw on her smoke and adds, "because of the Axis of Dick."

Kirsch also objects to the artifice engaged in by most of the characters in "The Flamethrowers," who do indeed spin a lot of yarns and do a lot of bits. The most extreme among them is Reno's first friend in New York, a woman named Giddle, whose "art" consists of taking a job as a waitress, becoming "a girl working in a diner, glancing out the windows as she cleaned the counter in small circles with a damp rag." Everything Giddle does is art, but only she (and Reno) know the extent of it. "Anyone can be a success," she explains. "It’s so much more interesting to not want that."

What the novel lacks, Kirsch laments, is a depiction of "what all its characters are like when they are not aflame, not performing their selves but simply being." As a result, he finds that instead of offering a "critique of artificiality" the book "ends up reading like a celebration of it." (This he links to the concept of "mansplaining," but in a way that seems to misapprehend the meaning of the term.) This statement is oddly reminiscent of something Sandro tells Reno: "You don't have to immediately become an artist … You're young. Young people are doing something even when they're doing nothing. A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist." Sort of like a China girl -- a fleeting, muselike aide to someone else's creative endeavor.

It's an easy gig, and Reno takes it, pursuing her own work in a desultory fashion and tagging along with her lover to various galleries and dinner parties. When, on a trip to Italy, she catches Sandro fooling around with another woman, the illusion that such a life constitutes "doing something" shatters and she runs away. (Lorentzen, who interprets this flight as indicating that what Reno really wants is "that middle-class staple: faithful monogamy" misses the point; what she has witnessed is her own easy replaceability.) Hitching her wagon to another man -- this one the heavy for a group of Italian militants -- Reno will get one final lesson on the costs of her passivity.

An alternative is to be like Giddle, whose being is itself a performance, and vice versa. Giddle's method is the diametric opposite of Mailer's Room ("It's so much more interesting to not want that"), an acceptance of marginalization as a woman's lot and a rationale for how that acceptance can be a form of victory. It's an ingenious solution, if recessive one. Really: This novel is so much concerned with the dilemmas faced by women artists, it's striking that most of the reviews, favorable or not, barely remark on the fact. Giddle has holed up in some small, remote closet in the mansion of American culture -- free to do what she likes, but deprived of an audience. I doubt, however, that anything less than the whole house would ever be enough for Rachel Kushner, and thank God for that.

Further reading

The VIDA survey of women in the literary arts, 2012

James Wood on Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" for the New Yorker

Dwight Garner on "The Flamethrowers" for the New York Times

Maria Russo profiles Rachel Kushner

Adam Kirsch on "The Flamethrowers" for Tablet

"Axis of Dick" clip from "Veep"

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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