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Notes on Aspirational Dating: Identity & Belonging in The Flamethrowers

By Houman Barekat.

It was a long drive, and I let the sound and vibrations of the car motor stun my thought patterns into something uniform and calmed. I wondered if I could still be myself with all context, all my reason for being here left behind, discarded.
– Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

In an interview with Salman Rushdie at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in in September 1986, the academic Edward Said reflected on the experience of being a New York Palestinian, on what he called ‘this crazy New York existence, where nobody feels at home really, except probably me.’

The important thing to remember is that I haven’t been to Palestine really at all since the middle-60s, and in the last four years really since ‘82 I haven’t been to many parts of the Arab world so there’s a sense of exclusion. And I think what is interesting is that many of us that are in this peculiar condition are beginning to form a different kind of community which is not based on everyday experience but is based on telephones and certain kinds of activities that occur infrequently. So it’s a strange and marginal kind of existence because there’s no centre to it.

Though Said’s predicament was peculiar to his unusual personal and professional circumstances – he was reticent about using the term Diaspora to describe this bubble; it was something less than that, and qualitatively different – his observations have a resonance far beyond the singular experience of the émigré-exile-pariah-academic.  Ivory towers abound in the big city, and statelessless can take many forms. The lives of those who make their living by intellectual or artistic endeavour in the major metropolitan hubs have this trait in common: the texture of their day-to-day existence is characterised by a curious weightlessness; networks become a substitute for organic community life, and it’s hard to separate your sense of self from whatever mission you happen to be on.

The protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers lives a similarly atomised, contingent existence. She enters the New York art world of the 1970s from a position of total anonymity. She is a blank slate, naïve but self-aware – ‘shopping,’ by her own admission, ‘for experience.’ Her hometown of Reno is romanticised by one artist she encounters as connoting the ‘“poetic dignity”’ of ‘“The real West … Ranchers. Drifters. Divorcees.’” On the face of it, she has little in common with the older man who becomes her lover: the scion of an extremely wealthy family of Italian industrialists, Sandro Valera is a successful New York artist; alongside his louche, charismatic sidekick Ronnie, he presents a veneer of assuredness and cosmopolitan sophistication. Except that he too, in his own way, is out of his depth. We learn that he is desperate to shed his provincialism, to get as far away as possible from the backwardness of Italy and the politically compromised position of his family business. (His destiny?  ‘“To become an American, of course.”’)

He and Ronnie shared something in their longing to reinvent themselves as having no provenance, no Pickwick. I, on the other hand, was known to them as being distinctly and precisely a girl from Reno.

It is precisely this judicious rendering of personal journeys that marks out The Flamethrowers as a mature work, notwithstanding its sentimental homage to youthful idealism. Kushner’s protagonist is not an idealised heroine but a cautious and astute pragmatist: at a mere 20 years of age, she is all too aware that she hasn’t yet acquired the cultural purchase to hold her own in the milieu she has entered. She is observing, learning, making sense of it all. She doesn’t speak all that much. It isn’t exactly the stuff of feminist fantasy, but it rings true to most people’s experience of that difficult formative period. In an interview with The Believer, Kushner rejected suggestions from some quarters that the character lacked ‘agency’. Such critics, she explained, ‘expect of my narrator a strength they think they possess, but the thing is she doesn’t have it. She has her own strength, which isn’t about being the loudest at the dinner table.’

The twin loci of social unrest in New York and Rome comprise the axis of the story, but The Flamethrowers speaks to an essential  human concern that transcends politics – a longing for authenticity and permanence. Perhaps its clearest, most direct articulation occurs in a symbolically loaded reference to the practice, among some Amazonian tribes, of weighting the bodies of the dead with stones in the hope of preventing their souls from wandering off. The narrator’s own day-job, prior to her Italian sojourn, as a ‘China girl’ for a film studio – her face would appear briefly on the reel leader to calibrate the camera to Caucasian skin tone  (‘“a reference file for reality … it doesn’t matter that you exist”’) – also evokes the spectre of transience. Many of the book’s most poignant vignettes relate, in one way or another, to traces left behind:  whether it is the protagonist photographing the tyre-marks of her motorcycle on the salt flats of Bonneville; or a colleague at the film lab relating his wonder at the macabre discovery of a real-life execution (of an Italian fascist by partisans in World War Two) among reels of stock footage – those ‘small integers of life’ preserved forever; or a fleeting description of an Asian pin-up girl on a 1950s calendar, ‘her face faded to grayish-green, smiling under all that lapsed time.’

Kushner’s descriptions of New York repeatedly centre on neon as a motif for its allure: ‘electric jewellery on the lithe body of the city.’ Where others usually find only a forbidding bleakness in its unnatural glow, Kushner – or, at any rate, her narrator – sees a source of inspiration. ‘Only a killjoy,’ she writes, ‘would claim neon wasn’t beautiful.’ (Of course, there are limits to how far one can go with this sort of thing: the barrel was well and truly scraped in that scene in American Beauty where Wes Bentley’s character invites his love interest to gaze in wonderment at a film he made of a paper bag blowing about in the wind. After that point, further hyperbole became impossible.)

It resonates because we’ve all been there – if not in real life, then in countless movies. Our cultural aesthetic remains steeped in 1970s Americana – its stock image version, stripped of meaning and on sale at your local branch of Urban Outfitters. Back then, Fuck the Police was a slogan; today it’s an internet meme, a pastiche. That urgency has been replaced by complacency, earnestness with irony. The contemporary counterpoint to that Baader-Meinhoff-style leftist misanthropy (Kushner’s guerrilla-in-chief is the delightfully-named Fah-Q Motherfucker) is the naïve eclecticism that hopes to unite 99% of society against the other 1%. Because all these questions remain open, The Flamethrowers is no mere nostalgic tourism.

Later in the novel we discover that Sandro has been prolifically dating (and discarding) American blondes, a proclivity for which he is cruelly put down by his overbearing mother. His cousin Talia – chunky and wobbly-thighed, but positively oozing entitlement – maintains a bizarre hold over him, much to the discomfort of his girlfriend. Despite his seniority in years, his carefully cultivated identity is no less brittle than hers. What makes their relationship interesting is that both parties seem to be using one another in an attempt to fulfil themselves: she wants to be a New York artist, he wants to be an American. Like so much good fiction, it is ultimately about social mobility. A sense of deracination, and of ambivalence towards one’s adoptive environment, are entirely predictable human responses; as is the desire to cling, in compensation, to anything that might help to centre you. Like a partner, or a photograph, or any trace of a thing that was.

Houman Barekat edits the literary journal, Review 31. He lives in West London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 13th, 2013.