achel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is rightly being hailed as one the of the best novels in recent memory, a deeply immersive book marked by incisive cultural observations and a vividly descriptive prose style that is drawing comparisons to everyone from Flaubert to Don DeLillo. Its narrative centers on Reno, a 22-year-old woman who somewhat unexpectedly finds herself enmeshed in the avant-garde art scene and radical political movement of mid-1970s New York City (and beyond), a place that’s as alive as any of the book’s many memorable characters.
CityBeat recently connected with Kushner via phone to discuss The Flamethrowers, which was nominated for a 2013 National Book Award and has appeared on just about every best-of-2013 list that matters. The following is a brief taste of our conversation with the author.
The Flamethrowers has received a lot of attention, at least in certain circles, since its publication last April. What’s it like to go from the very solitary endeavor of writing a novel to now having it discussed and dissected in such a public way?
For me, writing is kind of a way of engaging with the world. Everything that I experience in my life and is of interest to me is only of interest to me in so far as it’s either going to transmute into something in my book or it isn’t. I always feel like I’m in a kind of dialogue with people and life and what’s happening around me as I write, but — and I generalize because I’ve only written two novels; it’s not like I have a long and storied history with the novel — when I’m done with a project, that engagement with the world is complete for me.
It’s not that I’m not interested in it anymore — I’m proud of what I’ve done; I recognize something in it that has to do with me and my sensibility — but by the time the book comes out, I’ve already moved on to a new way of engaging with the world. I don’t succumb to tracking very much of that stuff, because it’s just not that interesting if you’re the writer and it’s about you. I like being a writer more than being an author. I think that’s a distinction that has become clear to me through the experience of this book in particular.
I’ve noticed that in a lot of the interviews you’ve done about The Flamethrowers you often challenge the notion that you have any clear or obvious goals when you set out to write a novel…
In answering those questions, I’m kind of heading off the presumption that one goes into the novel with an agenda. That’s just something I never would do, mostly because it’s not a formula that would work, at least not in my hands. I want to have an experience, and I want that experience to change me in some way, come to some new understanding. But the understanding is so synthetic and multilayered when it’s a novel. You’re taking material from the world and it’s being ordered in part by your unconscious and also a part of the intellect that’s maybe only half-conscious. Those processes and elements can’t really come into play and do their work if they’re being directed by the conscious mind: “This is the kind of book I want to write. This is the sort of effect I want to produce.” That seems like a kind of dead engagement. With any work of art, if you know exactly what you’re going to do beforehand, it’s not going to surprise the maker. It would be like paint-by-numbers.
With that said, The Flamethrowers might be a challenging read for those who prefer more conventional, plot-driven narratives. Do you take the reader in account when writing?
No, I don’t. I think of the novel as more like a tapestry of life. It needs to have some kind of forward motion, and I’m interested in plot to a certain degree, but not totally. I don’t really enjoy reading novels that are massively plotted and come to a kind of symphonic ending where everything ties up. I sometimes can get sucked into reading a book like that, but I never think about those kinds of books afterward.
Though set in 1970s Italy and New York City, the political themes of the book also seem to comment on what’s going on today, especially as it pertains to how we’re still struggling to adapt to our new post-industrial era. Was that something you were thinking about when writing the book?
There’s this real group — they were called Up Against the Wall Motherfucker! — that I had based my group, The Motherfuckers, on (in the book). I had read about them because the guy who started that, his name is Ben Morea, had resurfaced. The ultra-left scene that got to know each other through Occupy and student movements and just politics in general had been very influenced by him and were kind of electrified by his reemergence because he lived in total obscurity for 39 years and then he showed up to some meeting in New York City. I heard about that and started reading about their history…When I was writing the book, Occupy happened and then the anti-austerity movements happened in Greece and Spain, the student movement happened in Chile and the Arab Spring happened. There was a lot happening in the real world and I knew a lot of people who were involved in these things. It just so happened that the milieu that I wanted to write about in the book had some relevance to what was going on in the world today.
What role does the novel occupy in our current, rapidly evolving, ever-fracturing cultural landscape? Is seems like, with various intrusions like social media and cell phones, it’s harder than ever to set aside the time and attention necessary to truly engage with a novel.
: (Laughs.) Good question. I don’t know. I think there are people who are eager and also skillful at taking the culture’s temperature and making a sort of prognosis. I don’t think I am one of those people. I don’t think I’d be able to do a good job of answering that. I only know my version of life, and it’s a pretty protected, luddite’s reality. I don’t do a lot of social media. I don’t write on a computer that’s connected to the Internet. But I do seem to be around people who are quite serious readers who are a little more immersed in that faster-paced culture, so who knows…The world is so divided up into these minute integers, with different human beings and their different concerns, and in my own selfish little way, I’m just going to let other people worry about that stuff.
RACHEL KUSHNER speaks as part of the University of Cincinnati’s Visiting Writers Series 7 p.m. Monday at McMicken Hall (Room 127). For more information, call 513-556-5860.
UPDATE: Kushner's talk has been cancelled due to flight delays.