The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Kushner

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Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is full of energy. It is about people carving out their own worldviews into the established façade of the world. The artists in New York and the protesters in Italy are moving toward something different—something, if not more genuine, then at least more acceptable to their own sense of reality.

Amidst all these swirling forces, rides Reno on her motorcycle. She is a young artist who takes it all in, to experience all she can, to learn from those who live based on their own convictions built from their own experiences. In this novel, “the things that occurred did so because [she] was open to it,” and her openness gives access to so many thoughtful and divergent characters. The characters’ commentaries on artifice, revolution, and the power of individual expression are incredibly relevant today.

I had the opportunity to ask Kushner some questions over e-mail, which added to this interview its own screen of refraction and attempted contextualization. Nevertheless, we landed on important points about fiction rising from instinct, and about the complicated, convoluted causes and intersections of art and revolution.

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The Rumpus: There’s a sense of speed and an undercurrent of jubilant destruction in every character and image in this novel (I think gasoline, motorcycles, guns, riots, castaway relationships, and art as gesture are all related to this). And yet the worlds that share these elements that the main narrator experiences are irreconcilable: Reno can’t draw a connection between the smell of gasoline in her cousins’ Nevada garage and the stench of gasoline on the people of Piazza del Popolo, and this makes her sad for her cousins. How does fiction have the power to bring these elements together in such a ranging and satisfying novel?

Rachel Kushner: The narrator is saying she does see a connection between Reno boys who tinker on dirt bikes and the aftermath of a demonstration/riot in Rome: they are connected by the smell of gas. Meaning her association with gas is now broken. She has to incorporate a new and more complex association with what was formerly an “innocent” smell for her. The kids I knew growing up who worked on bikes all loved the smell of gas. It is the liquid agent for speed.

Novels can—should—mirror the non-coherence of the world. Rarely do I relate when a writer utilizes narrative structure to force reconciliation. For me, truth cracks open in the places where things do not cohere. That’s how life is. Rupture and incoherence of parts, which stream into understanding. I guess my intention with the form—what I think the form can do—is stream what doesn’t fit into a frequency of some kind, not a plot of some kind. I would prefer to let the reader deal with holding together what fits because it is in one book, and not because the writer tried to make parts cohere in a symphonic logic. But all writers say some version of that, that they want books to match the rupture and incoherence of life. The question is how much do you really allow for it. I hope for more of it in my own work, in the future.

Rumpus: The characters are so involved in the happenings of their time, the late 1970s of New York and Italy, but the novel opens with a scene of World War I, and the background of the founder of the Valera empire is explored in later chapters.  Why is his narrative important to the rest of the book? Is it because the chaos and velocity of the rest of the century was sparked by the modernization and destruction experienced during the first World War?

Kushner: Not exactly, but someone could make that argument. I don’t quite see the 20th century as one of chaos. But I believe in certain inevitable outcomes of a materialist nature.

The FlamethrowersThat said, if my decision to include the Valera thread—open with it—were a straight theory about the processes of history, it would be a work of history. Since it’s fiction, the book resonates, at least for me, on various levels, some of which intimate ideas about history but none of which have the kind of directly causal reasoning you cite. Valera and what he spawned was a thread that was about Italy, and both wars, and motorcycles, industry, factories, modernism, money, inheritance, and legacy.

But aside from all that, the real reason Valera is important to the book is because he’s in it. I’m not trying to be coy or anything. He opens the novel. It could not be whatever it is without him. I always intended for the book to have a futurist strain to it. It just made sense. Valera is a futurist who becomes an industrialist—you only can get that in fiction. None of the futurists had any real relationship to industry, factories, the worker. And yet the north of Italy is all about factory culture. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was where the fastest motorcycles in the world were being made. And they had some political problems there. Serious turbulence. In addition, I was interested in the way modernism links up with violence, which for me was symbolized strikingly by the fact that Brasilia was more or less funded by Brazil’s profits from wartime rubber harvesting, which was basically slave labor. There were various threads and strands that this Valera aspect of the book was able to touch upon. It’s the spine of the novel, for me.

Rumpus: The art world and culture of 1970s New York is brought to life by acts of art that pushed the boundaries between the artist and the viewer. In The Flamethrowers we have numerous examples of avant-garde artistic projects: punching a time clock every hour, living outside for a year, Ronnie’s desire to photograph every living person, Gloria’s pelvis window project, and so on. What was the logic behind the types of performances each character created?

Kushner: I don’t really see art as structured by logic. Thankfully, it is a break from that. And yet, when it works, it comes through with clarity, doesn’t it? Ronnie’s desire to photograph every living person is actually a piece by the late artist Douglas Huebler. The time clock and living outdoors pieces are both real, by the artist Tehching Hsieh. I think he is truly one of the great artists. He lived outside for a year. Was shot at, mugged. He lived in a cage for a year. I knew someone who was old friends with him and went to the event at the gallery when Tehching was released from the cage. Apparently he was totally freaked out, like, hiding in a corner. My friend found him and hustled him out of the gallery, so the story goes. Put him on the back of his motorcycle. This friend said to me, about that night, “I took him all over New York. It was his re-entry to life, and he grabbed onto me like a monkey as we rode, just holding on for dear life.” Tehching later punched a time clock on the hour, every hour, twenty-four hours a day for a year—a project that, for me, has an extra glow to it because my book is to some degree about time, a set of abstract questions about time.

Interesting you land on all the artworks that I inlaid as references to real pieces. The logic of placing them there is to recreate the feel of that era, the 1970s, when the artwork dematerialized into gesture, affect, commentary, dare, proposal, lament.

Rumpus: A theme of the novel—especially surrounding the New York art world but also with how other characters present themselves—is what it means to be authentic. The inclusion of photographs in the text breaks a barrier that is set up as the reader is jolted from a fictional world, created by a sole narrator, to witness an image that carries other implications—that this is a real world we live in, that other storytellers are involved (the photographers). The experience of seeing a photograph can take authority away from the narrator because it makes it a story the reader can create from the context of a photograph, or it can act as a third party confirmation of the narrator’s story. What led to the decision to include photographs at the beginning of some chapters?

Kushner: Authenticity is too big a subject to just toss in with the question about the photographs! Or, too big to answer. But I can try. In short, I’m pretty suspicious of the idea that there’s a real and true and authentic world, and then a bunch of false ones. Life is much more convoluted, as is the arena of truths. I love Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions; it’s genius and so entertaining—a gold standard of American novels—but the feeling that he is skewering the fakery and fraudulence of modern life, even as it’s all hilarious and great, is also kind of the book’s weakness, in my humble opinion. People who experience themselves as authentic are also experiencing themselves as myth, but that’s not the narrative they’re going with, is it? I don’t regard the real and true and authentic as something to claim as a moral high ground. It is, instead, something to think about as an ideal or false ideal.

Now onto the second part of your question: I find that words and images both carry “other implications.” And yet I agree that using photographs in a work of literature is a break with some kind of pact, a convention. There are some good reasons not to employ images next to text. Most fiction writers don’t do it. Sebald did it and became the guy who includes photographs in his novels (in addition to being the guy who wrote beautifully and profoundly about post-war Europe). Roland Barthes has a really clever little passage on this issue in his book, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. He shows images of his childhood and then departs from that, in pursuit of a repertoire—an account of an existence—that is not “hampered, validated, or justified” by photographic representation. I think about that a lot. Why is it a photograph can disrupt the sheen of a text? The question itself leads me to want to include photographs in a novel. I would have done it in my first novel, but I didn’t know enough to trust my own sense of what’s allowed in that regard.

In this case, it was an absolute instinct. I suggested it to my editor, Nan Graham, and she responded enthusiastically. My novel opens outward. It deals with images, takes them seriously, is in dialogue with them. The images in the book are not illustrative—they are not meant to validate or justify—or to hamper. They are there to complicate or please, or hopefully both.

Rumpus: References to film and the acting that goes into a cinematic portrayal are woven so satisfyingly through this novel. It made me think of how much artifice we create and have to digest in daily life.  The rebels in Rome were automatically more genuine, more “humane” than the crowd Reno associated with in New York. Yet it didn’t seem to me that artistic expression was valued any less than revolutionary acts, as long as it came from a genuine desire to create (or perhaps destroy, which is a form of creation). What is the relationship between artistic expression and political revolution to you?

Kushner: Well, that is a very big question, and one I am somewhat hesitant to answer. Because answering risks reducing the project of this novel I’ve written to some kind of thesis, which would render the journey of the book kind of unnecessary. Except there is no thesis; there is, instead, the book. You are correct, I think, to say that the two realms spinning—the realm of art, aesthetics, gestures, on the one hand, and the realm of politics and revolutionary aims and acts, on the other—are not meant to be in competition, with one of higher value than the other. I’m not belittling the art world. Not at all. I take it quite seriously, actually. But the logic of art is a vanguard logic that pressures art to incorporate the quotient of risk. I am interested in risk, in art as well as in the realm of politics.

Rumpus: The story of Gloria desiring Ronnie and then being talked back by her husband Stanley is one of the sweetest and most truthful love stories I’ve ever heard. It’s so tender and personal between them, and shows a real understanding of a partner as their love ebbs and flows. The love story between Reno and Sandro obviously has large implications in the narrative. Can you expound on the importance of romantic relationships in the novel?

Kushner: Well, Stanley is basically saying, “You’re stuck with me.”

Infatuation is so often not requited. Infatuation with a person like my character Ronnie is not going to be requited. He knows it, and the women who fall under his sway know it, too. It’s what makes him attractive to them. I’m not really sure how important relationships are to this novel. Desire is maybe closer to something I can claim to be interested in. Desire and various missed connections, failures to connect, inabilities to do so. The strange empathy for someone you can’t love. The way in which a seduction takes hold as a commitment, on the part of the one seduced and not on the seducer, how it is people decide to place themselves in the passive position—those things are of interest to me. Not that relationships aren’t. But the characters in this book, with the exception of Gloria and Stanley, have other concerns. And Stanley and Gloria—I guess in a way I see them as not so sweet, as a kind of death-drive or something. I could see her locking him out and he’s drunk and falls asleep in a snow bank and freezes to death. It’s too maudlin, I would not put that in the book, but I can see it happening.

Rumpus: Reno is a passive character always along to observe while others pose, perform, and act. But she also uses sex with Sandro in the woods as “a way to defend [her]self, [her] autonomy.” How does sex function as a performance or as an expression of power with these characters?

Kushner: In the same way maybe that sex does in real life.

I don’t find her all that passive, in any case. She’s riding a motorcycle in the land speed trials as the book opens. And she gets the last and final word on everyone around her, which is also not passive. It’s as active as being a writer is active.

Rumpus: Maybe “passive” isn’t the right word, but she accepts input from the world around her without reacting against it. The reader accesses her response, but it is all internalized. In a way, this is how many narrators work, as observers of many different viewpoints of the world. In Sandro’s chapter, he calls her ambitious, but her ambition isn’t obvious to the reader from her perspective. I wonder how motorcycles function as a way to gain agency. What is the appeal of the image of the woman on the motorcycle to you?

Kushner: It felt natural to me that a young woman her age in a place that’s beyond her level of experience, that has codes and nuance to it, would not be reacting all over town, laying down the law, telling people how it is. Of course there are characters who would do that, but she isn’t one of them. She moves to New York to be an artist, and I guess I see that as a certain kind of ambition, to cut yourself away from familiarity and try for something in which you have no social foothold. There is the issue of class there, as well.

woman on motorcycleI’m not really interested in agency. That word gets used a lot and fine if people want to have agency in their own lives, I mean, of course. But demanding that novel characters surpass the limits others place on them and rise up and act? I feel no responsibility to build characters that recuperate to progress, or so-called progress. To me the narrator seems realistic, relatable for me, as a set of thoughts, a way of being, as a twenty-two-year-old girl. Motorcycles aren’t about gaining agency, I don’t think. Someone could say that, the temptation is there, but if you’ve ever ridden them, they are about the feel, the satisfaction that’s distinct to riding a two-wheeled chassis with a fast motor in it. There is no real appeal for me in an image of a woman on a motorcycle. I was writing about what I know from the experience of having spent many years riding them in my youth in San Francisco, from having raced, crashed at a very high speed, and not from any inspiration deriving from an image of a girl on a motorcycle.

Rumpus: Reno’s discovery of Sandro cheating leads her to join the opposition against his family (and his family’s class).  At one point she fuses her private sadness to the public rage of women all over the country and, so impassioned, joins the marching women. Was the intent of this sequence to give Reno a personal connection to political upheaval?

Kushner: I don’t really have those kinds of intentions when I write a scene. I try to follow the internal logic of the fiction, rather than make an argument or an assertion. She finds herself among people who are the enemy of her boyfriend’s family, but it’s not exactly a willful act on her part. And then she finds herself in a protest march, but the context of the march is beyond her, to some degree. That said, the complaints of the women are something with which she can identify, and does. But I didn’t write the scene in order to make that happen. I merely tried to imagine how she would feel, in an environment that’s like a sea of people and some of it is way beyond her ability to interpret, and some of it isn’t.

Rumpus: Midway through the novel there is a chapter of anecdotes about the Motherfuckers’ subversive actions in New York in the late 1960s. The disjointed narrative reads like flashes of memory, and also puts the emphasis on their actions, which is fitting because they are a group about action. What was the purpose of using that form in the chapter and how did you find that form to tell their story?

Kushner: The chapter is called “The Way We Were.” Each action begins with a verb, a thing they did. When all is said and done, later, as a historical record, you can say you did this or that, even if you and your group scattered and self-pulverized. They have their dignity, their epoch, which is to say, a series of acts. The chapter is the record of those acts. Or rather, the “choice cuts” as Burdmoore, the unacknowledged narrator, puts it. I guess the form was meant to reflect the state of mind of Burdmoore. It was also meant to be somewhat fun, a noted break from the main narrative, but hopefully one that lends it a different context, light.

Rumpus: This novel is never polemic, but it does seem to favor the people in acts of rebellion, especially in Rome, simply by getting out in the street with those people and telling the story. Was the purpose of giving Sandro’s point of view in the penultimate chapter to counteract any sort of judgment the reader might assume the narrative is making? After all, in that chapter we see the declaration that “a blend of good and bad characterized all humans, and to pretend to sort that out was an insult to human complexity.”

Kushner: I didn’t think of the narrative as making a judgment. It didn’t occur to me the reader would either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible there would be that risk. Others have said it seems like the people in acts of rebellion in this novel come off better than the artists but all of that is so subjective: to me they aren’t in competition for most noble, or most frivolous. I take each of them as complete beings (insofar as a novel character is a being), not in some objective scale of worth, in comparison of one character to the next.

The author Rachel Kushner at her home in Los Angeles.

I guess I agree with that bit you quote, about people being a blend of good and bad. People are complicated. Personally I don’t go in for puritanical people. They seldom like me anyhow, so it’s mutual. Sandro spoke up because the reader wasn’t going to get a deeper sense of who he was without his testimonial. It’s the fallout from his father’s empire and it’s the final chapter of the Valera thread of the novel, as I see it. The final installment of that storyline. Also, I wanted a sudden, broader view on the narrator, from Sandro’s perspective. She doesn’t understand him, and nor will the reader, unless he speaks up.

Rumpus: Riots of New York and Rome and the documented rebellion of the Motherfuckers don’t lead to lasting change.  They seem to be riots for the sake of riots—a thrilling mix of jubilation and violence. They are only built to burn. No answers are given for the causes or motives of any group or individual action. Is this a statement on life, that it should be appreciated as it is, without meaning lumped onto it?

Kushner: There are several points here in your question I should try to address. First, they are lasting. We are talking about them. The looting on the night of the New York City blackout became an emblem for a certain kind of rage. But maybe your statement depends on what you call “change.” How you define it. The Motherfuckers had their moment and no, they did not successfully overthrow the government. No one yet has. But they represented a militancy, and other militancies might later look back on their actions for inspiration. The rioting of the Motherfuckers, as I see it, is not merely for the sake of riots. It may be the case with the blackout looters, but even when people make that argument—like of the English riots in 2011, you know, “it’s just an angry mob, they aren’t political subjects,” it’s not that simple. They are the angry edge of civil society, a symptom, an acting out. And in any case, everything starts somewhere.

About causes and motives: Burdmoore does explain his group the Motherfuckers’ motives and ideas, in the chapter where he speaks. And he goes into this as well at the dinner party where the narrator meets him. They were responding to the Vietnam War and to a degraded reality as they saw it. They wanted a life that had a kind of deeper value to it, a collectivity and freedom they felt was unavailable under capitalism. None of these people in the book are nihilists, as I see it. Not even the Leninist clandestines in Italy, who the narrator encounters at the end of the book. They believe in something. Like my character Burdmoore says,  “These are people who consider the means they use to be the same, morally, as those of their enemy. In other words no less justified.”

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Featured image of Rachel Kushner © by Lucy Raven.

Second image of Rachel Kushner © by Ann Summa.


Drew Arnold works at GrubStreet, a literary arts center in Boston, and edits the journal of serialized fiction, Novella-T. He is at work on a novel about war, media and banjo music. More from this author →