Like China Girls

Naomi Fry

  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
    Harvill Secker, 400 pp, £16.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84655 791 0

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner’s first novel, was set in the American colony in Oriente Province in the years leading up to the revolution. It described a place in which many had very little and a few had a great deal: indentured plantation workers and Castro’s rebels but also anxious American housewives, dissatisfied middle-managers and the vulnerable children of mining and sugar-cane executives. Not only the miserable of the earth were miserable. Capitalism, imperialism, oppressive gender roles: Kushner was equally fired up by them all, and where better than 1950s Cuba to show their universal depredations? But the novel managed to be political without being ideological: the characters are determined by the conditions they labour under, just not in the way dogma tells us they ought to be. Those who suffer most aren’t the only ones who suffer.

For The Flamethrowers, her new novel, Kushner has chosen another politically and culturally charged pocket of 20th-century history. The story – it spans more than sixty years – deals with the rise of Futurism and its subsequent shift into aggressive capitalist industrialism; the New York art world in the 1970s; the Red Brigades’ concurrent ascent in Italy; even a rubber tapping operation in the Amazon. The novel has been the subject of much talk since its publication in America. In the New Yorker, James Wood noted the ‘eerie confidence’ of the storytelling. ‘It ripples,’ he said, ‘with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales and hapless adventures.’ In Salon, Laura Miller said it had ‘authority in spades’, making it a contender for the traditionally masculine prize of Great American Novel. The confidence of the performance, the novelistic wizardry, was what impressed the early reviewers; and, predictably, what frustrated the later ones. In the New York Review of Books, Frederick Seidel damned the book as ‘hysterically overwritten, desperate to show how brilliant it is, a fatiguing endless succession of arrestingly clever similes to describe personalities and situations, similes, similes, cleverness, cleverness’. All the critics, as well as wanting to weigh in on whether it was or wasn’t a Great American Novel, have pronounced on whether it’s ‘persuasive’ or ‘artificial’ (Seidel), or on the ratio between its ‘reality level’ and its ‘fiction level’ (Wood), or on the quality of its invention, or the soundness of its realism. These are standard questions to ask of an ordinary ambitious novelist.

But Kushner isn’t only a novelist. She is also a regular contributor of sharp criticism to such free-thinking American publications as Artforum, and however good her stories and sparkling her prose, she has other aims in her novel too. Its subject is inequality – economic, social, sexual – but the art world, with its attendant performances, is always there to complicate it. Politics and art are always connected in The Flamethrowers: they complement and resist each other, and they do so, crucially, in a story that focuses on a young woman, an artist in her early twenties, whose defining characteristic is that she is impossible to pin down. She is known only as Reno, after her hometown. It’s 1977, and she’s left Nevada – a ‘hard-hat-wearing, dump-truck-driving’ kind of place – to begin a career in New York. But then she comes back west to ride her motorbike in the land speed trials on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. As a girl, Reno recalls, she asked a racing-car champion called Flip Farmer to sign her hand, and then protected the autograph ‘for weeks’, by wrapping it ‘with a plastic bag … rubber banded at the wrist’ when in the shower. (Was this a precocious understanding of the value of the autographed work; or a piece of metaphorical self-dismemberment?) What she wants now is to become a hybrid of Flip and the land artist Robert Smithson, who made his mark on Utah’s topography with his immense coiling earthwork, Spiral Jetty. As Reno explains to her New York boyfriend, Sandro Valera (an older, successful minimalist artist and heir to the Valera motorcycle and tyre fortune), the two things she loves are ‘drawing and speed’. So nothing could make more sense than to mark the land with a vehicle that’s moving as fast as possible: for her conceptual artwork, she is ‘drawing in order to win’.

Her scheme mirrors that of Sandro’s late father, the Italian industrialist T.P. Valera, who joins a gang of motorbike-riding Futurists as a young man in pre-First World War Rome. (Their stories are told in parallel.) Like Reno, he knows that a bike is about more than just speed. Recalling a girl he once liked being whisked off on an older boy’s motorbike, Valera remembers her ‘delicate feminine foot that had been carried away on a smoke-puffing beast’. It is only now, with a bike of his own, that he feels ‘the foot belonged to Valera, an appropriation that had something to do with being virile, metalised, and part of a group of men also virile and metalised.’ Machinery means power: the need for humans is eliminated. As a fellow Futurist announces, in the mechanised wartime utopia ‘women will be pocket cunts … Ideal for battle, for a light infantryman. Transportable, backpackable and silent.’ This kind of power later allows Valera the tyre magnate to reap the surplus value produced by the Indians working for him under virtual enslavement in the rubber forests of Brazil: ‘Faceless mummies bumping into one another. Men in grey, blank, woven masks, adding rubber to form great balls.’

Becoming metalised, metaphorically, also appeals to Reno and many of the people she encounters in the art world. To survive among the downtown cognoscenti you have to be hard, opaque and detached, more self-sufficient machine than yearning flesh. Like T.P. Valera, who is ‘embarrassed … so deeply’ when he sees a fellow Futurist with an ‘eager posture’ and ‘open face’ at a palm reader’s table, Reno knows that ‘it was wanting something a great deal that made people embarrassing.’ Never admitting one’s desire means being able to win: to make it as an artist, or as an industrialist. But a woman like Reno has it harder than men like the Valeras. Although she can pretend ‘that I was Flip Farmer’ as she leaves her mark on the salt flats with her Valera-made motorbike, her day job isn’t so glamorous. One of her responsibilities as an assistant in an East Village film-processing lab is to act as a ‘China girl’, one of the models who appear at the beginning of every film roll, as a supposedly universal (though always Caucasian) referent for the technician making colour corrections. As Reno explains, ‘flesh needs to resemble flesh. It has a norm, a referent: the China girl.’

The problem with flesh, unlike metal, is that violence can be done to it. The deliberately awkward cadence of the heading of the first chapter, ‘He killed him with a motorbike headlamp (what he had in his hand)’, which recounts T.P. Valera’s ‘braining’ of a German soldier in 1917, anticipates the title of the song Sandro and Reno later dance to, the infamous Crystals single ‘He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)’. As they dance, Reno feels as though she ‘was trying to sing along with a song I didn’t know, mouthing each word just after hearing it sung. I didn’t care. Sandro was a good dancer; it was part of his role as the older man, the teacher.’ A kind of violence is done to Reno here: through the chilling lyrics of the song itself, which Kushner quotes (‘If he didn’t care for me/I could have never made him mad/But he hit me/and I was glad’); through her trying, and failing, to follow those lyrics; and through her finally deciding not to worry about it too much, thanks to Sandro and his over-helpful ‘hand on my waist … guiding me’.

Images of the China girls, it turns out, are ‘collected and traded like baseball cards’ by male technicians and projectionists. The girls’ allure, Reno thinks, ‘was partly about speed: run through a projector they flashed by so fast they had to be instantly reconstructed in the mind … real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak colour bar, which was no clue at all.’ In Salon, Miller argued that the China girl was meant to stand for ‘the worst form of a representative identity’, to show the way women are fetishised in images, made ‘both generic and anonymous’, effaced. But it seems to me that The Flamethrowers is trying to suggest something rather more interesting, that being a China girl isn’t really that different from pretending to be – or even from being – Flip Farmer. Both move swiftly over a surface, ‘smiling and remote’, leaving barely a picture behind. The only powerful woman in Telex from Cuba is a dancer – called Rachel K. – with ‘warm-looking, soft-contoured flesh’ whose success as a burlesque performer and double-crossing political operator stems from the way she ‘gauzes her person in persona … person and persona in an elaborate tangle’. In The Flamethrowers, too, Reno enjoys thinking that as a China girl ‘I would be looked at, but by people who didn’t know who I was. I would be looked at and remain anonymous.’ She feels much the same riding her motorbike in the city, where she is ‘separate, gliding, untouchable’. ‘There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure. It made the city a stage, my stage … maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Like China girls. Flash, and then gone.’

*

For Kushner, performance is always connected to politics. A friend of Reno’s abandons her life as a Warhol Factory hanger-on to wait tables in a diner, as a kind of performance piece of her own: ‘The work was demeaning and hard … I no longer had the drive to make it with that Factory crowd … these haughty upper-class bitches who didn’t have to work.’ At the speed trials in Utah, Reno witnesses the Valera racing team’s industrial action, carried out in solidarity with the workers in its Milan tyre factory, who are protesting against labour conditions. The union-led go slow, alien to Reno’s American eyes, is hard to distinguish from performance art: ‘The six technicians and their team manager emerged from the tool and equipment trailer with extreme slowness … The mechanics … distended time, taking longer to perform each task, and punctuating their activities and communications with great pauses.’ But there are limits to what art can do. At a dinner party Reno and Sandro go to, one guest attacks another, a former member of the (real-life) 1960s anarchist group the Motherfuckers, who used theatrical tactics to protest against the Vietnam War. ‘I just think it’s important to draw distinctions between real violence and theatre … You didn’t go to Vietnam. None of you did. It was a hoax … my advice would have been give up the street theatre and drop below the radar. Go underground.’

Like one of the American protagonists of Telex from Cuba, who forms a friendship with her family’s houseboy and is said to be not a ‘sympathiser to communism … just a sympathiser period’, Reno sides with the underdog, though her motives aren’t obviously political. She has a new experience of what it means to be powerless when she goes with Sandro to visit the Valeras at their Lake Como villa. Reno – working-class, American, humiliatingly plebeian – is consistently and brutally picked apart by Sandro’s mother, in a way that seems, to Reno, of a piece with Signora Valera’s fetishistic decision to lay a terrace made from stones once used for grinding polenta, their luxurious, ‘rough-hewn softness’ the result of ‘thousands of hours of peasants toiling away’. Reno begins to understand that the way things look may mask the way things really are. In the villa, ‘all this beauty led me back to a sense of cruelty, to the people kept out, and those kept in, in the kitchen, the washing shed, the servants’ little stone cottages.’ So when she hears that ‘there was massive upheaval at the Valera plants’ in Milan, Reno thinks: ‘good for them.’ She travels to the factory, taking along her Bolex camera, in the hope of getting some ‘interesting footage’ of the picketing workers. What she sees instead is Sandro with another woman, at which point she ‘put the camera down and hit stop’.

The train of events set in motion by this moment has Reno running away from Sandro and the villa with Gianni, a Valera groundskeeper, who takes her to Rome, where she joins a group of political subversives associated with the Red Brigades. At a demonstration in Rome, she watches women’s groups marching ‘with their bullhorns, shouting: “You’ll pay for everything!” I took their rage and negotiated myself into its fabric. I fused my sadness over something private to the chorus of their public lament.’ And yet she doesn’t quite join that lament, even after staying in a flat in Rome with women who call on their sisters ‘to fight with a gun’ against class oppression and the patriarchy. When the time comes, it isn’t Reno but Gianni who commits a violent act. Her complicity is half-hearted, incidental, or that’s what she chooses to believe: ‘My guilt … was a fantasy, I told myself … I was just a girl who went to a factory to meet her boyfriend and met him by accident with another woman.’ For a moment this seems strange, this refusal to admit involvement, or engagement, in a novel which has all along appeared to be arguing for the necessity of active resistance. But Reno’s resistance is of a subtler kind. ‘You’re a good girl,’ Gianni says as he enlists (so he thinks) her help. ‘I couldn’t do this without you.’ When you admit intention – when you declare yourself – you only find that you’ve been made the tool of someone else, ready to be put back in your place. Better to be a China girl – unknowable, untouchable – than a ‘backpackable’ pocket cunt.

The point is nicely made by Ronnie Fontaine, another artist at another dinner party. He tells a long, exotic, fantastic tale of his experiences as a young man after suffering unexplained amnesia. Not knowing who he was, he drifted into the role of cabin boy-cum-rent boy on the yacht of a rich, lascivious couple, a commodore and his wife, who were sailing the world. ‘I was, after all, so impressionable,’ Ronnie explains, ‘with no memories or experiences to draw from’: a male version of Reno, with her effaced passivity. When he emerges from his amnesia, Ronnie realises that he’s been used. The commodore ‘said everything he wanted me to do, or did to me, was for my good, but often it seemed like it was for his good … Was I a slave of some kind?’ And yet, like Reno, he refuses to act:

I could tell you … that the commodore and his wife both died under mysterious circumstances, and lead you to believe that it was at my own innocent boy’s hands that they died, and I could even declare my reasons for murdering them in a way that would leave you satisfied, in fact more than satisfied, that I had done the right thing and that the commodore and his wife had met an appropriate end … I didn’t kill them. Like I said, I’m letting you know that I could start inventing.

It’s better to invent, to fantasise, to leave open the possibility for action, than to take part in a real action that would only satisfy the desires of others, and contribute to one’s own entrapment, as a person playing a role.