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Rachel Kushner’s Novel “The Flamethrowers”

Rachel Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers, is essentially about the relationship between art and life. The author carefully intertwines art, history and events in the life of Reno. Reno is a young woman who has finished college and wants to turn her dreams into reality. She wants to experiment with her love for motorbikes, art and the love of speed on the salt flats of Utah. She understands that her dream can only come true if she goes to New York City. She says, “It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York, first, to become an artist of the West” (Kushner 8). The author also intertwines Reno’s favourite activities, motorcycling and speeding, with war, violence and the early 20th-century revolutions. Ben Lerner captures all these occurrences in his review of the novel. This paper analyses his responses and compares them to the events in novel.

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Lerner’s first response implies that Reno is not interested in art but in speed. He quotes Reno saying: “The photograph would be nothing but a trace. A trace of a trace, they might fail entirely to capture what I hoped for, the experience of speed.” He goes further to illustrate his argument by quoting her saying: “Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed. Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddle vortex. I began to feel the size of this space” (Kushner 32).

Lerner’s statements correctly show that Reno is not interested in art as she claims. She only wants to ride and feel the experience of speeding. She has been riding motorbikes since her childhood. At some point, she even goes against her mother’s warning to ride a motorbike with her cousins, Andy and Scot. She says: “I’d ridden motorcycles since I was fourteen…except past the front of our house, because my mother had forbidden me to ride on my cousins’ motorcycle” (Kushner 12). When she goes to ride on the salt flat, she rides at a speed that makes her forget her intention to take photos of the patterns she draws on the ground.

In Lerner’s second response, he argues that Reno bought a Moto Valera because of her relationship with Sandro Valero, one of the sons of the founder of the Valera Company. This statement is not true because Reno bought her first Moto Valera while still in college, before she met Sandro. She says: “The one I’d owned in college, a ’65, had been white” (Kushner 12). Lerner also notices Kushner’s intention to tell the story of the origin of Valera Motorbikes. He refers to the scene where Valera hits a German soldier with his motorbike headlamp. Reno says, “The German reared up, trying to shoulder-charge him. Valera brained him with the headlamp” (Kushner 2).

In his next response, Lerner argues that Reno pushes the limits of social value just as the vanguards did in the 20th century. His argument correctly reflects the values of Kushner’s characters. Many of them value motorbikes and speed without fearing that they can die if they ride at high speeds. The motorbikes in Kushner’s book are instruments of both life and death (Lerner par. 6). The speeds at which some characters ride their motorbikes threaten their lives while some of them use motorbike parts as weapons for killing others.

For example, in the opening scene in the novel, Valera kills a German soldier using a motorbike headlamp. This act emphasizes that motorbikes are deadly machines. Examples that demonstrate the consequence of speed include Flip Farmer and Reno’s accidents. Flip narrowly escapes death while driving on the sands. Reno hits her head on the salt while riding on it. According to Lerner, these occurrences imply that artists should not obliterate the boundary between art and life (par. 12). The danger of eliminating this boundary is evident when a foreman in the story admits fearing for the lives of his men. The narrator says, “He was risking men and front loaders and very expensive equipment” (Kushner 8).

According to Lerner, every character in the novel confuses art with real life. This confusion goes to the extent of introducing violence in the performance of art. Some characters use tools meant for art to cause violence. He gives the example of a replica of a pistol that fires real bullets. Sandro gives it to his host at a dinner party but later uses it to cause violence in the streets. A replica pistol is a work of art that should be used for artist purposes but not to cause violence. These events illustrate what Lerner calls “The problem of distinguishing real violence from theatre.” Lerner’s argument correctly portrays the occurrences in the story.

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In conclusion, Lerner argues that Kushner’s novel, The Flamethrowers, discusses both the emancipating power and the harmfulness of trying to eliminate the boundary between art and life. It also describes the main character’s love for art, speed and motorcycling. Its central moral is that there should be restraint in the use of art and speed.

Works Cited

Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 2013. Print.

Lerner, Ben. “A Trace of a Trace.” Frieze.158.1 (2013). Web.

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