Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, page 37


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After looking forward a great deal to Kushner’s novel, I’ve felt stymied getting into it, primarily for what seems a major error in delivering Reno, the protagonist, in a 1st person voice rather than a 3rd, which she constantly reads to me. There is a gap in the characterization, a vacancy in presence or persona, that would work in 3rd but feels like we don’t quite have her in 1st. She is also given to poetic observations about the world that do not feel like they should come from her and as if a novelist is effectively feeding her lines. Which of course is the case. Kushner should have stepped back in narrative distance, kept Reno at a close 3rd. This would have permitted the poetry while letting us focus on the character as object and enactor rather than someone we’re supposed to understand (and are failing to).

A stronger editor feels necessary throughout. These poetic flights deserve to be reined in left and right – detail makes us pause and wonder why it is there rather than paint a narrative picture.

In the snapshot page: one character (the non-1st person historical personage Valera) sees a woman he likes disappear with another man on a motorcycle.

Second whole paragraph, it is not clear until a god distance in that ‘He was abandoned to his own sudden urge’ refers to his need to masturbate.

What does ‘He felt like a baby snake with too much venom’ mean? In retrospect, that he needs to toss one off, but even so, it’s a bad image to create. What is a baby snake like, with too much venom? What does that mean?

‘defiling melons’ – Why ‘smuggled’? Is it a mystery who might be taking them? Does he do this often? The suggestion seems to be often, which is hilarious. If so, won’t we be better discussing what a strange practice it is, sticking one’s dick into a honeydew? How did he discover this? How messy must that be? A suggestion Kushner does not have a dick: I imagine this to be very sticky and cold, not very pleasant, but then I remember Henry Miller discussing fucking cored apples, so what do I know.

‘superstitious Egyptians’ — a weird reference that we don’t get enough information to parse. How do blue handprints ward off the evil eye? Why blue? Does this superstition mean anything to him, in his turgid state?

‘erection’ – finally we figure out he has a hard-on, although the melon business suggested it. Don’t dance around the naughty topic.

‘with the calm thrill of entering a woman, he entered the ocean’ – walking into an ocean is in no way, shape or form, like sticking your dick into a woman. No, just… no.

‘pumped his legs in the water and composed’ – the transition between blue balls and poetry-writing is pretty swift, here, and not at all what it feels like to plunge into the ocean instead of getting one’s rocks off. There is a missing transition here. Anger, frustration, shame. Something.

‘His body disappeared at the waterline and he felt bifurcated. Two halves, above the water and below it.’ – Is that really what bifurcated means? Thanks for addressing the confusion.

‘water balloon breasts’ – Marie is given water balloon breasts earlier and here it’s repeated; it’s repeated again, later. One can only hope her tush is made of latex and filled with rubber cement.


These are editing mistakes. The page reads like a good first or second draft. Hell, even a third. But there’s no way this should have gone past another set of good eyes, or she should have caught them herself. I’m still wanting more about the melons – there’s a tart melony smell, a shame he’s had growing up, a sign to himself that he’s becoming a new fellow, unwilling to do what he’s done so many times as a teeth-rattlingly oversexed youth, when he passes the pantry by. Instead she just kind of mentions it while failing to generate any human eccentricity from it. And the bifurcated/two halves thing should have gone a long time before. It’s redundant. Also, it’s redundant. Leaving aside the entire passage is both overwritten — let’s cut it all in half, shall we? — and underwritten — the acute sense of hearing, how might this be related to his sexual arousal?

I’m afraid the book is full of this stuff. She can clearly sling a sentence together, is far more interesting to read than most writers, but where was the editor? And who could have told her to change the POV?


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