THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner is told by a young unnamed female motorcycle racer who moves from Reno to New York City in the mid-1970s to become...moreTHE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner is told by a young unnamed female motorcycle racer who moves from Reno to New York City in the mid-1970s to become a 'real' artist. Once there she takes on the name "Reno" from her birthplace and becomes entranced by her new friends--pretentious, upper class concept artists who like to argue, drink, and date each others' spouses. Nonetheless, I was immediately drawn by Reno's voyeurism, which seems on par with Nick Carraway's. Reno tends to comment (quite beautifully) on everything going on around her as she barely participates:
"Smithson was quoted declaring that pollution and industry could be beautiful, and that it was because of the railroad cutoff and the oil dredging that he chose this part of the Great Salt Lake for his project, where the lake's supply of fresh water had been artificially cut, raising the salt content so high that nothing but red algae could grow. I had immediately wanted to see this thing made by a New York artist in leather pants, who described more or less the slag-heap world of the West I knew, as it looked to me, and found it worth his attentions. I went there, crossed the top of Nevada, and came down just over the Utah border. I watched the water, which pushed peculiar drifts, frothy, white, and ragged. The white drifts looked almost like snow but they moved like soap, quivering and weightless. Spiky desert plants along the shore were coated in an icy fur of white salt. The jetty was submerged but I could see it through the surface of the water. It was the same basalt from the lake's shore, rearranged to another form. The best ideas were often so simple, even obvious, except that no one had thought of them before. I looked at the water and the distant shore of the lake, a vast bowl of emptiness, jagged rocks, high sun, stillness. I would move to New York City."
Another aspect of the book I appreciate are its subtle comments on the invisibility and tenacity of social class. Reno's New York lover, Sandro, plays the role of self-made post-modernist but he is actually an heir of Italy's profitable Valera motorcycle company. Sandro disowns this heritage in New York, but when he and Reno travel to his Villa in Italy, as Reno begins to notice he too easily falls back into the routine of being waited on suggesting in New York he is merely an actor. In contrast, Reno grew up feeding herself bologna sandwiches while riding in the back of someone's Chevy. But Kushner doesn't seem to be making a clear point about social class. Instead she provides us with characters that are complex and inconsistent tangles of self-determination, artistic will, and upbringing. In the end, the characters choose to see the world around them as they want to see it. Not very often do characters, or human beings for that fact, see reality around them with stark clarity. But finally, in the end, Reno does realize her inevitable incompatibility with Sandro and she must admit that she was drawn to him for superficial reasons.
Yet still Reno thrives for struggle. She is young and driven, and any success she finds will be hers and hers only. Reflecting back, she offers,” People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You're driven to love them. People who want their love easy don't really want love." Here, Reno admits she loved Sandro because of the challenge, and she also admits that perhaps he never loved her. As I finish this novel, I apply this quote not only to love in the romantic sense, but also to one's passions, interests and livelihood. I'm not sure if Reno is any more of an artist than she was a the beginning of the book, but she has matured, and better yet, she has learned “You have time. Meaning don't use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don't rush to meet it. Be a conduit.”
That's it! We have arrived in the future. Rushkoff's books is an allusion to Alvin Toffler's 1970 warning FUTURE SHOCK. Do we travel by jetpack or dat...moreThat's it! We have arrived in the future. Rushkoff's books is an allusion to Alvin Toffler's 1970 warning FUTURE SHOCK. Do we travel by jetpack or date robots? Not yet, but I guess you could say the potential is there.
What I found most troubling was the first chapter of Rushkoff's book, in which he does little more than encyclopedize examples for what he mourns as "the narrative collapse." Rushkoff posits that our need and value in traditional (read "linear") storytelling has ceased in wake of our technologic obsession with instant gratification. I found this argument thin and presumptuous. Citing Homer, Joseph Campbell, and contemporary sitcoms, Rushkoff makes the case that linear narrative is somehow more valuable and morally worthy than rising experimental/fragmented/disjointed forms. However, the most experimental example Rushkoff can muster to demonstrate his point is Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," which now, only 19 years later, doesn't seem all that disjointed. Judging from what's playing at the box office and the current best-seller list, the masses still enjoy traditional narrative, and I don't see that changing any time soon!
"Present Shock" is an allusion to Toffler's 1970 social commentary calling for a collective awareness (and alert) for the future Although throughout much of the book Rushkoff insists that evolving technology accounts for all shifts in recent paradigm, he does not completely dismiss the role of human behavior and responsibility. Rushkoff writes, “Facebook’s reduction of people to predictively modeled profiles and investment banking’s convolution of the marketplace into an algorithmic battleground were not the choices of machines.” Thus, the vibrating iPhone is not the culprit for our current lack of attention span; we are.
I think it is too soon to examine the lasting impacts evolving technology might leave on human behavior. In the mean time, I see too many people using technology as a vehicle to aid the well being, education, and mindfulness of others to join Rushkoff on his sanctimonious soapbox. (less)