THE BLOG
06/19/2013 02:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

The Whoosh of Flamethrowers

Handsomely praised for the way it presents a motorcycle-driving, art-world-loving young heroine nicknamed Reno, who vrooms across the Bonneville salt flats and then takes pains to photograph her tracks, Rachel Kushner's Flamethrowers was inspired in part by a movement that is mentioned in the text only once: in passing, on a tombstone, in Italian.

The grave belongs to the father of the heroine's lover, Sandro, the family rebel whom Reno meets in 1970s Soho where he is a successful artist, and with whom she visits his family's expansive villa above Lake Como. In this elegant location, on the stone, the founder of the Valera motorcycle-and-tire dynasty is described primarily as "ardito, futurista..."

Say what?

In 1909, when the fictional Valera would have been an adolescent, a real-life Italian writer named F.T. Marinetti set the artistic world ablaze, as Kushner knows, with a manifesto. Written in deliberately purple prose, the manifesto called for racing away from a romanticized culture (glowing like a pale moon) toward a world of machines (speeding like locomotives). The movement was called futurism, and, as Kushner's novel does, it brought together art and politics.

Although "futurista" can generically mean "ultra-modern," Marinetti's fiery manifesto, in some of its iterations, appears to be a source for Flamethrowers. Take the novel's opening scene. As a soldier in the Great War, Valera brains a stray German with a brass motorcycle headlight casing, presumably killing him. In Marinetti's second version of the manifesto, he imagined a similar violent event: "all I had in my hands was a gleaming motorcar headlight and it was with its bright brass casing that I brought about their deaths." The point is not that Kushner took a detail ("good artists borrow; great ones steal"). The point is that futurism, with its allure of speed and violence, helps set the subject of Flamethrowers and one of its several tones.

In the novel, Valera's epitaph has to be one of the strangest since Thomas Jefferson's. The American is described on his tombstone as author of the Declaration and another document and as "father" of the U. of Virginia, but not as president of the country that he helped to make possible. Kushner's Valera founded an industrial empire, but is remembered, on his headstone, at the family villa, mainly as "ardito, futurista..."

What's "ardito"? As an adjective it means bold or daring. As a noun it refers to a member of the Italian assault troops who, in Valero's case, rode a motorcycle, flipping grenades at the enemy as he zoomed by, relying on speed to outrun retaliation. Again, the virtue of moving fast, taking risks, doing violence.

What is the descendent of such a man to do? One son takes over the Italian business with its strike-prone factories and otherwise bountiful cash-flow.. The other, Sandro, flees to Soho and to success as an artist.

Marinetti felt that past art had "magnified pensive immobility, [passive] ecstasy and slumber." In place of this somnolence, as a cure for his anxiety about this influence, he wanted "the beauty of speed," declaring provocatively that "a roaring motorcar which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." This classical sculpture in the Louvre would have been familiar to readers of the futurist manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro, at a time when motor vehicles were coexisting with horses on the streets of Paris, Milan, and New York.

While Flamethrowers employs some of the glamor of futurism (machines racing, revolutionaries parading), the novel appears not as a simple enactment of Marinetti's values but as an updating and an implicit critique of some of them, along with a coming-of-age story and social satire about an arts scene and a wealthy Italian family and its outriders.

Marinetti's praise of violence began to look a bit different five years after his manifesto when the Great War started, eight years after it when Lenin arrived at the Finland station in a sealed boxcar, and certainly 29 years after it when Hitler came to power. (Marinetti shifted his political allegiance from the early Mussolini to Gramsci's communist party of Italy.) Marinetti's blanket condemnation of feminism in the manifesto of 1909 looked out of date by the demo in 1971 when women (including my wife, a former exchange student) took over the Piazza Navona for an exhibition around Bernini's fountain showing women how the society and media were shaping them.

What's left of futurism is largely its focus on risk, intensity, immediacy. A friend of Valera's "talked about a sect in the Middle Ages who believed that God reinvented the world every moment ... the whole thing, every aspect and cranny, all over again ... All you can do is involve yourself totally in your own life, your own moment... This is how we'll take the future and occupy it...."

Reno rides on the glamor of intensity and revolt, but meanwhile pursues an art that holds life in air-quotes, "real and false at once," as her first lover in Soho says, "slipping between the two, like everything in life worth lingering over," dependent on the deft use of fabulation, elusiveness, irony.

In a different fantasy in Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie directed by Anthony Minghella, a young textile heiress is walking down the Spanish Steps with a guy pretending to be a shipping heir. With no hint of irony, she says that despite having money she despises it, but feels comfortable only with other people who also have money and despise it. From a single-mom family in Nevada, Reno doesn't have this problem, but she and her lover Sandro do share an attitude toward art, which is seeking intensity but also standing apart from it, and feeling comfortable only with people who have this attitude.

Marinetti wanted art based on the allure of "courage, audacity, and revolt," but despite Reno's improbable chance to hang out with the demonstrators in Rome late in the novel, she practices an art of self-consciousness in which acts are not so much done as "performed." Almost everything is inflected. This common reader does not know whether one type of art is superior, but they are different. Each has merits and limits. Is it coherent casually to meld them?

As a writer, Kushner cares deeply about many of her characters, such as Anna, a homeless young pregnant Sardinian woman about whom a filmmaker is shooting a documentary. Anna figures several times in Kushner's work: as the subject of a well-informed, empathic, subtle review in Artforum, as a character in Flamethrowers, and as one of two women to whom the novel is dedicated.

Many critics have called Kushner's novel sexy, perhaps because it centers around a love affair. It's true that the first date includes a discreet hand-job under a jacket while watching a flick of Chinese opera. The fluttering fingers are his; the sexual parts, hers. But I wonder whether a character who is guilty of racing a bike while female is not itself a turn-on to some men (leather pants, mechanical aptitude, willingness to risk a crash).

Reno comes of age in the novel. She is often uncertain of how to behave. Some things that other people take seriously, she doesn't. As a first-person narrator, she gives us social satire of art parties, a rich Italian family, even homegrown revolutionaries. She believes in "energy and rashness," accepting for a while the judgment of her lover that her "young electricity" is enough.

The plot has some awkward moments, as when Reno shows up at the Valera factory unexpectedly and sees Sandro kissing his cousin Talia ("talked like Sylvia Plath and looked a bit like her," a former lover of his). Without ever talking to him, why does Reno, after time in Soho, immediately decide the affair is finito and abandon the scene? She is then driven to Rome by the man who had been acting as groundskeeper at the family villa, but is actually a revolutionary spying on the Valeras. Why does he bring the girl friend of the enemy into the center of revolutionary planning?

The novel ends inconclusively, with Reno driving a Roman revolutionary high into the Alps, which he must find a way over, while she zooms with a U.S. passport through the tunnel into France. Her passenger never appears for a rendezvous on the other side. Did he perish in a crevasse? We don't find out. In the words of the final sentence, an imperative, "move on to the next question." Which is what?