June 12, 2013
Rachel Kushner talks about her new book, The Flamethrowers, in an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker:
The book opens with Valera, and he was the first character that I wrote. As a child living in Alexandria, Egypt, he has his mind blown by an early (eighteen-eighties) model of motorcycle, a German thing made by Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. (I saw one in the Guggenheim motorcycle show, a crowd-drawing exhibition that was an affront to the art world, but I could not help but adore it, regardless of the question of whether motorcycles belong in an art context.) Later, in Rome, Valera encounters a little avant-garde gang, decides he wants a part in it, stands up and is summoned, then leads. He’s a Futurist who splits off from that milieu and movement to use a fascination with speed, machines, and violence to build actual machines and make a profit from war. What he does is a literalizing, perhaps, of certain ideas of the Futurists. In reality, the Futurists never forged a relationship with industry and design in Italy, which is curious. Why? They had no sense of the factory, the worker—they shied away from all that, eventually becoming the aesthetic wing of Mussolini’s government.
I never even considered not having a Futurist in this novel. Italy, bikes, speed, factory politics, the twentieth-century avant-garde—hopefully without sounding too pretentious, these are important realms for this book. The figure of an early-twentieth-century Italian idealizing speed, celebrating violence, going and getting pummelled on the battlefield, then reforming himself as a successful industrialist is key to my interests, and to the novel. The book could not exist without him.
Kushner spoke to The Paris Review earlier this year:
I had started with this image of a person riding a motorcycle for reasons that have to do with land art and the West, and also with my personal interests in both art and in motorcycles, and things I felt I could write about because I know a little bit about them from experience. And then I saw that there was this link, right there, back to Italy. World War I is at the root of motorcycles and machines, and at the root of machines there’s also futurism. Later, after World War II, Italy was making the fastest motorcycles in the world. Futurism eventually got marred by its link to Fascism, but early on, it was totally avant-garde, and I wanted to dream a phantom link from the early futurists to the politically radical Italy of the 1970s, a time of fun, play, subversion, if also violence and mayhem. As I wrote, these different things just kind of interacted—machines, speed, velocity…
You can also listen to her discuss the book in a slightly spiky interview on WNYC if that’s more your thing:
The Flamethrowers has been languishing in my (towering) ‘to-read’ pile. I’m looking forward to finally reading it. (I would also love to hear Kushner in discussion with Tom McCarthy. Somebody make that happen, please).