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Rachel Kushner’s Ambitious New Novel Scares Male Critics

When a woman—not a venerable male auteur—writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers get flummoxed.

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So potent is the voice Kushner gives Reno that many of the book’s reviewers forget that the only character in the novel who can hear it is Reno herself; to everyone else, she’s just Sandro’s long-legged blonde girlfriend. Even the motorcycle she acquires to execute her “art” on the Utah desert is a gift from Sandro, and one Reno promptly totals; she can’t really handle its power. Only late in the novel does she genuinely come to own the vehicle; until then, figuratively at least, Reno is perched in a sidecar, and would be going nowhere if not for the horsepower provided by others.

All this makes “The Flamethrowers” a fascinating litmus test for reviewers, especially the male ones. Wood, whose ideal fiction succeeds in making itself felt as reality, admires the novel greatly, but seems almost spooked by it. He writes of Kusher’s “eerie confidence … which constantly entwines the invented with the real, and she often uses the power of invention to give her fiction the authenticity of the reportorial, the solidity of the historical.”

There is another breed of critic who gets drunk on high style, and will forgive a novel any manner of thematic or narrative stumbling if it offers enough pyrotechnical prose; they could once be seen swooning over Don DeLillo or John Updike. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner tacks toward this giddy camp in his review of “The Flamethrowers,” praising Kushner’s style for its “poise and wariness and moral graininess,” before concluding that by the end of the book, Kushner has “burned down whatever resistance you might have toward her talent or her narrative.” It is hard to hold out against someone who describes Roy Orbison’s hair as “black as melted-down record vinyl.”

But other reviews are warped by the novel’s categorical instability. In a head-patting, plot-summary-heavy piece for BookForum, Christian Lorentzen interjects multiple, irrelevant references to his own past as the son of a truck driver and later a truck driver himself. He also questions the plausibility of Reno’s description of an uncle who watched television naked, lazily ordering his kids to change the channels for him. These seem to be attempts to assert the reviewer’s own working-class credentials, the better to question that “eerie confidence” of Kushner’s, the uncanny, unfeminine authority with which she feels entitled to write about such things. Then he congratulates her for “growing up” enough to write about a reasonably contemporary period and hopes she’ll do even better next time. (Kushner’s first novel was set in pre-Revolutionary Cuba.)

But perhaps the most strident note of “How dare she?” came from Adam Kirsch, in Tablet. Acknowledging that “The Flamethrowers” “implodes all the usual assumptions about what gender means in literature,” Kirsch goes on to complain that it is “full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool” and to accuse Kushner of “mythologizing.” You could say the same of any novel by Don DeLillo — whom Kirsch has rated among the “top ranks of American literature” (along with Philip Roth, John Updike and Thomas Pynchon). I would argue there’s a lot less portentousness and cool in “The Flamethrowers” than in DeLillo’s work, and that Kushner’s novel is far less sterile. When Kushner does it, however, these qualities make for “a macho novel by and about women, which may explain” — ouch! — “why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.”

By this rationale, to stand among the top ranks of American literature (that is, make it into the Room) you must write in a certain way, but a woman who does so engages in a form of literary transvestism that may dazzle lesser critics but is not going to pass muster with Adam Kirsch, thank you very much. This Catch-22-style bind recalls a recent episode of “Veep,” in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing the American vice president, Selina Meyer, is groped by the husband of the Finnish prime minister after they sneak off for a cigarette break. Although she’s the wronged party, Selina, as her chief-of-staff warns her, is the one who must strive to cover it up: “Having your tit fondled by a Finn? It would define you. You can’t build a statue on that.” Selina concurs, bitterly, “because this is a man’s world we live in.” She takes a spectacularly venomous draw on her smoke and adds, “because of the Axis of Dick.”

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