Looking down the long tunnel of September towards its distant beginning, I can make out Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, but in outline only, little in the way of detail. I know I found it a hard book to like – I didn’t like it – but not in the way I was expecting. It came riding in on a wave of fierce praise, including some from names I trust, and I approached it with, appropriately enough, flame-retardant gloves, as I do any book that shares a subject matter with my own novel: art and artists in the latter half of the twentieth century. I was ready to envy it, ready to throw it against the wall in despair, ready to rip it up and eat it if that meant I could take it out of the world.
Instead, I found it fussy, in a rather butch way, and drifting. It’s the story of Reno, a young woman artist who comes to New York in the late 70s, from the outer sticks of Nevada, to find her way in to the post-Pollock scene. Soon enough she finds herself the lover of an older, male artist, Sandro, and follows him to Italy, where his family, owners of a major motorcycle company find themselves attacked by their rising-up workers.
(Reno is a biker: some of the best and most lauded scenes are of her racing across the American desert, drawing a line with the machine so light it barely touches the earth.)
It is a book about the mystique and muscle of art, as mine is, and the strange black hole that grows in and eventually engulfs the ‘great’ (male) artist. Some of that was good, but I just couldn’t get on with the prose. It is American prose, made in America. It swaggers, but with a limp, or drag, affected to distract from the swagger. It looks at the world obliquely, drawlingly, always focused on the thing half glimpsed over the shoulder of the thing it’s looking at. It is like a man in a bar, spieling drunk wisdom, while he fingers patterns in a puddle of spilled beer on the counter. But it wants you to know the man, and wisdom, through the doodles.
Foster’s “Tell the truth but tell it slant” has been taken on at the level of the sentence. Every sentence is the spilled remnants of a fuller, clearer poem.
I exaggerate. Not all of the sentences.
Here’s a passage I underlined:
The music was loud and distorted by the echoing room, where a man and a woman sat close together at the far end of a bar, the sole customers. The woman had the kind of beauty I associated with the pedigreed rich. A pale complexion, cuticle thin, stretched over high cheekbones, and thick, wavy hair that was the warm, reddish blond of cherrywood. The man conducted the song with the tiny straw from his drink, jerking his arm in the air to the saxophone and the cartwheeling piano notes, which fell down over us as if from the perforations in the bar’s panelled ceiling, The horns and strings and piano and the woman’s voice all rode along together and then came an abrupt halt. The room fell into drafty silence.
This is fine writing, but it is deliberately careless with its own finery. The only things seen with any degree of specificity are incidentals (the panelled ceiling, the man’s straw), it is a kind of drawing that builds a picture out of myriad shadings and hatchings and curlicues, with the thing itself – the subject of the drawing – picked out in negative. Nothing is told straight. Cherrywood is solid enough, and it sits in the paragraph like a token of permanence, something you can rap your knuckles on, but it is only the colour of the wood that is wanted. The rhythm of the penultimate line (“The horns and strings and piano and the woman’s voice…”) is grating in its artlessness.
“Cuticle thin”: what’s that?
(Can a complexion be thin?)
The piano notes fell over us as if out of the perforations in the ceiling? Aw, cute.
(And they were cartwheeling at the same time? Ri-ight.)
This is snarky. I apologise. But the book is fashioned so richly, that you have to wade through it. Everything is bright with off-centre specificity. It drawls, it drags, it squints.
I heard the silky glide of toolbox drawers, the tink of wrenches dropped on the hard salt.
It was only when a cloud momentarily shifted over the sun and recast the earth in a different mood, cool and appealingly somber, that the salt revealed its true self as a light shade of beige. When the cloud moved away, everything blanched to the white sheen of molybdenum grease.
Cars were being rolled from the test area, salt piled in a ring around the tread of each tire like unmelting snow.
These three from the same page, also marked. Enough, enough. This is a strange kind of slapdash baroque and I find it irritating.
It doesn’t help – and this is something I get unaccountably het up about, these days – that there’s no sense of where the book is being told from.
Whenever I read a first person past tense narration, I want to know: where are you, the character, in the consciousness of it all. That ‘silky glide’, that ‘tink’ – do you remember them, now, wherever you are? If I get some sense that the narrator is writing this, rather than remembering, then I’m fine: I know they’re lying, they’re making it up. But – really – this is how it happened? Please…
I liked the characters. I liked the story. I liked the sense of New York (though it paled beside Iris Owens’ After Claude, I have to say: that scene in the Chelsea Hotel, where these guys also end up, as you’d expect). I didn’t like the second, historical narrative.
But it was the telling that did for me. Each sentence diamond bright, but slippery, each perfect poetic gesture as fortuitous and offhand as a roll of the dice down the length of the baize, coming up sevens time after time after time.
I can’t remember now if I read it one day or two days, but it was quick. I glugged it down like water. (It helped that I had a hospital appointment, and so could apply myself guilt-free to its gleeful riffs.) That was fine; it wanted to be read fast. There are books that you read quicker than you want to – you gulp them down, and burn your throat (Old School by Tobias Wolff springs to mind) – but Roth seemed to be moving at my pace.
I didn’t think I was going to like it.
It had X-Men quotes, and I’m generally anti-superhero movies, and anti-ironical-quotations-of-superhero movies – or at least anti-having-to-spend-time-working-out-if-it’s-being-ironical-or-ironically-ironical-or-y’know-that-other-thing-…-sincere?
It’s opening line – “It’s important to choose the right moment to arrive at a party.” – struck me as old and tired, as if it knew just how clever it was being by setting its stall out so shallowly. It’s not anything I haven’t read before.
But it didn’t take long for me to be seduced. The book is about Eric, a young internet millionaire, who is casting about trying to work out what to do with his life now that he doesn’t have to ever do another thing other than swan around San Francisco, going to parties, gallery openings, and the odd Digital Futures Conference. Eric (via Roth) is funny and nerdy and perceptive and self-deprecating, with just the right amount of awareness of how all this stuff is clearly not going to be enough forever. His take on the world zips along like low-level stand-up; like this:
I’ve suggested meeting in a bar on a weeknight. The after-work drink is low-pressure – it gives her a chance to pull out after an hour or two – but it’s easy to convert: you can always say Do you feel like getting some food? as thought good were a personal interest of yours that she night happen to share.
Lovely, lovely – but then what happens is that Eric falls in love, with the equally adept Maya, who is, well, basically, so close to an idealised version of my perfect woman, 15-odd years ago, that it’s almost embarrassing. He’s huggable, and she’s gorgeous, and clever, and all that, and that’s really all I have to say about the book. I fell in love with it, because I fell in love with the characters. I wanted to be them, but I was entirely happy to settle for being with them. Like early Douglas Coupland, like a Richard Linklater movie, like a really good dream, this was the world buffed up and script-edited to perfection.
One: Is Maya a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, maybe – or maybe a Thinking Indie FanBoy’s MPDG. But if she is, then Roth is making her that in order to kill you with her.
Two: There’s that likability thing. We are allowed to sniff at anyone who complains about unlikeable characters, but that shouldn’t mean we’re not allowed to enjoy likeable characters once in a while.
I liked these guys.
I was supposed to.
I was being set up.
No more without spoilers, but I must say that, once Roth had put me and his lovely couple through the wringer, I was left dissatisfied with his ending.
I wanted it to end differently, and I felt invested enough in the characters to see a way out that Roth had chosen not to take, or had blocked up with insufficient care. Now, this dissatisfaction (it came close to despair) may have been what he was after, but it did smack, to me, of an abrogation of authorial responsibility. If I had happened to meet him at a party that week I would happily have bent his ear over it to an uncomfortable degree. And he would have had to take it. When you build characters like that, and then do that to them, that’s the payback you should expect.
After the short, refreshing draught of Roth I picked up and put down a couple of things, but then decided to get stuck back into The Magic Mountain – a book I put down in January of this year, halfway through, and which has sat patiently on my bedside cabinet ever since. I fully intended to pick it up again, and I did. And it is magical. Like Roth it builds characters, not sentences, but it uses those characters to dig down into ideas.
I wound back about 50 pages, and am now about 100pp further on from where I stopped, but it has temporarily been put down again as I decided I would try to blaze my way through the Man Booker shortlist – in part because I had already read two of them (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being).
And in fact that reminds me. I did read another book in September. I read Richard House’s mammoth, Booker-longlisted The Kills, which I reviewed for the Indy.
This month I also read Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop (review forthcoming).
But then I read, again in a day, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, and I have to say, really, what is all the fuss about? Retelling Bible stories from a new angle is the sort of thing I thought people grew out of in their teens. This thin book is thin indeed, to my mind, with an obvious twist of perspective, most of what it comes up with entirely predictable once that given is established, and featuring some rather pat trooping out of Bible scenes chin-strokingly defamiliarised.
It works, briefly, twice. Once in the crowd scene before Pilate, when the political reality of Mary and the disciples’ position, surrounded by a mob that would rip them to pieces if they knew who they were, brought vividly to mind current events in Egypt and the Middle East. The danger of crowds. And once when the pieta is artfully avoided, making one of the two great iconographic moments of Christianity blazingly alive by being pointedly absent.
But those two moments are not enough to bear up the book.
I followed it with Jim Crace’s Harvest, and am now reading NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, but that is for October reading, and it will be a race to see if I can also read the Lahiri before the 15th.