October Book of the Month: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

It's the mid-70s. New York is full of real artists, robbers, and affordable apartments. The world is redefining itself. A young woman artist (unnamed, but at times called Reno), aware and impressionable, moves to New York and finds herself in a fast-paced world of artists, fakers, manipulators, lovers, friends, all of whom project their ideas of womanhood and beauty on her like a blank canvas. She is ushered into the glowing art world by its golden boy - an artist and a rich heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. With incredible observations and reflection on what it's like to be a young woman in the world of men and their riches, she learns about the society around her and herself. 


"The first image I pinned up to spark inspiration for what would eventually be my novel The Flamethrowers was of a woman with tape over her mouth. She floated above my desk with a grave, almost murderous look, war paint on her cheeks, blonde braids framing her face, the braids a frolicsome countertone to her intensity. The paint on her cheeks, not frolicsome. The streaks of it, dripping down, were cold, white shards as if her face were faceted in icicles. I didn’t think much about the tape over her mouth (which is actually Band-Aids over the photograph, and not over her lips themselves)."


"The second image was of Ducati engineer Fabio Taglioni standing behind a 1971 750 GT. The Ducati is in metal-flake orange; Taglioni in double-knit Brioni. I didn’t have an image of a girl on a motorcycle, although the book opens with the narrator riding one in the Bonneville land speed trials. Girl on a Motorcycle was the title of a film starring Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon (which was released in certain European markets, such as Italy, as Naked Under Leather). In the trickiest riding scene, Marianne Faithfull has a double, a hulking man in a honey-blonde wig, as you’ll see if you play it on slow."


"China girls, whose faces were used to adjust color densities in film processing, were mostly secretaries who worked in the film labs—regular women who appeared on leader that was distributed all over the world. It’s not clear why they had that rather racist moniker; some say the original ones were Asian, and others speculate that a particular secretary who posed for film leader was a habitual server of tea (which makes the name seem even more problematic). In France, they were “les lillis.” If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards."


"Go to Italy and no one talks about the 1970s, when their country literally almost had a revolution. That explosive era and its joys, traumas, and failures have been all but erased. Luckily, there are some remainders, like the amazing photographs of Tano D’Amico. Here, he captures students at the gates of Sapienza University in Rome on February 17, 1977, when it was occupied by students, as Luciano Lama, leader of the biggest labor union in Italy, came to pay them a visit and was heckled and expelled."

TOC Book Club Questions To Consider

  1. Reno want to create Land Art inspired by artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Why do you believe she leaves her native west (where both of these figures worked) for New York City?

  2. Is the contemporary art world easily accessible to most? Or is it elitist?

  3. Do you consider Reno a strong female character? Why or why not?

  4. Reno watches a couple playing with fire (literally) at a gas station on her trip back West for the speed trials at the Bonneville salt flats. A man flicks matches at spilled gasoline on his girlfriend’s legs. In a different scene, a truck driver tells Reno she won’t look nearly as good in a body bag. What do these interactions imply about the west Reno comes across? Is the east in any way different?

  5. Why do you think the author chose to leave her nameless?

  6. What first got Sandro’s father into motorcycles? To what extent does it mirror the overall attitude towards women in Reno's world?

  7. Reno is a “China girl” on film stock leader, which her boss Marvin says is “as much a part of the film as its narrative,” despite her being unseen and in the margin. Is there any thematic echo of this in Reno’s and women's presence in this novel? She is the narrator, but do you find that she is often in the margins of the story?

  8. How is Reno's experience in Italy different from her experience in NYC? How is it similar?


Additional Resources

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Excerpts of Rachel Kushner's article on The Flamethrowers were taken from The Paris Review.