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Posts from the ‘Novels About Art’ Category

“Art is our religion”: Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber

From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”

The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.

To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”

In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.

But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”

Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”

The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”

Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.

It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory

I picked up Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & the Territory, in part, because the front cover blurb said it was “a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society,” and I was curious to see how a writer of Houellebecq’s stature and reputation would deal with contemporary art. The Map & the Territory is the life story of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who develops a very quirky artistic career. His first important body of work, the portfolio that he used to gain admission to the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, was titled “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware” and consisted of nuts, bolts, and other pieces of precision engineered metalwork that he had photographed in a “neutral lighting, with few contrasts” in order to take away “the menacing nature of the forms.” Once admitted to the school, he began his “grandiose and maniacal” project of “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects. . . suspension files, handguns, printer cartridges, forks.” His goal was nothing less than to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.” Jed’s simple argument for his work was that “the history of mankind could in large part be linked to the history of the use of metals.” Some art historians agreed and saw this early work as a “homage to human labor.”

Jed’s next important body of work came about as a result of a road trip with his father. The two stopped at a service station and Jed purchased a Michelin Departments road map.

It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls—some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Eventually, Jed turned his interest from the products of modern technology to the leaders of various industries, including the arts (which Jed clearly thinks of as an industry of sorts), making a series of large painted portraits such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which depicted the two tech giants playing chess in Jobs’ living room.

In keeping with the industrial and corporate subject matter of Jed’s artworks, much of the writing in The Map & the Territory is very factual, resonant of a corporate report. Its pages are littered with the product names for everything from camera equipment to fashion items to automobiles to Jed’s artistic supplies, as well as the the names of the books and magazines on people’s tables and bookcases. But that’s not to say that the book is dry to read. Houellebecq’s otherwise omniscient, disembodied narrator gets gossipy and even a wee bit snide when dealing with the people in Jed’s life, becoming something of a social critic at all of the pretense Jed encounters in the art world. The narrator is quick to latch on to all of the clichés and code words drifting in the conversational ether. Here’s how the narrator describes why the architects at Jed’s father’s firm felt that they needed a new location for their headquarters (the italics are Houellebecq’s): “They had felt the necessity of going upmarket, and the headquarters now had to be in a townhouse, preferably in a cobbled square, or at least in an avenue lined with trees.”

Houellebecq’s narrator sees contemporary art—artists, curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors—as nothing but a vast market system, seemingly severed from any kind of aesthetics or non-monetary value. But Jed remains a bit of a naïf. With a big exhibition and catalog on the horizon, he can’t even manage to theorize about his work and has to turn to a writer to do this for him. In a move that is ripe with irony, Jed commissions a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the this catalog essay for him. Houellebecq seems to have way too much fun satirizing himself. His character is lazy. He hasn’t managed to unpack, despite living in his new house for three years. He spends most of his time in bed, “watching cartoons on Fox TV” in his pajamas, depressed, drunk, and suffering from athlete’s foot.

His essay is late, of course, forcing Jed to delay his exhibition, but when the it arrives it “asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work.” Houellebecq declares that Jed’s subject has always been commerce, “hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products,” and he confirms that Jed’s work operates in a neutral and detached manner, without any political or social comment.

As payment for his promised essay, Houellebecq agrees to have Jed paint his portrait.

Houellebecq is standing in front of a desk covered with written or half-written pages. . . Captured at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him, the author appears in a trance, possessed by a fury that some have not hesitated to describe as demonic; his hand holding the pen, treated with a certain blurring movement, throws itself on the page “with the speed of a cobra stretching to strike its prey” . . . The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.

But then, after his exhibition, in mid-career, Jed suddenly becomes a hermit and makes no more art for many years. Decades fly by before he slowly gets back to work, secretly making short videos of nature near his rural French hideaway. Then he makes portraits of all his friends who are still alive before putting his final work together. Without any further explanation, Jed’s artwork takes an unpredictable turn.

The portraits of human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fell apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.

As Jed Martin dies, his final artwork signals the end of the Industrial Age. Houellebecq clearly knows his way around the art scene. The Map & the Territory is a cynical but relatively accurate portrayal of the contemporary art ecosystem (at least as it was a decade ago when the book was published), although I have yet to know any artists who managed to remain as unscathed by the tenacious claws of the art market as Jed Martin. The novel is generally very engaging to read, but it’s too comfortable in its own skin to stretch the novel’s form in any new way.

Jed’s hyper-methodical art practice and his interest in the aesthetic qualities of Industrial Age products will remind some readers of the photography of Bernd & Hill Becher, the German husband and wife team who rigorously photographed the industrial architecture of the twentieth century during the years of its growing obsolescence. A retrospective of their work is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 15, 2022.

Bernd & Hill Becher, Fördertürme, 1965–1996. ©ESTATE OF BERND AND HILLA BECHER

Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original.

“There is so much pain in the world”: Carole Maso’s “The Art Lover”

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In 1990, when Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover was first published (SF: North Point Press), there weren’t many recent and obvious precedents for including photographs and other types of reproductions with a novel. A few that come to mind that would have been more or less widely known were Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Kobo Abe’s The Box Man (first published in the US in 1974), Theresa Hak Kyung’s experimental novel Dictee, and Andre Breton’s 1937 novel Amour Fou, which finally appeared in English in 1988 as Mad Love. So The Art Lover, which contained some sixty-five or so reproductions of astonishing variety, really broke new ground. The book includes snapshots; photographs of articles torn or cut from the New York Times and other newspapers and periodicals; reproductions of artworks by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Charles Demuth, and others; images of lost animal posters found around New York City; illustrations from textbooks; and more. And because so many of the embedded photographs involve texts of one sort or another, they become additional narrative voices that expound on topics like artists, works of art, and the stars in the night sky. My favorite is a tiny clipping (apparently from the Times) which supplies a correction to a previously published recipe for braised chicken.

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The core narrative in The Art Lover, which takes place in 1985 and 1986, concerns Caroline Chrysler, a thirty-year old novelist who has returned to New York City to deal with the estate of her recently deceased father, Max, who was a renowned art historian and professor. This narrative is frequently interspersed with sections of the semi-autobiographical novel that Caroline happens to be in the midst of writing at that time. And then, toward the end of the book, the fictive curtain is momentarily pulled aside and we briefly glimpse Carole Maso writing The Art Lover.

As Caroline tries to come to terms with the relationship she had with her father, she learns that her close childhood friend, Steven, is in a nearby hospital with AIDS, and his struggle and gradual decline becomes an equally important part of the book. Thus, this often angry, despairing narrative of remembrance, grief, fear, loss, friendship, hope, and art joined a growing list of novels that focused on the AIDS crisis starting in the mid-1980s. The character Steven was modeled on Maso’s friend, the artist Gary Falk (1964-1986), a New York City-based artist who exhibited in several of the city’s galleries and at the New Museum.

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Untitled, by Gary Galk, n.d.

It’s not too hard to guess at some of the motivations Maso had for heaping images into The Art Lover (there is approximately one image every four pages). For starters, two of the main characters are an art historian and a contemporary artist, and a considerable amount of conversation and memory revolves around specific works of art and museum exhibitions. Second, Maso used The Art Lover as a memorial to Gary Falk, the artist who is depicted as Steven in the novel, reproducing a number of his artworks in the book. But perhaps more important, I think, is that The Art Lover serves as a snapshot of New York and, to a lesser extent, the US at a specific time. While the writing in The Art Lover continually drifts toward poetry – there are lists that read like poems and actual poems by Maso inserted into the narrative – the book is also infused with a documentary impulse, as if Maso wants to etch certain moments into her memory. And this is why I think that Maso included such a wide variety of images. She dwells on a couple of high profile national events like the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS-related causes. But the primary focus is on the day-to-day experiences of living in New York – lost pet signs posted on walls, overheard fragments of conversations, the appeals of panhandlers begging for money on the street, articles in the daily paper, messages on the answering machine. Caroline, who has spent her adult life quietly in rural New England, is relearning the noisy, chaotic, and unforgiving city in which she grew up and which her father loved so dearly. Here, she addresses her father posthumously:

I am back in your city of light, Max. City of dark, city of death. City of beauty and scum. Of saliva, your city of saliva, Max.

“Not my city of saliva.”

Yes. Yours.

“Please help me.”

“I am recently widowed.”

“I have no food.”

“My house has burned down.”

“I am a Vietnam vet.”

“I am the Emperor Caesar.”

“I have no food.”

City of the starving and homeless.

Your city of elephants and lions and horses. Goddamnit, Max, whoever dreamed there’d be so many animals in this urban center? City of parakeets and ferrets on the loose. Lost two-legged dogs. City of pieces. Max, why didn’t you ever mention that everywhere around you young men were dying?

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The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning

Correspondence Artist

In The Correspondence Artist, Barbara Browning’s debut novel, Vivienne has a paramour whose identity must be kept secret. But since Vivienne seems to want to tell us all about him or her, she invents a handful of personas to stand in for her lover: a world music rock star from Mali, an Israeli novelist, a Basque revolutionary, and a Vietnamese artist. Vivienne moves the story deftly back and forth between her fantasy lovers, telling us about their trysts and sharing their discussions on film, contemporary art, jazz, literature, Jacques Lacan, and other topics familiar to the international art intelligentsia. In the hands of many other writers, conversations like these often come off stilted or speechy, but Browning lets Vivienne talk directly to the reader in a natural, comfortable, almost chatty manner that is totally convincing. She asks us questions and worries, for example, that we might not be following her explanations of Lacan. “Am I losing you?” she asks us as she attempts to summarize Lacan’s observations on the various meanings of the word “letter.”

The Correspondence Artist declares its ambitions and establishes its roots through two recurring literary references: the mostly long-distance romance between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren as seen through the posthumous publication of her letters to him and as depicted in her novel The Mandarins, and the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Purloined Letter,” but as seen through an explication of the story offered by Lacan (see his Seminar on “The Purloined Letter). Browning, who has a PhD and teaches at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies, is among a growing number of academics who have set up camp in the forest of fiction as a way of breaking free from the traditional model of academic writing. She moves seamlessly between critical theory and pop culture and I will confess that I rather liked getting my dose of Lacan this way.

Woven into her narrative of love, sex, and miscommunication are emails to and from Vivienne’s various lovers – hence the book’s title. But, with the exception of her spam filter,which has a habit of arbitrarily snagging important messages from her view with unfortunate results, email fares no worse than old fashioned snail mail in its ability to stir up misunderstandings between separated lovers.

On my way home I wrote Djeli from the airport a pretty heartfelt message about our time together, how close I’d felt to him, and because I was feeling that close, I made the mistake of raising the subject of a couple of moments of seeming miscommunication in our sex. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – this kind of thing happens to everyone once in a while. Of course it’s best just to let these situations pass. The worst idea is probably to touch on it, however tenderly, in an e-mail.

Vivienne is one of those post-modern narrators who knows she is writing a novel. She is so eager to make up fictional characters for our amusement that it isn’t surprising when she ultimately tells us she has “gotten attached in different ways to all of the characters in this novel.” Fiction, like letter writing, can be a form of love-making. In something of an echo of the movie Groundhog Day, Vivienne regales us with incidents that recur over and over with slight variations with each of her lovers. Her blend of worldly sophistication and guileless honesty even leads her to this admission:

It’s probably pretty evident that this novel was constructed out of some fairly questionable knowledge gleaned from Google, a small, arbitrary stack of library books, a few Netflix DVDs, and my bin of sent e-mails. I’m clearly not an expert in Israeli political fiction, Basque separatism, experimental digital art, or Malian pop music. I know a little about all of these things, but not a lot.

As I finished The Correspondence Artist I couldn’t help but compare Browning’s book with another that I just read – Ben Lerner’s over-hyped and nearly insufferable novel 10:04, which I found only marginally better than his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station. Both have hyper-smart narrators who are anxious to show off their knowledge while telling us about the novel they are writing and which we are reading. But Browning effortlessly and entertainingly manages to juggle her metafictions while Lerner only manages to suck the life out of his.

Browning is also much smarter about the inclusion of embedded photographs in her book than Lerner, who can’t seem to think beyond literal illustrations. Here’s just one example from The Correspondence Artist. Early on, Vivienne tells us that Binh, her Vietnamese lover, has sent her an email that consisted of  “just an embedded image, beautiful, innocent, saturated with color: a split beef heart on a piece of chipped china.”

Browning Heart 1But near the end of the book, she explains that she was being deceptive and she shows us the photograph again, but this time uncropped. “That’s my hand, of course. I’ve already told you that I’m the one who’s been sending digital images as attachments all this time. So it really should come as no surprise that I, not Binh, was the one to proffer my heart on a plate.” It’s a bit like the magician who repeats her trick a second time, telling us to watch carefully and she will reveal the secret. Instead of becoming deflated and disillusioned with magic, this member of the audience gained new respect for the tools with which the magician performs and swore he will be more attentive the next time.  Good lessons for any reader.

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Barbara Browning, The Correspondence Artist. Two Dollar Radio, 2011. Browning extends the fun of The Correspondence Artist to a playful website of the same name, where, among other things, she answers the all-important question “How I Came To Write this Novel.”



The Flamethrowers

I Volsci

In fiction, when someone is known only by the name of the place they came from, it’s often a sign that they will never be anything but an outsider wherever else they go. And that’s the case with the woman known only as Reno, the protagonist in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner’s 2013). The Flamethrowers is a thoroughly engaging and finely written, if utterly conventional, novel. It takes place in the 1970s at the Bonneville Salt Flats (the Utah location where world speed records are routinely made and broken), the New York City downtown art scene, and various locations in Italy. Reno is an aspiring artist and motorcycle aficionado who moves to New York City to take on the art world at more or less the very moment when money and power are starting to dictate the terms of New York’s increasingly vicious and competitive gallery scene. But in addition to hailing from faraway Nevada, Reno has two more strikes against her – she’s naive and she’s female – and she soon learns that the role she is expected to play is to compete for and sleep with the male artists.

The brief section that takes place in the American West is Kushner at her best. The landscape is powerfully evoked, bit characters are deftly sketched and discarded, and the pace is quick, energetic. But at its heart, The Flamethrowers is a New York novel. It’s helpful to think of it as a finely observed exposé of a time that is usually seen as a shining moment in the ascendancy of New York to art world dominance. In Kushner’s version, the male art stars are identified mostly by their grandiose sense of entitlement, their eloquent if largely empty theories, and their auras of success. Everyone around them – the gallerists, the collectors, the groupies – are pawns in a game in which cunning and callousness are just as valuable as artistic ability. Kushner is spectacularly adept at replicating the conversation-as-swordplay, the philosophically vague, artistically dubious, alcohol-infused conversations that take place wherever two or more artists are gathered together – especially if there is a fawning audience. The only problem is that some of these gassy, ego-filled jousts and monologues go on for pages and pages and greatly tried my patience.

Once in New York, Reno is quickly taken up as the lover and protégé of the hot Italian art star Sandro Valera, an heir to a sprawling motorcycle and tire manufacturing company. For years, Sandro has lived in blissful self-imposed exile in New York City, far from the dirty capitalism and class wars of the family business. But the emergence of the Red Brigades and extreme political turmoil in Italy slowly forces Sandro – accompanied by Reno – back to Italy and into the web of family and business. For me, the novel starts to go flat and a bit off-track when it shifts to Italy. Kushner abandons the subtle, complicated texture with which she painted New York and its artistic denizens, and turns the aristocratic Valera family and their servants into cardboard characters.  It’s class war done in soap opera style.

The downside of The Flamethrowers is its insistence on a socioeconomic message and Kushner’s almost painful attempt to give that message a sense of history. Generations of Valera males represent greed, ambition gone wrong, class insensitivity, and other perennially negative attributes of human nature. We get that. But to drive the point home even more forcefully, Kushner gives us the back story of the Valera dynasty through a series of occasional chapters tucked between the main narrative. She tells the rise of the Valera family business and fortune from its humble, patriotic beginning with Sandro’s grandfather serving with an Italian motorcycle corps in World War I. After building a thriving motorcycle business, the Valeras decide to expand into tires. This means the business now has an insatiable need for rubber, which is addressed by callously and cruelly exploiting workers in rubber plantations in South America. It’s a universal story of power, corruption, and the mistreatment of the many by the few. Until, that is, the unions rebel and students take to the streets. But even among the idealistic young student revolutionaries, no one is very likeable or admirable.

The Flamethrowers has five photographs within the text. But I would suggest that the cover photograph, chosen by Kushner and now the iconic image for the book, is even more important than the images inside the text. The image comes from a 1980 Italian radical newspaper called I Volsci. It visually addresses the book’s theme of silencing and ignoring women and it hints at the nascent feminist political awareness that hovers around the edges of the novel. As Kushner indicates below, it’s am ambivalent image.

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 of the tape over her mouth (which is actually Band-Aids over a photograph, and not over her lips themselves). This image ended up on the jacket of The Flamethrowers, a creature of language, silenced.

From a short text by Kushner at the end of The Flamethrowers, called “A Portfolio Curated by Rachel Kushner”

The five photographs within the book itself also match the tenor of Kushner’s writing. Like the cover image, I sense that each interior photograph carries its own sense of ambivalence: an actress lost in thought (a film still of a glum waitress from the 1970 independent movie Wanda), a fractured image showing only the eye of a fashion model reflected in her compact mirror (an appropriated fashion image by Richard Prince), helmeted riot police (photographed by Milanese photojournalist Aldo Bonasia), masked protesters and storefront mannikins (photographed by Larry Fink), and a still image from a newsreel showing five figures seen from behind as they walk toward the Italian film studio Cinecitta. Just as these images show us only masks, helmets, mannikins, models, actresses, and silhouettes, The Flamethrowers, I would argue, is more about types than characters. Everyone who appears in the book, including Reno herself to some extent, remains a bit like the impersonal figures in the embedded photographs. It seems significant that throughout years spanned by the book, Reno fails to find a single likeable, trustworthy individual – not among the artworld denizens, not among the Valera family, and not even among the protesters and student radicals in New York and Italy. In a way, The Flamethrowers feels a bit like a documentary novel focused intensely on a time period, a magnifying glass placed at the edge of an ant farm.

In an interview at The Quietus, Kushner talks about the photographs that appear within the text of The Flamethrowers:

I always wanted to have images in a book, and with this one, after I got to have my choice of the image on the North American cover, I got a little bold, and asked about putting images inside. My editor said yes, so I quickly put together a short list of ideal visual passages. I didn’t want anything that would illustrate the narrative. I wanted, instead, images as kind of pauses, or counterpoints, but that would complicate, function in a relation, but not an obvious one. There’s a Richard Prince image, and he’s a shadow presence over the course of the book (one of the characters is also the name of Prince’s alter-ego, John Dogg). There’s a photograph by Aldo Bonasia, of a riot and police tear-gassing the rioters, in Italy. There’s a still from the movie Wanda, which figures in the book …

Photograph by Aldo Bonasia.
Fink Black Mask, Feb 1967
Photograph by Larry Fink.

At the conclusion of the book, Reno finds herself in the French village of Chamonix, waiting for the most recent man who seems to have abandoned her. “How long was I meant to wait?” she asks herself.

The answer is not coming.

I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, and tear myself away.

Leave, with no answer. Move onto the next question.