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A conversation with Rachel Kushner

A few weeks ago, I visited Rachel Kushner in her Angelino Heights home to talk about her second novel, “The Flamethrowers.” Taking place in lower Manhattan and Italy in the late 1970s, “The Flamethrowers” is an inquiry into art, politics and identity, set against a pair of landscapes defined by turmoil. Kushner is smart and deeply thoughtful; her reflections on the book, and the issues it raises, appear in this Sunday’s Arts & Books. Here is more of our conversation.

How did “The Flamethrowers” come about?

This book developed first as a kind of idea — not as an ideas novel, but I had a sense that I wanted to do something with a period of time in New York City, that period being the mid-1970s, in the art world there. I didn’t know what the story was going to be, but when I sold “Telex from Cuba,” my editor, Nan Graham, asked about my next novel, and on instinct, I said, “It’s going to be about the New York art world in the mid-1970s.” Then I encountered this set of materials that had to do with the politics in Italy at that time. I encountered them through my husband, who writes about left political theory in France and Italy, and socially I encountered that world because we’d go to Italy and we met some people who were of the generation that had been actively engaged with that, and also the younger generation for whom that set of references, what’s called the Movement of ’77, is very much on their horizon, socially and politically.

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It continues to resonate?

Right now it’s kind of a big deal. Here also, because of Occupy. And people in Greece, and in the anti-austerity movement … everybody looks to Italy and what happened then. So I started thinking about it in connection with New York. I’m not a novelist who wants to force things into a series of plot points, but I sensed there was some linkage between them, even if I just put them in contiguity in a book. There’s the blackout of 1977 in New York and there’s this famous march in 1977 in Rome. They mean very different things but I thought that by contrasting them, I could produce a synthesis of meaning. At the same time, it all comes down to the voice of the narrator, and I needed to develop the right tone. I wanted her to speak in first person but not be a voicy kind of narrator. I wanted her to be impressionistic, someone young who’s an outsider to this milieu, just as I am and would have been. It took two years to key her voice properly. It took two years to write the long first chapter where she is riding the motorcycle.

Where did this interest in motorcycles come from?

I know a little bit about motorcycles and motorcycle riding. My father was interested in motorcycles. He always had a Vincent Black Shadow, which is a very rare and coveted British bike, and we would go to vintage British motorcycle rallies with him. My brother developed no interest in cycles and machines, but I developed a strong interest although I was forbidden from riding them myself. When I was old enough and just graduated from college, I got a Moto Guzzi. These are very temperamental bikes and require a little bit of mechanical ability. I lived in San Francisco at the time, which had a big motorcycle scene. So I had that bike, and then I had a Ninja 600 and I raced it in this crazy road race where you go from San Diego to the very end of the Baja Peninsula in one day. It’s hard to imagine. It’s like driving from here to Denver. It’s 1,160 miles, a completely crazy thing. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was an illegal, non-authorized road race that a lot of people did. Eventually, I grew out of my interest in motorcycles because they’re quite dangerous. I don’t ride them anymore. But I have this history. I don’t think of myself as a gearhead or a motorcyclist. I’m not that young, and this is like another life of mine. But the people I know from that era think of me that way. So it’s sort of amusing to me that I’ve circled back around to it now.

What about the 1970s New York art world drew your interest?

First of all, it seems to me — and maybe I romanticize it — but it seems like an era in which almost no one had any money in the art world. You could live in Manhattan; you could arrive there from art school on a Greyhound. I remember spending a summer there in 1980 and there was a garbage strike. I lived with my best friend and her mother, who worked for Donald Judd, and so I was sort of exposed to that world. All the artists were eating jalapeno peppers for dinner and smoking cigarettes because they had no money to buy food. And if they did have money, they would spend it at the Shark Bar because they wanted to be seen drinking there and hopefully meet some more famous artists who might help their career.

But also, if you read about the art world in New York in the 1970s, there was a lot of cool stuff going on. There was Gordon Matta-Clark, who had a retrospective when I started working on this book. He broke into Pier 52 and cut a beautiful lunette into the wall of this pier building. Probably the most important art critic of that era was Lucy Lippard. I like that she was a woman, and also that she wrote a manifesto about the dematerialization of the object at a time when people were making work that was about performance and gesture. Yvonne Rainer wrote a wonderful memoir called “Feelings Are Facts”; Chantal Ackerman made a beautiful film called “News from Home” — it’s just a 16 millimeter camera shooting deserted streets of lower Manhattan, with a voiceover of her reading her French mother’s provincial letters to her after she moved to New York. And the Pictures Generation artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman and Jack Goldstein all came out of that era, a little bit later, like 1977, 1978, so it’s a rich moment produced by a set of factors in New York City that are no longer in play.

An important theme of the book is the tension between artifice and authenticity. This is embodied particularly by the character of Giddle, who is a waitress but approaches her job as a form of performance art.

Yes, it’s as though her artifice is her authenticity because she’s performing this role. But she’s committed to it so deeply that, to her, it’s more legitimate than, for instance, a one-night performance in a gallery.

And yet, there’s no payoff since only she knows she’s performing. Or does that make it more pure?

That’s complicated for me. I have known people like that, some of them a little tragic because it seems like they’ve backed themselves into a kind of endgame, where they’re the most ironic. I guess there is a sort of loop. I mean, a lot of life is appearances. If you read a sociologist like Erving Goffman, he says that all of life is like a wedding, and you’re always presenting yourself in a particular way. I think that when the social stakes for people are higher, how you present yourself may sometimes feel like it’s going to inform your destiny. Because if other people regard you in a certain way, they’ll want to help you and you will end up having a career. Or if you present yourself in a certain way, you could perhaps make another person fall in love with you. I think these issues are important to people when they’re young. And I was thinking about a young person arriving in New York City, not really understanding the social codes but aware nonetheless, maybe even hyper-aware, of when people are performing a role.

The novel has a two-part structure, shifting between the 1970s and the experience of the industrialist Valera, earlier in the 20th century.

I always knew that I wanted to start the book the way I did, with Valera, as a young man, engaged in warfare, probably an act of violence, and on a motorcycle. I felt like Futurism might have some mysterious link to the political movement in Italy in the late 1970s, even if that’s totally perverse.

They’re both utopian in their way.

Right. There’s this phrase from Italy in the 1970s: Let’s take the city. So I had one Futurist say it to the other as they’re racing along on their motorcycles. Because when you read the early manifestos of Marinetti, that’s really what they’re about. Young people rising up, making a claim for themselves, a kind of occupation — like “to occupy,” not to have a vocation. I was interested in industrial history because in the 1970s it’s about to vanish. And to understand the manufacturing age and what the 1970s brings to a close, I wanted to go back to its earlier roots. I was reading a lot about the Futurists, who have always interested me, and it suddenly occurred to me that none of them ever built anything. They had no relationship to industry in Italy. There are other questions that come out of that: First of all, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when these movements were gathering, it was about the north and political unrest in the factories, the Fiat factory and the Pirelli tire plant. It was a time when there was a lot of radical theorizing and activity in Italy, but this was also the country that was making the fastest motorcycles in the world. Those two facts are not unrelated. Italy had its own version of May 1968, what was called the Hot Autumn of 1969. And so all this stuff for me somehow germinated, and was able to be expressed in the character of Valera.

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