by Mark West
Every now and again one is reminded that the best people to talk to writers about writing are other writers. Colm Tóibin’s questions here to Rachel Kushner probed the process and craft of writing in a way more general questions in other events don’t. Specific questions tend to get specific answers, and Toibin and Kushner’s conversation was a pleasure to listen to.
Tóibin began his introduction by praising the range, tone, texture, and energy of Kushner’s book The Flamethrowers, calling the novel “amazing” and “spectacular”. The evening was full of wonderfully succinct encapsulations – usually from Kushner, of which more later – but Tóibin’s first question contained one of his own when he asked Kushner about the making of the book. If fiction happens when “an idea moves into rhythm”, he asked, was the rhythm, so marked in The Flamethrowers, always there? It seems as if the thematic content – risk-taking, violence, sport, speed – is mimicked by the sentences themselves, so which came first?
For Kushner, writing involves firstly an attempt to “locate tone” and then trying to sustain a “vein of energy” throughout the book. But a tone is quite a precise thing, because while it can change, “it can’t stop”. If different tonalities are possible – and indeed present in The Flamethrowers – the question becomes one of achieving a register in which those tonalities complement each other. She described how she “waited ‘til the right register” came – writing and re-writing the first chapter for two years – but when it did things then happened very quickly.
Tóibin marvelled at the way the novel inhabits more than one single place, character, time, but rather offers a “panorama”, a “picture of an age” similar perhaps to the work of Don DeLillo. Was this always the aim, he wondered? “Not always,” responded Kushner. Rather it began with the desire to write about the art world in the 1970s, which she had been exposed to when growing up and which had a certain “romantic grit” to it. She acknowledged what Tóibin described as “the presiding spirit of DeLillo”, describing him as an “important” writer for her, particularly the way his characters are “pressured by politics and aesthetics” – the same sorts of pressures she is interested in.
Tóibin was fascinated too by the Italy of the 1970s that Kushner depicts. “Something very strange happened” at the time, he suggested, something to do with the way Italian culture has an obsession with “style as a form of morality … as a fetish, a religion, a way of being.” While this may be seen in quieter times in the etiquette of cheese knives or the dilemma of which shorts to wear to the beach, in the ‘70s, he suggested, being a terrorist became a stylistic possibility too. As an example Tóibin talked of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who makes an appearance in The Flamethrowers. Feltrinelli, born into a wealthy family, founded a publishing house where he put out Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. He was stylish, flamboyant and a Communist, who died trying to blow up the electricity supply of Milan.
“If you know any intellectual” of a certain age in Italy, Kushner said, they were probably involved in one of the left-wing groups, possibly more than one. She had read Nanni Balestrini’s novel of the Autonomia movement The Unseen and been amazed by it. While researching The Flamethrowers, she stayed with a friend who turned out to have been “in the movement” with Balestrini, and who knew how Balestrini had been outfitted with ski-gear to escape Italy over the mountains, an event she fictionalises at the end of her novel.
If the mix of style and terrorism is great material for the novelist, Tóibin suggested that “the art world” is a peculiarly American creation, something that perhaps only really existed in New York in the 1970s, where “people were dying or becoming famous, you almost had a choice, to die or become famous.” For Kushner, who acknowledged it was difficult to write about unless “you knew the material,” the fascination of it lay in “the way the artists talk” and the sense that in that world “subterfuge became an artform” as “people performed themselves.”
It was difficult to tell whether Tóibin’s final question referenced the debates the publication of The Flamethrowers has created in the United States. He contrasted his own books, which are “always” about “people making tea” with hers, and particular her narrator, who possesses an “aggressive sexual allure” uncommon in contemporary literature. It has something to do with the bikes, but not everything. “Tell us about you and motorbikes” he ended up by saying.
One got the sense Kushner was expecting a question about “the gender thing,” as she put it. She has even had to intervene in the debate after an article by Adam Kirsch in The Tablet suggested that “Kushner is out to create a mystique, and her book is full of portentous atmosphere and self-conscious cool. In other words, The Flamethrowers manages to be a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.” Kirsch’s none-too-subtle implication was that the novel was “overly cool and stylish” – basically not that good a novel – and the only reason it was getting the rave reviews it was getting (from critics including James Wood, no less) was that it was a man’s book written by a woman. Kushner spoke about this well, despite being somewhat tired of the subject, talking about how she attempts to “tap into a real true sensibility which is not gendered” – although she considers herself feminine, femininity is something “you learn later.”
The question is an impossible one, because in asking it, one is talking both about the individual act of writing and the global literary marketplace, and the imperatives behind each, which are clearly quite different. As it happens, I think there is something different to the narrative voice in The Flamethrowers, and it does have something to do with the fact that the narrator is a woman. We are not used to hearing this kind of voice in fiction. In fiction. The question isn’t whether that voice creates “a macho novel by and about women” but rather why a narrative voice like that of The Flamethrowers is a surprise in the first place. The emphasis should be on the literary industry, because it certainly isn’t surprising or different or uncomfortable to encounter a woman who speaks and thinks as Reno, Kushner’s protagonist, does. The most surprising thing about the novel is that it makes you confront the fact that contemporary literature compresses our sense of internality, of what a narrative voice should sound like, into the very narrow parameters established by a male-dominated industry. The surprise, if that is the right word for it, when reading The Flamethrowers is one of identification, not distress, the recognition that the novel one is reading inhabits the same world one does. If it is a surprise, it is because it doesn’t conform to contemporary literature’s narrow idea of masculinity and femininity.
From one impossible question to another. Kushner is very good – in person as in her writing – at succinct, quotable phrases which perfectly capture an idea. At one point, in response to a question about the political content of the novel, she said “my job is to write and not be on the barricades.” This was picked up on in a question, which asked for her opinions on the relation between the writer and the barricades. For anyone interested in the relation of politics to art, this is a tired equation, and a bad way to explore that relation. Perhaps that was why she admitted immediately regretting saying it. With the question, we are always left with the same problems, problems which have been an open issue at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, if not earlier. The problem is this: if you are sitting down writing – a slow, contemplative process – you are probably not standing on the barricades getting tear-gassed. The two activities do not really go well together. But if you’re a writer who considers yourself politically aware, even politically active, what is your excuse for not being on the barricades? That’s not necessarily to say that you can do one then the other – and plenty have – but the question often becomes “how can writing help those on the barricades?” or even “how can writing achieve the aims of those on the barricades?” it is an impossible question, with impossible answers. Of course writing can’t (fully) achieve those aims, otherwise there wouldn’t be the need for barricades.
That said, Kushner’s regret at her own pithy line, and the reference to it by a questioner, meant that she had to form some sort of definition of the relationship between writing and the barricades, which forced her into talking about art as a way of stepping out of conventional society and creating a new life for yourself, which might, in the end, mean that art is “a barricade built for one” (another of her good lines). It’s a compromise answer, even a pat one, but she was placed in an impossible position.