Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Flamethrowers, The

Everything in Rachel Kushner’s book is carefully written–the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters–and yet the ideas and action of the book live at the level of structure and arrangement. The stretch and strength involved in this level of work is astonishing and overwhelming. I thought of Another Country as I read it, which is a huge compliment.

That said, I can’t say that I loved this novel though. I don’t care about motorcycles and am not really interested in the dinners and parties of the New York art scene of the late sixties, early seventies. So content was a problem. I was also put off by the fact that the novel is extremely academic and unflinchingly cool. As a result, I found myself struggling to parse tone, which left me wondering sometimes what to make of the book’s more insightful comments. Did they belong to the protagonist, a character who remains stubbornly blank to me, shaped mostly by negative space, or did they belong to the narration itself?

I suspect these uncertainties are purposeful–the novel’s last word is “question” after all–but they are also extremely frustrating and as I wound my way through the story, I asked myself repeatedly if this book was worth the effort. What I know is that the novel is well-made and that its scope exceeded my first reading. I’d add that that is an experience I haven’t had for quite awhile in a contemporary American novel.

Posted June 30, 2015