January/February 2014: ART MATTERS!
- Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman, bought used @ sidewalk bookseller near W. 3rd and Mercer, New York, NY
- Countdown City by Ben H. Winters @ Brooklyn Public Library
- A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan, from my friend Rachel
- The Constant Heart by Craig Nova @ Brooklyn Public Library
- A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal @ Brooklyn Public Library
- The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti @ Brooklyn Public Library
- The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner @ Brooklyn Public Library
- Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
- Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
- A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal
- The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The most ballyhooed novel of 2013 was Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, where everyone is an artist. Reno, the young female protagonist is an aspiring artist; Sandro, her older Italian boyfriend is a successful artist; Ronnie Fontaine, the most intriguing of the many characters is an emerging artist; even Giddle, a coffee-shop waitress believes her position is performance art rather than a job. Combined with motorcycles and land speed records, stories of Italy at the turn of the century and New York City in the 70’s, it’s an intriguing proposition, and sadly one that fails badly for the unlikeliest of reasons.
To begin with, it must be said that the praise for the book is understandable. From sentence to sentence Kushner is a great writer, subtle and precise, and she manages the time-shifting plot between characters with skill; there are set pieces and tiny passages of searing poignance here. And while numerous sections drag, that is not the fault to spoil the whole endeavor. Rather it is the portrayal of artists, and specifically of art and art making, that ruins everything.
The ultimate fault is the book’s insulting dismissal of art. For example: Reno’s art is filming the events of the Lower East Side streets from her firescape. Sandro’s art is making empty metal boxes. Ronnie’s art is taking pictures while at the bar of women who punch themselves in the face. Giddle’s art is simply the performance of life. There are plenty of other artists in the book, and yet no one seems to work very hard, or really work at all. In fact, no one thinks about it, works at it, progresses from one idea to the next. This is the best that Reno can do when describing Sandro’s art:
"Minimalism is a language, and even having gone to art school, I barely spoke it myself. I knew the basic idea, that the objects were not meant to refer to anything but what they were, there in the room. Except that this was not really true, because they referred to a discourse that artists such as Sandro wrote long essays about, and if you didn’t know the discourse, you couldn’t take them for what they were, or were meant to be. You were simply confused." (pg. 238)
The characters’ standing as artists is something worn as nothing more than a cheap, gaudy accessory.
Strangely, some reviewers seem to be enamored with the idea that the book is a giant, humorous send-up of the New York Art World, insisting that the book “is funny not at the expense of contemporary art but at the expense of the people who make that art, seeing with clear eyes their bluster and pantomime.” (1) But bluster and pantomime both cover and represent something. Of course the art world can operate cruelly and without apparent reason, but ultimately there are always people, the arbitrarily-assigned successes and failures, who are putting in hours, days, and eventually years of long, hard work. Even if their product is horrible, there is a process, guided by a yearning, an often ugly, desperate hope, that results in creation, in something. But here, we have a book where artists and their art only comes across as lazy and indulgent, characterized by nothing but a genuine lack of effort. For a book about artists ranging from the Italian Futurists of the 1910’s to the American conceptual artists of the 1970’s, that’s a serous problem.
This careless dismissal of art and the artist results in a story that is never able to mean much of anything, to the characters or the reader. The characters are just people to whom things happen, and by the time one arrives at the ambiguous conclusion, the ambitious tale seems merely depressing and hollow. Which begs the question, “what does it say about our culture that we like it so much?” (2)
(1) James Woods review: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/04/08/130408crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all
(2) Geoff Mak review: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/2013-review-rachel-kushners-flamethrowers-caleb-crains-necessary-errors#