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The Flame Throwers, by Rachel Kushner

January 4, 2014

I continue to be puzzled by The Flame Throwers–my response to it and the responses of critics (another “must read,” top ten, etc). I read it, and liked it well enough to finish, but it wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through, when the main character and her boyfriend go to Italy, that I became attached, pulled to finish rather than wondering each time I put it down whether I should. The sentences are good, the story enough to sustain, but while some of the characters, the more minor ones especially, are memorable–the guy who carries a barber’s pole and knocks people with it as art–there is a thinness to the main character, or a distance, I’m not sure. I didn’t really feel her fully living, feeling on the page.

And while it is set in the 70s, mostly in Manhattan, the ironic distance or attitude of the artists described feels very similar to today. And I’m not particularly drawn to or interested in that irony. The men in the novel, too, wield their power over women through distancing themselves. Perhaps that’s why I became compelled at the Italy portion, where Sandro, the main character’s older boyfriend, confronts (or does not) the country and upper class lifestyle he tried to leave, and the main character finds him cheating on her with his cousin, leaves him in anger, and becomes involved in the student protests. Maybe I became invested because the characters became invested, and then it all began to matter more.

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