Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

US cover
US cover

Around five books in the last year have drawn me up short and made me think about narrative and storylines and the possibilities of literature and form. Last week I was running late for a train at Waverley without a book for the trip to Glasgow (around 40mins) and I nipped into the newsagent and, without thinking, other than to note it was only £7.99 for the paperback, I picked up The Flamethrowers. I haven’t read Kushner’s first novel or other writing and, although I’d heard the fuss about the book last year and knew critics on both sides of the Atlantic had raved about it, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to it.

I wish I had.

I wish I could wind back to last August when I passed on a ticket to go and listen to her talk at the Edinburgh book festival. I’ve wasted a whole year when I could have been thinking about this writing.

It’s engaging and feisty; brimming with so many ideas that it hurts to read it. My copy is so well-thumbed I need a new copy. I carry it everywhere. I read out parts to Mr Bookrambler, who is not into literary fiction, but I needed to share the joy of intelligent writing with someone. I stop in the street and re-read paragraphs and sentences. I have to get up at night to re-read long passages.

It’s exhilarating to find bold writing. It’s been called ‘muscular’ and the new American novel, which is somehow ‘novel’ as it’s written by a woman. Yet it is novel. It is an important book.

There’s no getting away from the feminist aspects of the story. Reno – the protagonist is named by others from a place connection; we never hear her real name. There are long sections which she narrates but where she is passive and never speaks. A large part of the joy of the writing is in her deliberate passivisity (sp?). She chooses to be passive and to allow others to direct her actions, not because she’s weak but because she’s bold and self-willed.

In summary (woefully inadequate) but the jist of it: the story opens in third person past tense. It’s 1917 and an Italian rider named Valera fights a German soldier. The narrative then switches to present tense, to the 1970s and the narration of an unnamed woman who is riding a Valera motorcycle to the salt flats to a time trial, or so she tells the young man called Stretch who offers her his bed for the night. It’s only partially true. She’s also going to film and photograph her tyre tracks as part of an art project she hopes to pull together. However, she chooses not to impart this information to the young man because it isn’t the story he should expect or have of her.

The way in which Valera/Valera motorcycle intersect is integral to the way the story unfolds and it would spoil its unfolding to say too much.

Patti Smith NY (c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976
Patti Smith NY
(c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

Throughout the novel, Time and History intersect and move apart, push off against each other and create new presents, new realities. Reno is constructed by the men around her (mostly men but women too) and by herself and the idea she has of how she thinks she ought to be. She has moved to New York to be where things happen.

Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night,” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.

 

Time too is constructed and how we perceive history is interrogated by the storyline. Italian history intersects with the 1970 anti-capitalist riots in New York and with art and creativity.

But it’s also about a girl growing up and growing into herself.

I really can’t implore you more to read The Flamethrowers. Both readers and writers will find their idea of what is possible with literature altered by the experience of reading it.

Rachel Kushner’s website has links to interviews that give (or gave me) helpful insight into the book. See especially the frank and wide ranging interview on process and cultural memory with Dana Spiotta on Tin House.

The Flamethrowers is on the terrific longlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

The Art of Fiction – Iris Murdoch

For Iris Murdoch Day – an interview from The Paris Review on how she writes, why she writes, the process of thinking it up and what she thinks is the purpose of literature – fascinating to learn how she carefully plans the outline of the whole book before the actual writing begins. Pity her poor publisher’s nerves! She wrote long hand and only ever had one copy of her manuscript.

Here’s where IM talks about beginning to write a novel:

INTERVIEWER [Jeffrey Meyers]

Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?

MURDOCH

Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.

Asked about her ‘ideal reader’, Murdoch say

MURDOCH

Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the idealreader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.

See – Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction, no. 117 in The Paris Review, Summer 1990, Issue 115

*See also the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London

* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)

Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book