She waits in the freezing snow at the bottom of a huge mountain, an icy mountain lying between one country and another. It’s the end of the day, light is failing. Perhaps he has ditched her, or had an accident, or fallen into a crevasse. Doubt. Waiting. “The answer is not coming.” So writes Rachel Kushner at the end of The Flame Throwers. Though these are not quite the last words of the novel.
Two things are going on, as I see it. There’s a familiar quotidian experience: hanging about waiting for someone who doesn’t show. You’re in that place or moment when anxiety and boredom collide, anticipation runs headlong into despair. And there’s a larger metaphysical or perhaps structural thing going on: how to be in that experience, how to move through this waiting, or to let the waiting materialize as a non-conclusive ending.
The answer to the question of whether he is coming or not is simple, it becomes clear as night falls: He is not coming. But there is another question not answered, though what exactly this question is you can’t say and actually it doesn’t matter what the question itself is. It is not a man who will not come, it is an answer. For Kushner, I believe, it’s enmeshed in how to bring the novel to an end. In an interview she writes, “I was determined not to have the narrator ride off into the horizon in a blaze of triumph at the end. The plotline where the main character overcomes a weakness and acts with new empowerment is a form of narrative compression I usually find cheap and don’t much relate to.”
This is a novel that is dense and intriguing in its cutting between times and places, places in the US and Italy, in the 1970s and around the First World War. The threads of connection that link people to political and art movements are rendered through scenarios in which characters experience speed and slowness, talking, listening, waiting. Guns and motor bikes, riding fast and waiting about slowly not doing much. Techniques and technologies. Kushner, within the fabric of the daily, writes about a variety of technologies, mobilizing characters and ideas that attempt, variously, to forge a way out of the routine of the everyday. Her novel, too, shapes up—disintegrates, realigns—through a virtuoso enactment of technique. She herself is a flame thrower, filling the sky with colors and patterns, materializing through technique a range of possibilities, some lethal. Reading, immersed in the rhythms and the cutting between locales, alerted through technique rather than through authorial direction, to the present, you don’t expect a conclusion, particularly one that embodies a triumph over adversity. It isn’t simply that we are left with a question at the end, some plot thread that is left loose, given to us as a throw away scrap from the table of literary delights. No, it’s that the whole practice or technique of the novel works against triumphalism with all its moral underpinnings.
Because I’m pretty well right now I’m greedy to grab every moment to write or read scraps from lots of different books and so I’ve read this novel slowly, in some senses against the grain. Lindsey says, “For me it was cold and fast—a reading experience that I imagine is akin to riding one of those motorcycles she rides around Manhattan.” In the last third I speed up, glad to immerse myself in the novel during a Cancer Survivors Week, thus saving myself from getting hot under the collar about all the triumphalist rhetoric in the air. Saving myself, perhaps, from insinuations of guilt solicited by sentiment-drenched exhortations to give money to defeat cancer. I want to live longer, I want them (that great big them in the sky) to find a better form of treatment than the ghastly chemos people with tumors have to endure (and indeed there are people with blood cancers who endure these too). And being implicated, a receiver or beneficiary of the bounty, I know I should give more than I do so that people not as lucky as me in terms of time and place can get a better deal. But it makes me mad that so much of cancer, medicine in general, actually everything in general in this country, is so dependent on charity, on private institutions, on individual gifts. Matters of public concern rendered as a balancing act between the fortunate and the unfortunate, where individuals can be empowered by charitable acts, acts of giving.
The objective correlative of this is the celebration of survivors, the hullaballoo about the battle won by strong individuals. Empowerment through adversity. We are the strong ones, the ones who fought back and won, we are special, not like all those losers who succumbed and dropped dead without a proper struggle.
Of course it isn’t just around cancer that the ubiquitous grizzliness of positive thinking occurs. Jeffrey comes home from the gym the other day and tells me about an interview he saw on CNN while treading the mill. One of the young survivors of the ghastly Santa Barbara campus murders came forward voluntarily to offer witness. He said something like, “It wasn’t an entirely negative experience… some of us survived.”
Still, we need fiction sometimes. The fiction of survival is a charged fiction and through the charging, the living through, acquires a material reality. The reality that we are fighting, that we will overcome. When Isabel wrote to me, long ago it now seems, when I had surgery for lung cancer a year after the leukemia diagnosis, “vencerás,” (you will overcome) it was inspiring, it gave me courage, I started to believe that I would survive. She gave me a gift.
So what to do, what is the answer? Me fuming silently on my soapbox with a hand hovering reluctantly over a shallow pocket chockablock with scrunched up tissues and lists of things to do and a little cash isn’t going to change the circuit of charitable and uncharitable capital.