The Quiet Revolutionaries

There is something insipid and annoying about the rave reviews Rachel Kushner is receiving for “The Flamethrowers,” a brilliant novel set in Nevada and New York and Italy in the 1970s. Yes, it is about art, and anarchy, and motorcycles. And yes, it features a gorgeous, young, lonely female protagonist. And people are surprised how much they love it. Surprised!?

What shocks me is the shock. Of course this book is brilliant. In person, Kushner is articulate and literate. On a panel with Jonathan Letham and Marisa Silver at the LA Book Festival, she compared today’s social novel to the work of Proust and Flaubert and Russians I’d never heard of. Yet still James Woods et al seemed stunned by her intricate prose, her ability to render historical settings so realistically. It was only this article on the New Inquiry, crafted by a clever undergrad, that points to the larger unnerving question. Is this book unexpectedly brilliant because it pairs the themes of revolution and violence with femininity and youth?

This is the difficult territory to navigate, particularly for reviewers. Can a passive character be revolutionary? Can violence be intelligent? Can a feminine character be complicit in that violence without being a victim? 

Of course, the mainstream response is Gone Girl, the unfair thesis of which is “Women are Psycho.” But there are far more generous novels to young female protagonists, even ones who make mistakes. In fact, ALL FOUR of the last novels I’ve read by women attempt the same combination of femininity and violence AND intellect. The contrast is difficult, unnerving, and somehow unique in each retelling.

“By Blood” by Ellen Ullman

This intense, dense novel by Ellen Ullman is an investigation of parentage: how attached are we to our blood ties? Set in the fiery San Francisco of the 1970s, a defamed professor accidentally listens in to a young woman’s therapy sessions on the other side of his office door. The young patient, a lesbian banker, wants answers about her mysterious lineage. The professor grows quickly obsessed, raking through her adoption history with a kind of scary intention. The listener is the narrator here, unreliable and insane, but the patient is the one who ventures into the very dark history of Holocaust Germany seeking answers. She is brave, smart, and willing to thwart our expectations completely. This plot is complex, and somehow manages to move forward using introspection as its driving force.

“Girlchild” by Tupelo Hassman

This Nevada novel is harrowing. Growing up in a trailer park outside of Reno can only be described as difficult, and yet somehow Hassman paints the degenerate setting with colour, wit, heart, and insight. Alcohol, predators, poverty, and social services all serve as antagonists. And somehow, despite the depravity, Rory Dawn, the narrator, is tough and gentle at once. She criticizes her bartender mother and needs her too; she loathes her trailer home and cares for it, both. The violence here is institutional and personal, and Rory Dawn is, despite her passivity, a brave a figure in a bleak, unforgiving setting. A poetic, perky debut.

“Maidenhead” by Tamara Faith Berger

This book is shocking, scary and totally hot. Winner of the Believer Book Award, published by Canadian risk-takers Coach House Books, this novel reads a lot like porn, or an intellectual treatise on slavery, or a coming of age novel. When a 16-year-old Canadian heads to Florida with her strained family, she encounters a dangerous pair, an African man and his pornographer wife. Their twisted love triangle turns awry when they follow her to Toronto and entrap her in a dangerous relationship. Insanely hot sex scenes are paired with terror in this commanding novel, proving that femininity and violence are too often intimate bedfellows. But our narrator here is not just a victim, rather, she is yet another example of a passive narrator who is, in her own way, revolutionary– smart, tough, and sexual– and only sometimes out of control.