Twice Read Books: Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers" Or, On Delaying
Some thoughts on the differences between waiting and delaying
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future
Rachel Kushner, "Not With The Band”
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown Waiting for someone or something to show you the way Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today And then one day you find ten years have got behind you No one told you when to run You missed the starting gun
-Pink Floyd, “Time” (Lyrics by Roger Waters)
The Nature of Waiting
Life inevitably involves waiting, even if it is just waiting for dinner.
Waiting comes from desire. We are attracted to something not yet here, we are repelled by something not yet present. And so we wait, either pleasantly, in anticipation, or miserably, in dread.
Our thoughts return again and again to what we are waiting for: a lover can’t stop himself from thinking of his absent beloved. A condemned man cannot stop thinking of the hangman’s noose and the fatal drop. When waiting is painful - or, much worse, when we know we have nothing worth waiting for - we strive to obliterate the time with conflicts, with busyness, and with distractions. We even alter our consciousness with drugs, all to obliterate the feeling of having to wait.
When our desires are (temporarily) fulfilled we cease to wait. The pleasant dinner, the conversation with the person we love, lying in a comfortable bed after our death sentence is unexpectedly commuted: at those times we are not waiting, we are just being. As sure as summer gives way to autumn, however, desire will creep back in, and we will be waiting again.1
All this is unavoidable. But there is another mode of waiting, one that is self-inflicted, where we want to wait, to choose to not yet be what we believe we want to be. Its name is delaying.
We delay when we have a goal we (believe we) want to pursue but put off the first steps till some later time. Sometimes we do this because we’re ambivalent about the goal, even if we cannot admit that to ourselves: think of the graduate student who puts off completing his thesis or starting the soul-searing search for the academic job that has supposedly been his goal all along. When the desire for something does not match the painful effort we believe will be required of us to get to the goal, we delay, goof off, give way to temptations and distractions, and procrastinate.
No one delays relieving a pain or fear, but we delay doing things we claim, to ourselves and others, that we deeply want. Much of this is due to our nature as satisficers: evolutionary selection pressure tends towards the good enough, not towards the exceptional, especially when that exceptionalism does not connect to increased reproductive fitness. Better to stick where there is food, shelter, and company, rather than venture out into some possibly dangerous unknown. The ancestral fear persists, even if reason assures us there is no real danger. For physical dangers, we substitute the fear of being unpopular, being embarrassed, or failing. Think of all the young ‘creatives’ who believe they must move to New York City or San Francisco. Upon arriving, they get work busing tables or making coffee, they make friends and fill their lives up with busyness, with “gathering material,” with excuses, and never get around to creating anything.
Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers is all about the comfortable grooves we can make for ourselves, the local optimums where we delay or abandon completely our original search for the global optimum - the goal we believed we wanted. The book chronicles the (mis)adventures of Reno, a young aspiring artist who goes to seek her fortune in early-1970s New York City, immersing herself and then becoming stuck in the city’s vibrant art world.
In the course of the story we never learn Reno’s real name. The only trait she possesses that others care to acknowledge, aside from her girl next door good looks, is that she is from Reno, Nevada, and so her name becomes “Reno.” Not once does she insist on her own name. Despite her proclaimed desire to be an artist, she is content to be shaped by others rather than shape herself.
The novel is an exploration of different kinds of delaying and of how people justify wasted time to themselves. For a start, we can delay by letting minor obstacles get in the way. Reno moves to New York City with the idea of becoming an artist, but not without other motivations. A talented student at her art college, on whom she has a crush, graduated a year ahead of her, and is already supposedly settled in the city. Her plan, insofar as she has one, is to move to the city, connect with him, and let then him be her connection, a way finder and path smoother into the art world, rather than gear herself up to start from nothing. Her first night in the city, she calls his number, only to find it is disconnected.
She let’s herself get stuck right at the start, having no alternative plan for what to do if she cannot contact him, but has a flash of insight into herself:
It may go without saying that I am the type of person who would call a disconnected number more than once.
She makes no effort after the initial failure to figure out what artists really do, or how one becomes an artist. Instead, she chooses diversions. She drifts around New York, getting a job at a film developing studio, working as a China Girl (a model whose picture appears at the start of motion picture film reels, her skin tone being used as a standard for colour correction), and drinks with strangers in bars. Unsure what to do, she tells herself that this is how you meet artistic people. Using a 16mm camera she borrowed/stole from her college, she films a few street scenes around New York, but this is the limit of her artistic output.
When we’re delaying, we often busy ourselves with substitutes, things that seem like the thing we say we want to be doing: mere seeming to be without real being. The author Steven Pressfield tells the story of a friend of his who admired Ernest Hemingway and would tell anyone who would listen that he “wanted to be a writer just like Hemingway.” The friend grew a beard, carried around Moleskin notebooks, and started drinking heavily, but never ended up writing anything. But that friend could tell himself and others a convincing story that he was a writer. This is the course Reno chooses. Rather than struggle to become an artist, rather than spend her abundant free time making art, she chooses a consuming substitute: being the girlfriend of an artist, Sandro Valera, an established Minimalist sculptor.
Sandro, two decades older than Reno and the misfit son of a wealthy Italian family, actively delays Reno’s start, using his age and experience to pretend to be a mentor to her, giving her (bad) advice:
“You don’t have to immediately become an artist,” Sandro said. “You have the luxury of time. You’re young. Young people are doing something even when they’re doing nothing. A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist.”
You have time. Meaning don’t use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don’t rush to meet it. Be a conduit. I believed him. I felt this to be true. Some people might consider that passivity but I did not. I considered it living.
In this way Reno finds a way to delay without feeling the waiting. At this point in the novel, her frustrations with wandering around New York aimlessly stop. With Sandro she meets lots of artists and other people from the art world, including gallery owners and patrons. She goes to parties and gallery openings, and has conversations about art.
At the behest of his best friend, Ronnie Fontaine, Sandro arranges for Reno to get a new motorcycle from his family’s company, which she takes out to ride in speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats. She tells herself that she is there to document the event, but she has no plans greater than taking a picture of the track the motorcycle’s tire makes in the salt.
At Bonneville, racing her motorcycle down the salt flat, Reno describes to the reader her life philosophy, such as it is. We also gain a deeper understanding, though Reno is not aware of it at the time, of how Sandro is actively retarding her progress by playing into her belief that things ‘just happen’ and you just need to be in the right place and be ready for them. It’s certainly not the way Sandro lives:
I had always admired people who had a palpable sense of their own future, who constructed plans and then followed them. That was how Sandro was. He had ambitions and a series of steps he would take to achieve them. The future, for Sandro, was a place, and one that he was capable of guiding himself to. Ronnie Fontaine was like that, too. Ronnie’s goals were more perverse and secretive than Sandro’s, but there was a sense that nothing was left to chance, that everything Ronnie did was calculated. I was not like either Sandro or Ronnie. Chance, to me, had a kind of absolute logic to it. I revered it more than I did actual logic, the kind that was built from solid materials, from reason and from fact. Anything could be reasoned into being, or reasoned away, with words, desires, rationales. Chance shaped things in a way that words, desires, rationales could not. Chance came blowing in, like a gust of wind.
Soon after a literal “gust of wind” causes Reno to wreck her motorcycle and badly sprain her ankle. By chance, she becomes “something of a team mascot” to the Valera company crew, who are running a new vehicle to try for the land speed record. They let her stay in their bus, and persuade her to drive the vehicle after the team’s driver makes a successful run. She becomes, temporarily, the fastest woman in the world, with an offer to go to Italy and make promotional material for the company. It seems that ‘something’ has just happened to her.
Sandro opposes her going - both because he dislikes his family and because he doesn’t want Reno to stray out of the careful orbit around himself he is keeping her in. A visit to Italy where she has a reason for being other than accompanying him is just what he wants to avoid.
Sandro and Reno ultimately go to Italy, but this is not due to Sandro changing his mind. Rather, the trip provides a convenient opportunity to lie low after Sandro shoots a fourteen-year old mugger in the hand one night after a party. Even though his lawyer assures him there will be no consequences either way - if he turns himself in he might even be hailed as a hero by the press - Sandro still prefers several months away, even back in the bosom of his family, rather than to run any risk.
In addition to his many infidelities, the main thing Sandro hides from Reno, as do all the other artists she meets, is what it actually takes to make it as an artist. In fairness to them, Reno doesn’t make much of an attempt to find out; it looks to her like you just exist in the milieu until you somehow ‘make it,’ as she believes she has been launched into an adventure by her accident at Bonneville. She has figured out, or believes she has, that the way you make it is to not ask obvious questions like “what do you do?” or “how do you find patrons?” or “how do you get a gallery showing?” because those will earn only a rebuff as someone who isn’t cool or “doesn’t get it.” You act the part, and then you somehow become it.
Before she and Sandro leave for Italy, at a party thrown by two established artists, the Kastles, she meets a seemingly odious character named John Dogg, who is trying to convince Helen, the gallery owner who is displaying Sandro’s latest creations, to look at his own work. John Dogg seems to Reno to be a stark contrast to how she is operating, someone who “doesn’t get it,” confirming to her that she is doing the right thing:
A man named John Dogg was talking to Helen about his art, too excited to tone down his sales pitch. Only a certain kind of pushiness works in the art world. Not the straight-ahead, pile-driving kind, which was the method John Dogg was using …
He didn’t seem to notice that Helen’s face had gone blank, as if she’d been summoned elsewhere but had left an impassive mask behind, for his self-promotion to bounce off. John Dogg pressed on, hoping to recapture her attention. It wasn’t going to work. But I admired how convinced he was that his work was good, good enough to show to her, and he simply needed to get it seen. As if that were the main stumbling block, and not the problem of making art, the problem of believing in it.
Making art, of course, is the thing Reno isn’t doing, to say nothing of getting people to look at it. Whatever the quality of his art, John Dogg has actually been making it.2
Later, after an adventure in Italy that involves Sandro’s cruel mother, a naked English novelist, romantic betrayal, a general strike, riots, the Red Brigades, a trip to Switzerland, and the kidnapping and murder of Sandro’s auto executive brother,3 Reno finds herself back in New York City. Having broken up with Sandro, she is staying with the Kastles while she looks for a place of her own. Helen, the gallery owner from earlier, has a new client: John Dogg. Reno accompanies the Kastles to a rooftop party celebrating the opening of his new show:
John Dogg was showing with Helen Hellenberger. Helen was wild about him. All the important critics were at his debut opening at her gallery …
John Dogg wore a well-cut linen suit and laughed easily and occupied the role of feted artist with perfected naturalism, no sign of the pushy tactics I’d seen at the Kastles’. He moved through the room confident that he was universally adored, and it seemed that he was. I’d met him the previous September and now it was late April, almost May, and he hadin been reinvented. This happened in New York, and you could never point to the precise turn of events, the moment when the change in human currency took place, when it surged upward or plummeted. There was only the before and the after. In the after, no one was allowed to say, hey, remember when everyone rolled their eyes about John Dogg? Shunned him, thought he was an idiot? I understood all this now. Sandro disapproved of that kind of ambition, said there was no hurry, but it was a lie, a thing successful people said, having conveniently forgotten that they themselves had been in a rush.
The sequence ends hopefully, with Reno starting to show her street films to gallery owners, encouraged by the Kastles. She also sees the endgame of being the girlfriend of the artist, rather than an artist herself, in Nadine, a woman Reno met earlier in the book as the girlfriend of a photographer, who is now dating John Dogg:
“No,” Nadine said in a dispassionate tone, almost like a corpse, no expression on her face. I sensed that she had been coached by John Dogg to remain aloof or to pretend to. She held herself perfectly still. By revealing any animation to her face or body she would spoil the effect of the hair and the dress and the patent leather heels, which shone on the roof’s gravel like wet ink.
If you don’t become your own thing, you end up being shaped by someone else in order to fit in with what they are doing. Such, we are led to believe, would have been Reno’s fate if not for the Italy trip and how it it confronts her with the truth about herself, Sandro, and their relationship.
The sequence at the rooftop party takes place after the real epiphany moment of the story, which Kushner places to great effect in the book’s final section, jumping back in time. After coming upon undeniable evidence that Sandro is cheating on her (as opposed to all the deniable evidence strewn throughout the rest of the book), Reno falls in with a group who may or may not be Red Brigade terrorists. One of them needs to escape from the Italian police for an unknown reason4, and Reno serves as a convenient accomplice with her American passport. She drops the man, Gianni, off on one side of the Alps with some skis, and goes to meet him on the Swiss side of the border to help him escape into exile. But he doesn’t show up, and Reno has to confront her own delaying:
How long was I meant to wait?
Dusk, and my feet numb as I paced at the bottom of Les Planards, the run going dimly gray, harder and harder to see.
The yellow lights of Chamonix were blazing now. There was a smell of woodsmoke.
I didn’t know if Gianni had ditched me, or had an accident, fallen into a crevasse. I knew only to wait.
It was almost dark now, and much colder. I could see the jagged lines of Mont Blanc’s peak, its steeples and snow-filled cracks. A huge mountain, dark and present, but nothing like human presence. It was a monolith of doubt.
You can think and think a question, the purpose of waiting, the question of whether there is any purpose, any person meant to appear, but if the person doesn’t come, there is no one and nothing to answer you.
I’m alone at the base of the run, almost too cold to move.
The answer is not coming.
I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, and tear myself away.
Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question..
Ultimately, Reno does. Kushner ends the narrative without confirmation that Reno has succeeded in the art world, but it’s enough that we see she has definitively moved on: she’s going to try to be something, rather than just be around that thing. She’s broken out of a shallow local optimum.
Moving From Seeming to Be to Being
I am normally skeptical of biographical criticism, of critics who link events in an author’s life to their stories, as if this provided insight into book’s deeper meanings, but Kushner herself almost directly supplies the link in her 2016 essay “Not With the Band.” This essay, a chronicle of her youth working in music venues around San Francisco, concludes with her going to a late-night jam session put on by PJ Harvey:
I was witness to an artist who wanted to play all night because she was born to do it. She had passion, talent, and incredible technical skills. She sang and played guitar for hours and hours, in an intimate setting, after she had performed a fully rehearsed stadium act for thousands, that very same night. This impressed me. The message I took from it was: to be truly good at something is the very highest joy. And by inference, I understood this: to merely witness greatness is a distant cousin, or even not related at all.
Just after that, I quit my job and changed my life.
I can think of no better inspiration than that for anyone who feels like they want to be creative, in any field of endeavour. You need to go and make things happen - they won’t just happen to you. And you need to stop fooling yourself that Seeming to Be something is the same as Being it. You have to find out, through effort and risk, whether you can be that thing.
I reread Kushner’s The Flamethrowers soon after finishing my second reading of Peter Thiel’s Zero to One,5 and I find a common thread between them in the idea of indefinite optimism. Thiel thinks that the United States and the Western world are held back from major technological and social progress by an indefinite optimism, a belief the future will be better and that one doesn’t need to or cannot even in principle make plans to bring that future about. Reno, similarly, drifts through events feeling like she just needs to wait for her life to begin, before she figures out she needs to make it herself.6
Whatever age one lives in, there are places of indefinite optimism, especially in areas where the distinction between seeming to be and being are hazy, especially to those who are on the outside trying to get in. In 1970s New York, it is the art world. In the present day, Peter Thiel believes, it is the startup and venture capital world, a microcosm of Western drift: stay in the game long enough, stay lean, make no definite plans, adapt and evolve constantly, and you could win, as opposed to “I can make and execute a definite plan to win.”7 Thiel refers to the drifting state as believing that your life in a lottery ticket that may or may not win.
These milieus of delay are built by their participants: I see you pretending to try, and you see me pretending to try, and we both pretend to each other that we’re trying. Nothing needs to be produced, no one needs to leave the comfortable bubble of mutually sustaining admiration.8 In situations like this, irony flowers as the chosen mode of humour: “I lack the courage/conviction/will/drive to pursue X, so I am going to pretend to be not interested in/irreverent about X.”
Both Thiel and Kushner’s books resonated with me because I read them just at the point I decided to take my writing seriously. For years I had dabbled - publishing editorials, plotting novels that I’d start only to abandon, and writing the occasional short story which I would give up on after receiving a mere handful of rejection letters. I never set aside the time deliberately to write and practice writing, to study getting better at it, to learn how writers establish themselves. I figured that being in the milieu of writing, being a person who likes and talks about writing, these things would just happen to me.
There’s waiting involved in writing: waiting for a magazine to write back in response to your query letter, waiting for an editor to finish reading your manuscript, waiting for the right phrase or paragraph to come as you edit a manuscript. But there can also be delaying - telling yourself that you’ll write the thing later, that you’ll start the project tomorrow, that you need to read just one more book/article/blog to have enough research to start, that the time is not right and your ideas might be too controversial or get you into trouble so you just need to wait for a better, saner period of history.9 That you cannot start now because you were not able to start at your preferred time in your preferred way, so even though you have a little free time you’ll just squander it and try again tomorrow.
Delaying can become its own kind of fake living. Recognizing it and stopping is the key to all beginning.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not meditative practice leads to “enlightenment” (whatever that is …), its primary value is that it teaches us to be rather than wait, to watch our thoughts and anticipations of the future without involving ourselves in them. In this way it grants relief from stress and anxiety.
I am not sure it was Kushner’s intention, but almost all of the art in the book sounds very stupid: collages of pictures clipped from magazines, aluminum boxes meant to look like they have been machined but have actually been made by hand, pictures of pure white light without subjects (blank canvasses, in other words). Perhaps I am just too classical in my artistic tastes to “get it.”
If you want to know about that stuff, read the book.
Though it is never confirmed by Kushner, there are strong hints that this character is involved with the group that subsequently kidnaps and murders Sandro’s brother.
Link to that essay: Twice Read Books: Peter Thiel’s Zero to One Or, On Secrets and Mysteries.
Sandro and Ronnie Fontaine, by contrast, are definite optimists. They make plans and pursue them. The contrast with Reno, being shaped by Sandro, is particularly stark in the case of Ronnie: Ronnie constantly makes up stories about himself. He is shaping himself rather than being shaped by others. Part of his success as an artist, Sandro tells Reno, is that he convinces wealthy, talentless people that by buying his artwork those patrons can partake of that aura of self-creation.
The great observer of indefinite optimism in our time is Venkatesh Rao, capturing it with his perfect neologism “premium mediocrity”:
”The essence of premium mediocrity is being optimistically prepared for success by at least being in the right place at the right time, at least for a little while, even if you have no idea how to make anything happen during your window of opportunity. Even if you know nothing else, you know to move to San Francisco or New York and hoping something good happens there, rather than sitting around in some dying small town where you know nothing will ever happen and being curious about anything beyond the town is a cultural transgression. This is a strategy open to all.”
-Venkatesh Rao, “The Premium Mediocre Life of Molly Millennial”
That is, as long as whatever you are relying on for support holds out (savings, barista jobs, patient and generous parents, venture capital, etc.)
But if you’re only going to write when it is safe to do so, you’re never going to say the things that need saying, that at least one other person needs to hear.