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“At a stoplight, a man in the backseat of a cab, a cigarette hanging from his lips, rolled down his window and complimented the bike. He wasn’t coming on to me. He was envious. He wanted what I had like a man might want something another man has.”

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers | Scribner 04.02.13



June 22, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“It was true that we had smoked a little hash. Nonetheless also true that the pope made his plea for peace with a giant bullet propped on his head.”

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

She describes, in the previous paragraph, the pope with “a huge ornamental headdress that looked like a brushed-metal bullet, a large pointed dome with a row of twinkling stones low around its girth, underneath a spiky gold base.” And one of the things that this book does so well is set up and pick up resonances: there are images of popes throughout, here a motorcycle brand, there a wistful dream, elsewhere a ceiling fresco of popes drowning; there are a couple of bullets, each freighted with significance; there is the futurist dream early in the book, of mechanized speed and half-human half-machine hybrids, which this resembles. None of which is, needs to be, remarked on, in the middle of this tossed-off story, which is one of the chief reasons this book is so good. It has invented a world, a coherent and consistent set of symbols and images and icons, that taken on their own might be heightened or hyperrealistic or hysterical even, but capture the moment they’re intended to more completely than stricter verisimilitude might.

Scribner 04.02.13



June 21, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“People were arriving in buoyant swells, pushing in and talking loudly, bringing the energy from wherever they’d just been, different groups merging together like weather systems.”

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

Which is great, and apt, and we’ve all been in that bar, right? But even better, a little down the page: “She shone like something wet, a piece of candy that had been in someone’s mouth.” Which winds up just being glitter and sweat, but is beautiful and cruel and ominous. So much of this book is so very good at sentence level.

Scribner 04.02.13



June 20, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“The thing about news was that it never touched you. You could turn off the radio mid-urgent warning and know the escapee was not going to be in your bushes, not going to be peeping in on you in your shower. The news never reached anybody in a real way.”

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

From a minor anecdote, in a book that increasingly trucks in anecdotes and observations (and, actually, does a marvellous job shifting between action and passivity, speed and its absence: the first several chapters are excellent at managing pace and interest, at least were for me, varied and absorbing; this comes when the book has begun to settle down and the flashy stuff is more often restricted to stories, reported speech). This one is about a housewife hit by a meteorite: “All the world’s uncanniness in that thing that came crashing in from deep, unknowable space, and the proof it left on her, a tremendous bruise (if only it had lasted!).”

Scribner 04.02.13



June 19, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“I thought again of Pat Nixon, of underthings in a Pat Nixon palette. Faded peach, or lemon-bright chiffon.”

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

One of the earliest and best period-piece-y bits in this period piece. And it’s probably important that this book be a period piece: it’d be hard to balance the need for abstraction and concreteness that The Flamethrowers needs without the distancing of history (and maybe it would be difficult for Reno to be as passive a receiver in a different set of cultural markers, able to be in so many places while also not participating or belonging, which is the most salient and probably most frustrating thing about the character). 

Scribner 04.02.13



June 18, 2014, 5:32pm  Comments

“It meant there was already a ground charge. It meant one of those lightning bolts had met the mountain. They were connected now, earth to sky, and Hannah and Connor in between. They were almost to the rim of the glacier that lay between the peaks. Far below them the crimson and scarlet ribbons of the fire still glowed, but that wasn’t the light that concerned her anymore.”

Michael Koryta, Those Who Wish Me Dead

This—and a couple of other passages about forest fires, bits of description—are as flowery as Koryta gets, as intrusive as he allows his prose to be. I just read something with the opposite mix, which will show up here a little later, something where the muscularity of the prose washes everything else out a little, so that the two main characters sound identical, are narrated identically. And this marks out what Kortya does as pretty transparently genre-novel rather than literary-novel: the plot is what guides everything here, and the book succeeds or fails on the merits of the plot, and it forces the book to be tight and unified and consistent. I’d read one of Koryta’s books previously; that one tracked toward eerie and supernatural, blending horror and thriller in ways that didn’t entirely work. This one is pure enough to work, and complicated enough by the middle to be convincing, or at least to encourage suspension of disbelief.

Little, Brown 06.03.14



June 16, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“The Swedish corner! You’ll waste your bonus. Come to us. We’ve already merged with the French. And the Albanians are with us, the Romanian, and three Macedonians. The Greeks want to join too. It’ll be the coolest corner of all!”

Vladimir Sorokin, 23,000 in Ice Trilogy

23,000 is a case of diminishing returns, generally—a third book in a trilogy, it has to do all the thankless stuff the first two books get to put off. Bro is weird, unsettling, and sets all Sorokin’s balls in motion; Ice is more focused if no less weird, splitting its time between characters at the ragged bottom edge of 90s Russia and an extended single-voice bio. 23,000 has to wrap things up, and does so with much more predictable thriller patterns, except for a couple of left turns, like this dream sequence (which is, um, transparently allegorical, but also a nightmare nested in another nightmare, and a virtuoso bit that distracts from the inevitable loose-thread-tying plod of the general plot).

New York Review Books 03.15.11



June 15, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“‘You’re a bunch of no-goodniks.’”

Vladimir Sorokin, Ice in Ice Trilogy

Part of the feeling of being at sea in Sorokin is understanding that one is not getting a lot of the references; this is a very Russian book, the kind that would require extensive footnotes to unpack allusions and a clefs and layers of meaning—or at least that is the feeling one gets from reading about Sorokin, anyway. And it’s borne out here and there by the translation; I can’t imagine this is a literal translation, or if there is a literal translation of no-goodnik, I can’t imagine that that would be something put in a Stalinist general’s mouth, and it’s the occasional hitch in translation that brings the lack of grounding to the forefront.

New York Review Books 03.15.11



June 14, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“The entire city consisted of tiny stone caves. In each cave lived a family of meat machines. The caves were firmly locked against other meat machines, although none of them differed structurally from one another. But the meat machines were afraid of one another because some of them had big caves and others had small ones.”

Vladimir Sorokin, Bro in Ice Trilogy

And then, finally, to complete estrangement, adopting the perspective of its alien protagonist, who is increasingly unable to comprehend the humanity he was born into; this is Walter Tevis doing a Brecht impersonation.

New York Review Books 03.15.11



June 13, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“After the awakening of our hearts each of us had become a genuine Proteus: each discovered within a not only a capacity for transformation but also an incredible flexibility in dealing with the stern, unpredictable world. Having thrown off the stone armor or our past, dead life and broken kinship ties, it was as though we had become boneless and were able to easily bend and penetrate the crevices of the world.”

Vladimir Sorokin, Bro, in Ice Trilogy

But then there’s the ice, and all the italics, and the kind of familiar strangeness (or maybe estrangement-effect) of postmodernism gives way to stuff that’s weirder, makes less sense, is subject to the rules and rhythms of obsession rather than narrative drive: the science fiction becomes new-age-y, the logic of character and action get muddy or oversimplified. Whether it’s a lack of context on my part, or an essential idiosyncrasy of Sorokin’s book, this seems to move from playing with genre to slipping outside of it entirely.

New York Review Books 03.15.11



June 12, 2014, 10:30am  Comments