Every novel has at least three significant times to it: the period the novel is set, the period the novel was written, and the period you read it in. My favorite new novel of 2013 was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. I read it in one dry-heat week in May, half-naked on my terrace, reclined to get a first burn of sun on my skin. The novel’s settings—mid-70’s Manhattan, the conceptual art scene, the Salt Flats in Utah, and Italy (WWI-Red Brigade revolution)—read red hot like its cover but the prose’s tone was cool: intellectual and observant, not disimpassioned but never overfelt.
The Flamethrowers’ narrator-protagonist is nicknamed after a place: Reno, where she’s from. Her love interest is Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle legacy. Reno rides. Sandro makes art that sells. They talk about ideas, travel. Ideas—of time and place, art, politics—are the impressive material of this novel, what I recall seven months after my May reading. I’ve held onto images too, like the sweat that collects beneath Reno’s motosuit or a pool on an Italian estate or a street block in underdeveloped Soho, but even they are referents for concepts.
The Flamethrowers is the least psychological coming-of-age story and the most conceptual traditional narrative I have read. It is paced to accelerate through, with entertaining distractions along the way, but what remains at the end is a weighing of ideas like, "People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love." This makes it, for a book so full of history, character, and material stuff, feel timeless.