In those moments when we step out of time, dissolved in a book or piece of music, where are we? First-person fiction is a form of voyeurism, surreptitious participation in a scene in which we have no presence. Reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers I am invisibly present, pressed against protagonist Reno’s back as she weaves her Moto Valera motorcycle through New York traffic, almost able to observe through her eyes, almost able to think her thoughts. Almost because first-person fiction offers up this fantasy of being able to access another’s interior. This is one reason I read fiction. The very best fiction, and The Flamethrowers fits this description, promises this sort of access, with its characters, more real in many ways than those passing me on the train as I read. This is one of those stories, told so well that in years to come its scenes and characters will become part of my pool memories, hazily recollected like those parties where we observed and participated through a haze of alcohol or drugs.
My Moto Valera was vintage, a Benelli 750 Sei, an angular, ugly beast of a motorcycle. I have an urge to find one again, to ride, like Reno, across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Is it voyeurism (which, by definition, includes a creepy component), or is it identification with the character? Do you want to know her, observe her behavior and activities? Or do you want to be her, experience what she experiences, feel what she feels?
Neither identification nor a desire to know more than is visible, within and without. Spectator may be an improvement on voyeur, but it imposes a distance in place of the creepiness of voyeurship.
OK, thanks. Makes sense. Why we read what we read, and why react to it as we do, is always of interest to me. Over the years, I’ve of course noticed definite patterns in my own preferences, and I can see how they jibe with patterns and changes in my personality traits, worldview, ideology, etc. For instance, as I, um, mature, I note that although neither the age nor the gender of protagonists in high-quality fiction affects my response, both the age and gender of the author now seem to have a much greater impact on my interest, patience, tolerance, and ultimate appreciation; that is, I find I’m much likelier to be put off by younger authors or female authors (for a variety of presumed reasons).
Aside from inevitable variations in personal taste, have you observed age- or experience-related changes in your responses to what you consider the very best fiction? Do you think your general reaction to a novel like The Flamethrowers would’ve been about the same, say, 10-15 years ago, and do you expect that it’d be about the same if you were to read it 10-15 years from now?
I haven’t observed age-related changes, though perhaps this is visible in a narrowing of tastes for fiction. Reading Beckett deeply changed my response to fiction, and I find it very difficult to appreciate fiction that fails in some way to respond to the challenges of modernism. The Flamethrowers is timeless in style (classically realist in many ways), and I would have loved the book as much 10-15 years ago as I did this time. This is in part due to its concerns, some which are also mine, over and above the fact that it is beautiful and intelligently written. I expect that will be the same in 10-15 years from now.
Thank you, Anthony. This concludes our survey. 🙂
P.S. Re Beckett: Oh yes.