It is sobering to read an old blog post, one of the hazards of maintaining a blog over any length of time. Five years ago, I described Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as the ‘very best fiction’. Five years, and five hundred books-later, I no longer know what those words mean. The more I read, the less I know, and I’d now be more cautious about such an epithet. Perhaps I was more open to critical influence; after all, James Wood gushed about The Flamethrowers calling it ‘scintillatingly alive’ and praising Kushner’s storytelling.
What is true is that certain set pieces of The Flamethrowers remain inscribed into my memory. Kushner is a good storyteller, capable of evocative description and reasonably strong characterisation. Her storytelling was sufficiently memorable that I bought and read her latest novel, The Mars Room.
This latest novel, I’d argue, is better written than The Flamethrowers. Five years is a long time after all. It comes across as an honest novel, by which I mean the narrative voice is strong enough that Kushner knows the places and people she writes about. I don’t mean that this is yet another thinly veiled work of autobiographical fiction, far from it, but nor is it a deeply imaginative work that lacks depth or substance. It is grounded in the reality of working class life in a way that feels believable.
Through the eyes and voices of Kushner’s characters, for a couple of days, I sensed the hopelessness of their lives, especially the waste and senselessness of long periods–a lifetime for the main narrator–of incarceration. This is testimony to the strength of her storytelling and, yes, I would apply Woods’ ‘scintillatingly alive’ in this case too. But I offer no guarantees that I will continue to do so in five years time.