The Flame Throwers, by Rachel Kushner

I wonder how many people have had the experience of moving to New York. Or any big city, really. It feels like the number would be in the tens of millions. I’ve moved to New York twice, in 1986 to attend college, and in 1997, when I wanted to live in the Northeast again. Some great works of art have captured the experience of the migration—for whatever reason, the first ones that come to mind are the songs: “New York, New York,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and, of course, the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore show. There are many movies too: Is Godfather II ultimately the story of a guy who moved to New York and got mixed up in some crazy shit like you wouldn’t believe?

Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flame Throwers is about many things—motorcycles, chasing speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the New York art world of the 1970s, the Red Brigades youth movement in Italy. Kushner renders these worlds with an expert eye. But The Flame Throwers is also a more common story about a girl who moves to the big city. The scenes of her first adventures in New York were, for me, the best in a very good book.

In The Flame Throwers and in her debut novel Telex from Cuba, which was nominated for a National Book Award, the abundantly talented Kushner seemed committed to never writing a common sentence or telling a story in a common way. The same is true for nearly all of The Flamethrowers; the narrative opens by flipping between her heroine’s adventures on motorcycles and the roots of Italian company that made her motorcycle. But soon the historical passages drop away and the perspective narrows to that of a young woman in the city, and every now and the narrator will drop in lines such as “I had mistaken physical passion for passion,” that would sound perfectly at home in one of those Carrie Bradshaw voice-overs on Sex and the City.

The lines jumped out to me because they felt like they might be “from the heart,” so to speak, a reflection of some real-life experience. Whether they are or not doesn’t particularly matter to me, but in Telex from Cuba, a book which shifted narrative perspectives much more aggressively, I never felt as though the author were speaking in such a personal way. Here, I did. It stood out, given the extent to which Kushner builds worlds with what appears to be exhaustive historical research.

I am curious to see where Kushner is going with this.

Zona, by Geoff Dyer

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My immediate thoughts upon finishing Geoff Dyer’s book Zona, which came out in 2012: 1) I’ve never read any book like it; 2) I intend to read more books like it; and 3) I hope these books eventually come into existence.

Zona is a book length review of the movie Stalker, which, just going by its title, sounds like it should be a thriller starring, say, Jennifer Lopez and Mark Wahlberg. But Stalker in fact a serious work of high cinematic art by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The movie is ideally suited for Dyer’s premise because the plot is so minimal that, as Dyer says, it could be summarized in two sentences. The thinness of the narrative (there are only three main characters: the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor, and they travel through a barren Zone on the way to a mystical Room) allows Dyer to describe the movie shot by shot, and also spin off into length tangents without having to worry that Stalker-ignorant readers such as myself will lose track of its plot. Whereas if Dyer had tried a book like this with, say, The Godfather, he would have ended up rewriting the Mario Puzo novel before he even got to his commentary.

The best thing about Zona is how well it represents the full experience of watching a movie. At times it’s as if Virginia Woolf wrote her book about the time Mrs. Dalloway went to the movies (An afternoon screening of Stalker! What a lark!). Dyer’s retelling draws in references to dozens of other films, to romantic poetry, to film criticism, to his own childhood, to his desire to adopt a dog (there’s a dog in the movie too), even though Dyer has been looking at adoption websites for five years and has yet to follow through. Suffice to say the tangents are rich and diverse and nearly always welcome.

The great Roger Ebert used to run an annual movie screening where any of the attendees could call to stop the film, so people could discuss the image on the screen at that moment. I imagine those screenings would have been fascinating, or possibly deeply annoying, depending in who else was in the audience, and the quality of their insights. In Zona it’s just Dyer stopping the action, and his comments are certainly worth the while.

I was a huge fan of the Mystery Science 3000 television show and I also like the Flop House podcast. Dyer’s Zona is their solitary, highbrow literary counterpart, and a welcome one.