Rachel Kushner – wiry, dressed in black and with sunglasses worn against the effects, she says, of a late night with Irish novelist Colm Tóibin rather than the watery Edinburgh sun – is the author of The Flamethrowers, a novel whose publication this summer has prompted an outbreak of hostilities among literary critics.
The book, with a set piece in which its female narrator-protagonist speeds on a motorbike through the Nevada desert, has opened up some fraught questions. Can a woman write a Great American Novel? Is there such a thing as material more or less suitable to a woman? Can a woman protagonist somehow stand for humanity or just (in Kushner’s words) “the eternal rib”?
Perhaps the most important American literary taste-maker, James Wood, gave it a lengthy rave review in the New Yorker, calling it “scintillatingly alive … It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures”. Novelist Jonathan Franzen has called her “a thrilling and prodigious novelist”.
Elsewhere, though, the novel has prompted accusations that its so-called “macho” qualities (there is a great deal of speed, risk and bodily excitement) explain “why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics”. In Salon she was dubbed the novelist “who scares male critics … When Rachel Kushner – not a venerable male auteur – writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers are flummoxed”.
Tóibin, chairing an event with the writer at the Edinburgh international book festival, put it more humorously: it was as if Kushner was announcing that “if anyone thinks there is a ‘male novel’, and anyone thinks that women should write a different kind of novel, I’ve just arrived on a motorbike covered in leather and I am ready to eat you all”.
“Writer rolls her eyes,” said Kushner in response to a question about the debate. “That preoccupation is not my battle … However, some of the debate has centred around this idea that I use male material. But to me it’s not male material, or rather if it is male material I guess there’s part of me that’s male, because I wrote the book that was in me and was natural for me to write.”
The Flamethrowers is Kushner’s second novel. The 44-year-old lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles (she began writing the book in the month her boy was born), and grew up in Oregon, the child of bohemian-academic parents. “Growing up, I was not told that there were women’s areas of preoccupation or male ones,” she said.
The novel’s narrator, nicknamed Reno, is using her bike to become a land artist – racing through a dried-up lake bed in Utah and photographing the tracks as a vast sculpture. The novel, in Kushner’s words, “combines 1970s radical politics in Italy with the art world in New York and motorcycle racing in the American west”.
“My dad had a Vincent Black Shadow, which was a quite particular thing: it was the fastest cycle of its era … It sparked a world for me; when I was old enough I got a motorcycle.”
She added: “Someone had described [the book] as being macho. But I don’t think of myself as a macho writer. I don’t have any outside view of myself and if I did I would probably be creatively inhibited. I just write in the way that I write.” She added that with the great writers whom she admires – notably Don DeLillo, to whom Tóibin compared her in Edinburgh – she felt a connection that was beyond gender. “When I read those novelists I feel those are my kindred companions in the world … I want to be like them but I don’t want to be like men – it’s just that we’re all writers.”
Tóibin said the book’s style was “amazing: the control of the sentences, the way each one has a flourish or a way of handling tone and texture that is brave and wonderful”. This did not come without a struggle: it took two years, Kushner said, to write the first chapter. “It was just a matter of trying and trying and trying – and deep patience. I knew once I found the right register for the narrator’s voice I could answer a lot of questions.”
She added: “I don’t really know what the Great American Novel is. I like the idea that there could be one now and I wouldn’t object if someone thought it was mine, but I don’t claim to have written that – I just wrote my book.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010