The Flamethrowers arrived in the UK trailing praise and controversy. Jonathan Franzen, not an easy man to please, had anointed Rachel Kushner ‘thrilling and prodigious’. James Wood’s 3,200-word review in the New Yorker was more enthusiastic still. Things soured when Adam Kirsch suggested that the novel’s ecstatic reception was in part due to the sex of its author. Kirsch had plenty of nice things to say about The Flamethrowers but he implied that reviewers, dazzled by the novelty of a woman writing about the ‘largest political issues’, had failed to notice its flaws. This did not go down well. Laura Miller declared the novel a ‘litmus test’ for identifying male critics unable to handle a woman writing about serious (read: non-domestic) subjects. Kirsch was not the only one she thought failed the test.
Reno, the narrator of most of The Flamethrowers, knows what it’s like to muscle her way into male territory. When Kushner introduces her, she’s 22 years old and on her way to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, to participate in the land speed records for 1976. Reno isn’t planning to become