I am always interested in what the competition is doing and, being on the verge of publishing a new story called Playing With Fire, I couldn’t help but be drawn to this coruscating new novel from Rachel Kushner which has as its epigraph Fac ut ardeat – Made to burn.
The narrator is an artsy biker girl. She breaks the women’s speed record in the Salt Flats in Utah. She has the hots for young firebrands and trailblazers. She mixes it up with artists in New York. She writes scorching prose.
I can’t drive, I have to admit, and I have never ridden a motorbike, except once as a terrified passenger, going at 17 mph in congested rush-hour London. (Never again!) But yet I could relate to this book and this heroine, who is called Reno, although that isn’t her real name.
In Nevada she meets a man called Stretch (possibly not his real name), who lets her sleep in his room because the motel he runs is full. He doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead he only comes into her room to shower.
While the water ran I hurriedly pulled on my leathers. I was making the bed when he emerged, a towel around his waist. Tall and blond and lanky, like a giraffe, water beading on skin that was ruddy from the hot shower. He asked if I minded covering my eyes for a moment. I felt his nudity as he changed, but I suppose he could just as easily claim to have felt mine, right there under my clothes.
This is hot, very American, very rakish – almost masculine – modern prose that doesn’t bother about predicates but has lashings of flair and attitude. There is an authentic cadence to the dialogue that made me shiver.
“I never met a girl who rides Italian motorcycles,” he said. “It’s like you aren’t real.”
(I get that a lot. “I never met a Chinese girl who writes erotica. Are you for real?”)
Reno doesn’t have sex with Stretch, even though he’s almost poignantly desperate to rub his nearly naked body up against her leathers. Instead she has imaginary conversations with him years later in which they say very American, seventies things to each other in a romantic setting.
“Were you ever in Vietnam?” I’d ask, assuming some terrible story would come tumbling out, me there to offer some comfort, the two of us in the cab of an old white pickup, the desert sun orange and giant over the flat edge of a Nevada horizon. “Me?” he’d say. “Nah.”
This is an ambitious book. You can tell it’s ambitious because many reviewers mention how brilliantly it is written while admitting that they struggled to finish it.
(That’s a reason that I write short stories and novellas, by the way.)
But I recommend this big, sprawling, hardback treasure of a book. It’s a great inspiration for writers and if you’re truly hungry for great writing, its length isn’t an obstacle at all. Prose like this can be consumed greedily and in haste, the way a well-oiled engine sucks in air and petrol and spews out a great whooshing tongue of flame.