Laura Owens (who we very much love), directed and filmed a dramatic reading of a scene from The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (who we also very much love). Here’s the film, and an excerpt from a conversation they did for the Logger about the scene:
LAURA OWENS: What I thought was interesting about the book is the lack of agency all these women have in trying to negotiate their world, and like the fact that this woman––who is this incredible motorcycle racer—goes to a dinner party and barely says a word the entire night—you hear her thoughts, but you don’t hear her voice.
RACHEL KUSHNER: Sure—maybe it’ll be the case that some people will be disappointed by her so-called lack of agency, and my rebuttal would be that maybe their those peoples’ expectations have to do with literary conventions of heroism more than with real life situations that young women face. Or that they expect of my narrator a strength they think they possess, but the thing is, she doesn’t have it. She has her own strength, which isn’t about being the loudest at the dinner table. I was trying to render something that felt real to me for a very young person in New York City, meeting artists for the first time. The tone of the scene, also, is meant to fit the 1970’s, and I think my impression of that time––despite there having been all these amazing women artists, like Yvonne Rainer, Martha Rosler, Lynda Benglis, Mary Heilmann—is that the Minimalists were still totally ascendant. It was a very male world. And not just male, but macho, in a sort of clichéd way. Even in the 1990s when I was young and living in New York, I felt like I didn’t really have a right to speak until I had some purchase on the discourse and could sound smart.
RK: And if I didn’t know a reference that somebody brought up—to interrupt their story, to ask them to explain the reference, was a way to let them know that they shouldn’t pursue anything with you beyond acquaintanceship. So maybe I was channeling a little bit of that. I hate to say it, but some men do talk a lot. I have been to art world dinner parties where there are a few people who are self-authorized storytellers, and they hold court, and they assume what they are talking about is interesting to everyone else, and there is a kind of tacit social pact that it is interesting, and that they will be allowed to speak until they’re finished. The late, great Walter Hopps was kind of like that, but he had the most terrific stories. And everyone would just listen. His protégé Anne Doran wrote to me and said she felt like Walter would have loved my book, which was, like, the best compliment. Maybe the portrayal of this quiet young woman and a bunch of silverbacks holding court would have seemed realistic to Walter.
But there were some other formal reasons why I had this scene that you’re talking about––the dinner party––narrated in the first person by a young woman, but also crowded out by other voices. Bolaño does this thing in The Savage Detectives where the narration is all being told by one person but it skitters among different voices of people who are telling stories in the book, just in dialogue, and I was inspired by that. I wasn’t consciously emulating him, but I think I was given a green light by that novel. So I let the male artists at the dinner table just go on and on, and I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if one of them holds court not by talking but by forcing everybody else to listen to a reel-to-reel tape recording of his voice?
LO: That was one of my favorite moments in the book. It took this idea of the monologue to another level that became incredibly comical and tragic and pathetic at the same time.
RK: Oh thanks. That was the idea, I guess. But I relate to him in a way, too. Once you start, I mean attempting to actually say something, where do you stop?