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I could not take an interest in motorcycles, the art world, or Italian radicalism if I were paid to in large, recurring installments, but Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers (Scribner, $26.99), which is about motorcycles, the art world, and Italian radicalism, has made me care about these things deeply. The power of fiction is not so different from what Austin Grossman believes to be central to the experience of video games: the sudden sense you get that you’ve been cleaved from some calamitously lost other half. Seeing the world through another’s eyes, you are restored to what feels like full sight, and full thought, once again.

Here is the kind of book that reminds you how emotionally refurbishing fiction can be, the kind of book whose prose makes you see the world . . . well, hold on. There is, of course, a passage in The Flamethrowers that demonstrates what reading The Flamethrowers feels like. “We’d eaten the lotus paste buns on a cold, damp November day,” Kushner’s narrator, Reno, says of a late-1970s excursion into New York City’s Chinatown,

on which the sun shone and the rain fell simultaneously, the strange, rosy-gold light of this contradiction intensifying the colors around us as we walked, the fruits and vegetables in vendors’ bins, green bok choys, smooth, sunset-colored mangoes packed into cases, the huge, spiny durian fruits in their nets, crushed ice tinged with fish blood.

Life, gazed at with exemplary intensity over hundreds of pages and thousands of sentences precision-etched with detail — that’s what The Flamethrowers feels like. That’s what it is. And it could scarcely be better.

The Flamethrowers is a political novel, a feminist novel, a philosophical novel, a sexy novel, and a kind of thriller in which most of the intrigue occurs opaquely offstage. Reno (so named for the city of her birth) is fluent and convincing, even though she spends much of the novel listening to other people (artists, mostly; men, mostly) bloviate and editorialize at nauseating — but never uninteresting — length. The Flamethrowers in many ways resembles Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: both narrated by an uncommonly eloquent protagonist whom no one can quite hear, both determined to explore where a desire for social justice turns dark and gnarled, both seemingly allegorical and vaguely dreamlike yet always densely realistic and utterly persuasive in their particulars. “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it,” one of Kushner’s characters thinks, toward the end of the book. “It was a technique for inhabiting the world.”

This is exactly what Kushner does. Primarily the story of a love affair between Reno, a young artist, and Sandro, the ashamed heir to a powerful Italian rubber company with fascista ties (Sandro is also almost twice Reno’s age), The Flamethrowers has a fearless experiential and geographic promiscuity, traveling from the mind of a motorcyclist about to crash on the Utah salt flats (“In an accident everything is simultaneous, sudden, irreversible. It means this: no going back”) to a hideous artists’ dinner in Downtown Manhattan (“Helen’s face had gone blank, as if she’d been summoned elsewhere but had left an impassive mask behind, for his self-promotion to bounce off”) to a Roman riot (“I had fallen through a hole and landed in a massive crowd of strangers, this stream of faces, a pointillism of them”) and to the night of the 1977 New York City blackout (“The vehicles passing through Times Square were the only light sources, except for the prostitutes who had flashlights, which they swung around, calling from doorways, It’s good in the dark”). Virtually every page contains a paragraph that merits — and rewards — rereading. Occasionally the book feels too long, a little ungainly; but then you read one of Kushner’s thunderclap sentences and you remember that sometimes, in fiction, hearing the thunder means standing for a little while in the rain.

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