I’d neither heard nor heard of Crystal Gayle’s 1977 Grammy Award-winning hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” until the second time I read Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers. I was rereading the book because I was teaching it in a graduate summer course, so in the interest of thorough preparation, I started tracking down each of the many cultural references that Reno, Kushner’s narrator, makes. Kushner clearly intends Reno, a young motorcycle-racing artist living in New York in the 1970s, to be cool, and Kushner establishes elements of her cool characterization through Reno’s many references. As a teenager, for example, Reno “loved Flip Farmer,” a fictitious Evel Kinevel-style daredevil, in the same way that “some girls loved ponies or ice skating or Paul McCartney.” Reno often mentions real 1960s and 1970s films—Model Shop, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Klute, Red Desert, and Wanda—that are all modish and style-driven. Reno tosses these references off casually, a narrative tendency revealing an aesthetic sensibility that is fundamental to her identity and how she sees the world.
Gayle’s song is a curious reference in this cluster, in that Reno describes components of the song but does not state its name. She hears it when she’s recovering from a motorcycle injury, one that nonetheless hasn’t prevented her from setting the women’s land-speed record. She’s celebrating with her team of Italian motorcycle techs. Deep in the Utah desert, all they have is AM Radio, “tuned to Top Forty—‘Hooked on a Feeling’ and that song about a woman’s brown eyes turning blue.” Reno reflects that during previous listens, she’d always assumed that the song’s speaker “was declaring she would make her eyes the blue of the woman who’d replaced her. ‘I’m gonna make my brown eyes blue.’ Replace my replacement.” But it turns out she’s had it wrong. In the trailer, she realizes, “It was not I’m gonna, but don’t it make them blue, which changed the meaning. It was a stupider song than I’d imagined.”
Either the title of Gayle’s song is beneath mention or Reno simply doesn’t know it. The incorrect version she’d worked out in her head sounds reasonably interesting in her characteristically concise restatement (“replace my replacement”). Yet to Reno, even that slightly more sophisticated version is stupid.
Do readers know why the song is stupid? No. Reno doesn’t feel she has to tell us, just as she doesn’t have to explain why she likes the movies she does or why Flip Farmer is cooler than Paul McCartney. Her withholding of these explanations implies an assumption that her aesthetic sensibility is not just correct but shared by her audience. Of course, Kushner knows the name of the song—you can’t get this close to the lyrics without knowing it—and it’s very possible that the reader will know, and perhaps even like, the song. Indeed every time I mention the song to someone who came of age at the same time as Reno (she’s 22 in 1975, though narrating retrospectively), they rock their head from side to side and sing the chorus—“Don’t it make my brown eyes, don’t it make my brown eyes, don’t it make my brown eyes blue?”
So if you catch the reference without looking it up, doesn’t this make you less cool than Reno? The song’s stupidity is painfully obvious to Reno, our guide through this cool odyssey—I mean, she just set the land-speed record for a woman on a motorcycle…while injured! Knowing the song puts you in the position of having to square your take with hers. Whatever you might say, however, her position as narrator gives her the floor and, thus, the edge.
Should you ever encounter a Norton Critical Edition of a canonical novel, you’d be likely to see footnotes for references like these. I often teach Kate Chopin’s The Awakening using one of these scholarly editions, and the notes contain all kinds of information that Chopin’s references require knowledge of. If you know nothing about New Orleans fin de siècle society but want to get the full picture, your eye hits the footnote marker, then jumps down to the bottom of the page. These references to real places, real works of art, real events that a novel invokes often cause this sort of movement. Rather than continuing on to the next sentence, the eyes jump down to a footnote or the hands flip to an endnote or, as it was for me reading Kushner, the fingers unlock the phone and Google “brown eyes blue song.” In these moments, we are not moving in a linear or chronological way through the sentences and paragraphs. We are doing something different with our eyes, hands, and fingers. We’ve been sent by the extratextual reference in an alternate direction.
But even when we do not have to look something up—even if you’re talking with a friend who quotes a line from a movie you both love—your mind draws an association from something outside your immediate context back into the conversation. If you don’t catch or get your friend’s reference, however, you aren’t able to move in the direction she’s indicated. Language here is operating both linearly, as in I am hearing the words in the order they being are spoken, and laterally, as in I have to think of something else to be fully with you. If you can go in both directions, conversations become more layered, just as literary allusions enrich reading by adding components into the interpretive mix.
Those footnotes in The Awakening presume that you would have a better reading experience if you were more fully oriented to Chopin’s world. Reading Kushner’s book, on the other hand, you either are rightly oriented or you are offered the chance to try to be rightly oriented. You are likely to be outside the shared sensibility Reno presumes readers bring to the encounter, but as a reader of a first-person narrative, you are intimate with her in ways the characters around her are not. If you like Gayle’s song, Kushner’s gambit might immediately distance you from Reno, in that you do not share her tastes, but it also paradoxically brings you closer to her. The harshness of her judgment, which might feel like a judgment on our taste, actually offers a way into her aesthetic sensibility.
Remember your childhood friend’s older sibling, possessed of all the cool knowledge, who would cut you with a glance when you didn’t catch her Velvet Underground reference? Luckily for readers of Kushner, literary references do not take place in real time. Reno cannot send me a cutting glance if I sing Gayle’s chorus. The reference Reno makes can then operate as an invitation to follow her in that lateral direction, creating an opportunity to layer another element into the encounter. There is no actual Reno—she’s Kushner’s invention–so both ownership and function of her aesthetic judgment is complicated. Reno’s assumption of a shared aesthetic sensibility might generate moments of prickly disagreement or uncomfortable dislocation (these are not, Klute maybe excepted, commonly watched films). Yet every time we hear what she likes or she doesn’t like, it’s not really about us. It’s instruction about a character’s relationship to the world, and as such it deepens our sense of intimacy. In this intimacy, it’s less that we are being excluded from her version of cool as we are given a chance to witness how it works.
One more detail to consider: Gayle’s song came out in 1977, and the scene where Reno expresses disdain for it is 1975 (“Hooked on a Feeling” is from 1974; “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” didn’t get really popular until 1978). Kushner either ignores the gap or doesn’t bother to check the timing. If you know of Kushner’s own strongly held aesthetic convictions—they emerge all throughout her essays collected in the recently-released The Hard Crowd—thinking through the reference requires another lateral movement, or at least opens another direction for consideration. Knowing what a hardcore Kushner reader knows about Kushner (she wasn’t impressed with the band Hole, for instance), suggestions about what makes Gayle’s “Don’t” so objectionable that it sticks with her for nearly thirty years pop out. But then again, Kushner isn’t Reno, despite both of them loving motorcycles: what if Kushner is setting up Reno as someone who’s too ready to state her dislike of a mainstream hit?
But let’s say you don’t know anything about Kushner, or you’re not stopping to check out every 1970s film or song that comes up in the book. You read right past the reference, as I did the first time around, and do no Googling at all. The paradox of fictional extratextual references and the directions they can open is that, when deftly handled, noticing or pursuing them may not feel essential: the novel’s plot and themes don’t need you to know the song. A footnote, even in a really good edition, might just give basic year & title information about both songs. Yet what a limitation, I now think, relying on those footnotes can be! For once you start to track it, doesn’t it feel like you have to listen to “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue,” or you miss real fun? What if you’re missing a signal that can deepen intimacy? How can you really read Reno’s story if you skip over things she’s telling you about herself, even if Reno is a creative creation?
Jeffrey Gonzalez is an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University. He writes about and teaches 20th and 21st century American fiction. Feel free to reach out to him at gonzalezje [at] montclair.edu to talk about coolness, aesthetic consumption, and Rachel Kushner.
“Laterally Cool” is part of a new series of essays on references, guest edited by Lynne Feeley.