My experience of narrative — particularly in New York City, where every approaching train cuts off every approaching thought, where the constant abrasion of the unknown with the insane desensitizes, so that I’m often left with white noise, and jagged notes from the digital world seep further into reality — is piecemeal. I had a friend who assured me that it was impossible to read certain books in the 21st-century city. Henry James, for instance. You need a quiet nook, she said. Otherwise, “before you’ve even finished one sentence” — but she was cut off. I became fascinated with this idea of a patchwork approach. Certainly, it’s nothing new, but who did it well?
When I asked three very different kinds of readers — one young psychologist with a soft spot for the traditional narrative, one writer with a penchant for the avant-garde, and one professor rubberbanding somewhere in between — what was the best example of an American piecemeal novel, each answered immediately: Speedboat by Renata Adler. Well, that did it. I had my triangulation.
Trouble is, Adler’s 1976 novel written in brief vignettes had been out of print for decades. The title struck a chord. I had remembered it mentioned in David Shields’s recent meditation Reality Hunger, itself a piecemeal work, but if Adler’s Speedboat was so vital to the history of the American novel, why was it out of print?
After a survey of which books the members would like to see republished, the National Book Critics Circle wondered the same thing. Again and again, the answer was Speedboat. And in 2010, they called for the book to be put back into print, and so, this month, NYRB Classics has reissued Speedboat with an insightful afterword by Guy Trebay.
Speedboat combines brief anecdotes, braided themes, flashes of urban images, and whimsical musings from the 35-year-old journalist narrator, Jen Fain, to create a novel that foxtrots around the idea of observation. One could say that, as a journalist, Jen is trained in observation. But what to do with that observation? The book lacks any kind of conventional plot in favor of these flashes of life from an over-worked, often-drinking collector of stories. In fact, toward the end of the novel, Jen addresses the issue of plot head-on:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.
Adler does this exactly. Her collection of New York observations — often among strangers, but sometimes invoking recurring characters — are shuffled and dealt. And often they do not “come out,” but I’m not sure that’s the point. Rambling narratives come to a slant conclusion. What appear to be insightful allegories twist into pitiful jokes. After each anecdote, my head was nearly always at a tilted angle. Nothing quite adds up, and nothing is quite what it seems. What narrative strategy is more accurate in portraying a country in the wake of Watergate, of Vietnam?
Though Adler includes these historical touchstones — the Kent State shootings, to give another example — her observations eerily waft with ease into our own era. In one particularly memorable episode, Jen boards a plane, and the stewardess clears the first three rows “for security reasons.” In the bustle and argument among obstinate passengers, one elderly woman, oblivious, remains in the front row as the plane takes off. No one demands that she move. Jen notes the fear among the passengers that there has been some breach of security:
She required her bag. There was another ripple of apprehension that she might be, after all, the world’s most improbable terrorist, with a weapon hidden, after all, in that enormous bag. She spent the rest of the flight, though, staring, doddering, holding on to the bag by its string.
Fear, we sometimes forget, follows us into every decade. This passage uncannily describes the post-9/11 atmosphere in airports, aboard the planes themselves. Everyone became, instantly, an astute observer of the minutiae around them.
Adler’s brief, punchy wit reads, perhaps, better today than it did 35 years ago. Scrolling through news bits and status updates between passages of Speedboat, I’m floored by how the novel reads as a somewhat verbose Twitter feed. That is, verbose for Twitter. Succinct for anything else.
Where others might end a passage, Adler adds one more sentence that upends the whole episode. For instance, Jen narrates one anecdote about two grandmothers: one rich, one poor. The rich grandmother buys the children presents that they never appreciate. An antique pocket watch, a fragile 18th-century doll, a strand of pearls. The poor grandmother, however, takes the children to the convenience store and buys them cheap toys, which they love immediately, and the poor grandmother is “perhaps unfairly, far the more popular grandparent of their early years.” Adler follows, and ends, this juxtaposition with three words: “Twenty years passed.”
Adler does allow us into Jen’s life at times, though in the same, scattered glimpses as the rest of the novel. Toward the beginning, Jen seems to be romantically involved with a man named Will, though she confides, in an underhanded way, that he is “married to his work.” Many anecdotes, self-contained stories about strangers, and what might be Jen’s dates with other men elapse. Forty pages later, while relating a bizarre night out with an obituary writer, Jen writes, as an afterthought, “Anyway, Will’s gone.” Like the parenthetical death of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a man who had appeared to be a central character of the story vanishes. Adler implies that, in a similar way, we can never predict the major players of our own life.
What also strikes me about Speedboat are its varied layers of resonance. This is an accurate portrait of a functioning alcoholic, an uncertain reporter, a lonely mind on fire in a city of strangers, and a woman ambivalent about her own sex or the prospects of motherhood — simultaneously. Jen Fain seems to portray many of the archetypal city-dwellers all at once, and Adler’s deft writing positions the archipelagoes of narrative just so. You will find what you are looking for.
Undoubtedly, Speedboat presents an impressionistic landscape of New York. “…there are moments in this place,” Jen says, “when everything becomes a show of force.” Classes, races, cultures, occupations, sexes, politics, all pitted against each other in a game that is unknown to everyone. But rather than trace various characters at odds, Adler is at her best when she lets the city speak for itself, as in this self-contained section:
“The score,” the megaphone on the ferry around Manhattan said, from time to time, without further explanation, “is one to nothing.” To the foreigners, unaware perhaps that a World Series was in progress, this may have seemed an obscure instruction, or a commentary on the sights. “In the top of the fifth,” it said, with some excitement, as we rounded Wall Street, “the score is five to one.”
It’s interesting to me that I set out to find an exemplary novel-in-vignettes in response to the city, and stumbled upon a novel that uses vignettes to define the urban experience. Full circle. After 200 pages of short, loosely linked text, Speedboat can run the mind down. But perhaps Adler’s oblique way around her character’s story is the most accurate way to maneuver a city. Speedboat certainly influenced Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, also written in short sections, and also centered around New York, which Hardwick calls “A woman’s city…” Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys also comes to mind, dealing the same structure in an attempt to make sense of Johannesburg. Perhaps the city cannot be strangled into a grid. Thankfully, this reissue won’t let us forget that.