VIRGINIA WOOLF, in her 1919 essay “Modern Fiction,” wrote of popular novels of the time:
Is life like this? […] Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this.” Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms […] Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
Woolf called upon novelists to convey this life as best they could.
The greatest achievement of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published in 1976 and reissued by New York Review Books Classics in March 2013, can be seen as its response to this challenge. Adler creates a world of “myriad impressions” that swirl about the reader, through partial stories, passing thoughts, and the type of overheard ephemera that with just the right tilt of the head become analogies for everything. Through short vignettes, quotations, stand-alone sentences — both independent and necessarily linked — and very light threads of continuing story, Adler builds a world of “innumerable atoms” that also starts, stops, jerks, speeds, and lulls, as its eponymous vehicle might. Speedboat, many have said in different words, is a successful portrait of modern whiplash.
The “semi-transparent envelope” surrounding the reader, in this case, is by and large an aural and verbal one — a sphere of experience formed by the words of the times: mostly public cant and the proud expressions of individual self-assertion, the two categories often overlapping. No page of the book is free of floating idiom: a lone janitor, of whom we know nothing else, mutters to himself, “Far from it, far from it,” repeatedly as he cleans. He appears later, for just an instant, now intoning, “Don’t dwell on it,” and in his third appearance, the phrases are combined.
While the narrator, Jen Fain — a journalist and left-ish, semi-reluctant haute-bourgeois New Yorker — says she doesn’t believe that there is a “spirit of the times,” the era’s accepted parlance is often her explicit subject: “‘Mutual’ meant common, shared, together, both or simply somehow two-ish […] ‘Agony’ could mean anything — usually, pending indictment.” Later: “While people tagged up on these public codes and incantation, baby talk took over private conversation — naughty and cranky, in particular.”
Adler is a veteran nonfiction writer, and her snippets have the feeling of being taken directly from the world — they are artifacts sliced from observation, each chosen to depict precisely one thing, and reflecting many:
Bonbon Wechsler of Santa Barbara, who had already acquired a small Moroccan boyfriend and was chanting with him to improve her French […] was accidentally pushed through the window of a bookshop on the Rue Bonaparte, where she nearly bled to death among the old, incomplete set of tarot cards.
This is fully particular, and, at the same time, one of Adler’s broad lessons: where we are is not always where we believe ourselves to be.
Adler can be quite musical — a master of declarative, brick-laying rhythm à la Hemingway — as in the opening lines of the section “The Agency”: “The boat was old. The food was boiled. The berths were not sound. The passage took more than a week. The class in all cabins, on all decks, was tourist class.” Her prose can be both beautiful and wry, form often falling foot and step with content: in calm, even cadence, “the unburied coolly bided their time.” She is frequently funny, never flowery, usually original, and alliterative: Broadway Junction, Jen thinks, “might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia.” Across such descriptions lie cool, logical pronouncements, where the empirical and reason join calmly in insight. On embarrassment: “Its command of the attention is absolute. Someone who needs and does not have a handkerchief is likely to be as preoccupied as someone scared to death.”
It may be Adler’s omissions that evoke the world most vividly. Through incomplete stories, gaps between observations, and sentence-by-sentence juxtapositions — where seemingly unrelated thoughts abut each other, tectonically, shifting abruptly, mimicking and inducing the world she describes — “Freedom means nothing left; cab change receptacles are hearing aids in which one’s fingers jam — when the clips are coming quite fast, it’s like waking up and trying to orient the bed.” In these spaces, we the reader must find or create the bridge.
Some of the most clever of such leaps are those joined by conjunctions — “however,” “but,” “though” — presenting one found fact as counterevidence for another:
Vlad thinks that, like so many valuable learning experiences, it cannot, cannot in the end ever be or have been worth it. I once saw, however, what might have been an altogether hopeless old man on crutches, making his way out of Disneyland, with a large Mickey Mouse balloon.
At times, the meaning is clear, quickly. At others, one must pause and consider: “‘Self-pity’ is just sadness, I think, in the pejorative. But ‘joking with nurses’ fascinates me in the press.”
Through such spaces, Adler’s work becomes a grid onto which we stretch our own inferences, conclusions, and meaning. Thus it’s rare that we find her world static, stale, or simply inaccurate. We read the book’s passing, partial cues much as we read life. As Woolf wrote: “To make a whole […] one of the most universal and profound of our instincts.” In doing so, our perspective melds with that of the narrator. At the same time, Adler invokes the tone of common knowledge — we, the observers, know what this means, she implies — and we, the reader, are happy, eager really, to oblige her.
Speedboat’s observations almost always lead us to lessons, in part because of the blanks left for us to fill, and these usually have to do with falsehood and absurdity. Yet Adler implies that the work is not representative or general. Jen does not “dream in parables.” “There are no conclusions to be drawn from it.” “‘Forget it,’ says the drunken voice outside. ‘What’s it for? Throw it away.’” The futility — in fact the inanity — of generalization and the inevitable failure of precision, of hitting the nail on the head, are themselves running lessons.
The book’s only literal speedboat arrives about halfway through, where it punctuates another lesson we will learn thoroughly:
The speedboat was serious. The young tycoon was serious about it, as he was about his factories, his wife, his children, his parties, his work, his art collection, his resort […] The young American wife from Malibu, who had been overexcited about everything since dawn, said she would adore to go […] The American lady, in her eagerness, began to bounce with anticipation over every little wave. The boat scudded hard; she exaggerated every happy bounce. Until she broke her back.
The speedboat is the tycoon’s ostentatious masculinity; it is the woman’s preening fun-loving spirit; it is each of our self-assertions, the revving show, the signals people project into the world to say “me.” The professor, a recurring voice, says, “All acts are acts of aggression, we know that.” And Speedboat is often about the crash. Adler’s characters talk at, over, and through each other consistently. Hers is a world of individual declarations, slamming into each other, or barely missing, unheeded: “Perhaps the two people were grazed in passing by. […] [H]it by flying suicide.”
Speedboat’s narrator, uniquely, is defined through the solipsism of everyone else: she is the heliocenter of a universe filled by suns. Jen’s character is formed almost entirely through an awareness of and reaction to the self-avowals of others, and she contains the world and holds on to it by recording and playing back what she finds. Her judgments are largely implicit, but what she sees is plain: people are failing.
“Sanity,” Jen thinks, “is the most profound moral option of our time.” And so the moral weight is in awareness: in catching the rhythm of the breakdown:
Dennis, a rich, unintelligent, and not particularly well-meaning man, reveled in his favorite expressions. When he was certain of something, he said it was sure as God made little green apples. […] When he felt superior to someone, he said he ate that sort of fella for breakfast. […] His appointments secretary, in whom he confided his impressions, of business, his home life, his diet, had a recurrent dream that she shot him.
At times like this, Jen’s — and Adler’s — approach can feel too easy, and not so unlike the affirmations of those she observes, who hack their way past each other on jealously guarded, borrowed trains of thought.
“‘What you say is true,’ the professor said, staring through his study window at the sky, ‘but not so very interesting.’” Adler’s prose is almost always interesting, and impressively true, like a trenchant, whetted encyclopedia, really, but there are so many entries. Its drive, its reason for being, can become too distant — as aloof as its narrator. Somewhere along the line, about halfway through the book, when one has become accustomed to Adler’s ear — her ability to select from found cacophony and submerge us in it — and come to expect the bone-dry authority of her insights, questions arise: Why? For what? Because this is a depiction of the world, like the world. It is Woolf’s “luminous halo.” But is it?
One disadvantage Adler’s work faces, 40 years after its original publication, is that efforts to record, to contain, to capture the dizzying “now” are undertaken by non-artists every day. A new, ridiculous Sprint commercial describes the world as “data dressed as pixels,” which through the iPhone 5 can be seen from “every point of view, every panorama,” and proclaims our “right to upload” it all. Our time is arguably more fractured than Adler’s 1970s — add “pixilation” to her list: “The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations.” — but it is also arguably calmer in all its passivity. We have grown used to the jolty ride and have quite a different relationship to the “clip” of information. Often, we shut down by plugging into the whir and watching it go by, looking at Facebook, for example, a contained safe-room for rabid, fatuous, tone-deaf, and entertaining declarations of existence. We have a more formalized collective sense of trends, of group action, of public absurdity, and many of us knowingly participate in a meta-culture. Tweeting a new-ish cliché can be a successful joke. Videos and lists simply playing back commonalities go viral (“Shit girls say,” “Stuff white people like”). The existence of the hashtag points to us all as little sociologists, identifying tiny blinks in the body public, creating winks when we can.
So this may be where Speedboat is dated: in the early 21st century, we, collectively, have a keener ear for the representative, for the absurd, for that snippet that nails it. None of this lessens Adler’s accomplishment. But considering the shift in audience — considering the one billion “photojournalists” and found-object comedians — is helpful in defining Speedboat’s deficiencies:
Martin, our campaign contributor [...] tends to say ‘How too like life’ when he is drunk. Anything — a joke, a sigh, a quarrel, an anecdote — has upon him, at such times, this effect. He says, ‘How too like life.’ When the American lady had her accident, Martin said How too like life all afternoon.”
Martin finds actual life to be impressively like itself. Though at base nonsensical, the sentiment is, of course, not uncommon. Those of the writerly persuasion, in particular, read life as a symbol of itself often, and frequently from such a position of detachment. In Speedboat, Adler presents a world of disorder, propelled by no universal force, no reasoning will at the wheel, but every bit of evidence makes part of an absurdist rhyme. There is beauty, and entropic order, in the reason gone awry — it is intelligent design for the sardonic. Over the course of the book, we find ourselves too often admiring the model and feeling little. How too like life, we think, and sit back and nod:
“I can’t believe it,” people said, almost with passion. It was that year’s version of hello. […] Apparently incredulous, astounded, people met. Sometimes the rejoinder was “For God’s sake,” as in “Harry! Maude! I can’t believe it.” “Marilyn! Well, for God’s sake.”
How too like life. It’s quite funny. But Adler is also quite serious: Jen feels that we, amidst the twaddle, are “fighting for our lives.”
Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting” is a work quite unlike Speedboat. (Hands slap foreheads.) But it is also a work about moving through the world as the aware eye. Unlike Jen Fain, Woolf’s narrator sees herself as joining the “vast republican army of anonymous trampers” in the streets she wanders. She imagines, with some gleaming wonder, the life behind those green curtains, and — something missing from Speedboat — the world is a tactile place: a pencil is “too soft” or “too hard,” the road is “hammered silver.” Woolf the observer is distinctly present. (She’s also joyful.)
The task set forth in “Modern Fiction” was to capture the experience of the mind, which continues to be more than the external world reflected and refracted through it, still, even in Speedboat’s frenetic time and our own. Jen tells us, “The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.” But certainly, this is her fate.
As to Woolf’s joy, who needs it. But emotion is too rare here. Adler has said in interview that she hoped to communicate “conventional feeling” through a modern form, but she didn’t think she “managed, except sporadically, until Pitch Dark. Maybe not even then.” To her credit, the characters she portrays are not an emphatic group: “In the idiom of our class and generation, we said, Maybe we could lie down for a minute.” The book’s few moments with emotional stakes are strong: still spare — restrained, distant, or muffled, rather than absent. But these moments are outnumbered by a factor of hundreds.
Guy Trebay, in his afterword to the reissue, says that “vigilant skepticism, deep dubiety, is probably the strongest […] current of feeling in Speedboat.” He finds this fitting, “as doubt,” he says, “is writing.” I’m sure he means the inverse — that writing is doubt, an act of and expression of, most likely. But on a more fundamental level, writing is an act and expression of awareness (and at closer range, vitality). It includes doubt, and its opposite, which in the case of the material world is not faith but awe or appreciation.
At Speedboat’s end, Jen is hopeful. Despite every human action being “aggression” and every personal interaction a “hostage situation,” “all the same,” she says, it is “worthwhile” to keep going:
“You can’t miss it” always means you’re never going to find it. The shortest distance between two points may well be the wrong way on a one-way street. All the same, all the same, I think there’s something to be said for assuring the next that the water’s fine — quite warm, actually — once you get into it. You can’t miss it. It could be the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime.
The last line is utterly, self-consciously genius. I read it three or four times in a row. It is “too like life” and “too like a book” at once. “All the same” it is “worthwhile” to encourage one another and ourselves, using the words and cadence and forms that signify hopefulness.
What can we look forward to besides the percussive, banal bullshit of the world going by, or the crash of your life into mine? What to believe in beyond the absurdist rhyme? Adlerian playback of our insufficiencies; our petty satisfactions; our inevitable, violent collisions, is not enough to sustain the simpleton’s question, Why. Very few moments can be found to answer it. For me there might be only one. It is a beauty:
The frail, serious four-year-old boy stood, arms outspread, at the foot of the staircase. He looked at his infant sister, who stood three steps above. “Jump, baby,” he said, gravely, encouragingly. She summoned her courage, let go of the banister, and jumped. He caught her, but since she was quite plump, she flattened him. “Good baby,” he said, when his breath returned. Then he went to his room, put on his pajamas, and lay down for his nap. Every day, when he got home from school, they repeated this process. It was his way of taking her education in hand.