Somebody Ate Her Gerbil: Speedboat, by Renata Adler (This review was first published in Open Letters Monthly on 1st October, 2013)
Speedboat, Renata Adler’s first novel, was originally published in 1976; along with her second from 1983, Pitch Dark, it has been reissued this year by NYRB Classics. I found it a stimulating and bravely ambitious but not consistently successful entity.
This is partly because of the structure: there’s no linear plot, just a fragmented collection of vignettes and eclectic, reported snatches of conversation. As the reader tries to make sense of the apparently random fragments a unifying consciousness almost comes into focus and just about holds the novel together and prevents frustration from setting in: Jen Fain is a hard-drinking, dysfunctional journalist and teacher (she’s ‘never been any good at interviews’, she confesses).
Speedboat ‘s tone is witty but can be slightly irritating in its jerky sequences of arch non sequiturs: ‘I know someone who is trying to get rid of a myna bird – I mean, find a loving owner’. Then we’re told about a man who offloads an unwanted cat. Next door lives a kid who wants to give away her rabbit, but is concerned that the ‘wrong kind of person’ might take it in ‘bad faith’ and eat it:
She thinks somebody ate her gerbil. No one eats gerbils. It is strange to think that most of the children under six whom one knows and loves, gives presents to, whatever, are not going to remember most emotional events of those first years, on the couch, or in jail, or in a bank, wherever they may find themselves when they are twenty-five.
A boyfriend’s brother takes her on a surprise treat, which turns out to be a five-hour performance of Parsifal – she’s not impressed. She ponders its absurd plot, and her thoughts express something of Speedboat’s narrative structure:
The whole magic of plot requires that somebody be impeded from getting something over with. Yet there one is, with an emotional body English almost, wishing that pole-vaulter over his bar, wanting something to happen or not to happen, wishing somebody well.
I began to find I was not wishing Jen well, while admiring the skill with which the fragments were assembled. Jen’s an observer, piling them up and recording them, but the pieces drift off into the unexpected and surreal, then fade out with a gnomic generalisation that’s funny or provocative, but frequently insubstantial (as with the gerbil story) .
The disconnected nature of the narrative, perhaps, is Adler’s way of showing Jen’s flawed attempts to make sense of a fragmented world. She’s almost defying herself and us to make connections and find coherence as she tries to shore up her life against its ruin. She’s vulnerable, self-absorbed, damaged, questing, with a perceptive intelligence – she’s examining herself in this out-of-joint Cold War America as if she were a pinned specimen:
I am a fanatic myself, although not a woman of temperament. I get nervous at scenes. I stole a washcloth once from a motel in Angkor Wat. The bellboy was incensed. I had to give it back.
Her insecurity and sensitivity are represented throughout the short episodes she strings together like charms on a bracelet: she’s based in New York City or Washington, D.C., with frequent flashbacks abroad – Paris as a student, or exotic locations as a reporter or tourist. Full of intensities and contradictions, she’s seemingly involved with a series of men about whom we learn very little. These peripheral guys seem to bore her – they are mentioned sporadically among the dozens of other characters with airy insouciance on Jen’s part. She appears lonely yet longing for attachment, toying with the idea of maternity. She says, three pages from the end, ‘Anyway, I seem to be about to have Jim’s child; at least, I think I will’. Prior to this there’s a scene in a maternity ward, where Jen may be a patient or there for a termination. Earlier, in Venice with a boyfriend called Aldo (after many ‘separations’), she vomits after a heavy drinking session:
So I was in despair because six fat women of Venice I would never see again thought I was pregnant by a man who did not want to marry me.
This then is the central, noble theme: Jen trying to sort out what her life might mean, what she might want from it all in a world that’s largely absurd, hostile or indifferent.
As if to anesthetize herself she attends all kinds of social functions (the food is always awful, she says) but with an ironic, anguished detachment:
I go to parties almost whenever I am asked. I think a high tone of moral indignation, used too often, is an ugly thing. I get up at eight. Quite often now I have a drink before eleven. In some ways, I have overshot my mark in life in spades.
Sometimes she is surely testing our credulity with her creations:
I once met a polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist, who had lived for months in a London commune…
I used to live with a graduate student of political science, a kind of Calvinist in reverse; that is, he was uncompromisingly bohemian. His mother was a dancer. His father was a judge. Our mattress was on the floor.
I appreciate that these abrupt shifts and accretions of information represent Jen as constantly picking over such items as a therapeutic narrative act. But it’s simultaneously ironic, earthy and bathetic – that unglamorous student mattress on the floor, ruefully, rawly remembered:
Being neurotic seemed to be a kind of wild card, an all-purpose explanation. Other ways, of course, are straighter. I don’t know.
Near the novel’s end she reflects: ‘It is possible that we are really a group of invalids, hypochondriacs, and misfits. I don’t know.’ Jen says ‘I don’t know’ or ‘whatever’ quite often.
It’s not just Jen’s personal life that’s presented as eclectic – there’s a cultural, existential disjunction in her world reflected in these atomized narrative fragments and ephemera: ‘Down the block a woman shouts: “You are nothing, nothing, nothing”’. She understands herself and her world incompletely or sporadically, so is vigilantly watchful of everything around her, but most particularly of herself in this world of disorder, doubtful integrity and disintegrating morals, politics and beliefs. Is the world going mad, or Jen? The image of America is shown as tainted: there’s a scene set in Paris in 1961 where people are demonstrating against US policy on Cuba. Jen had gone abroad as a student with the ‘usual American smile’, and is disconcerted to find that she’s not universally welcomed. This is the 1976 of insecurity – nothing it seems can be relied on: ‘And so, class,’ her schoolteacher used to say at the end of each year’s American History Week, after her discourse on the ‘treachery of Roosevelt’ who got them into war to ‘save his Russian friends’ and the ‘sinister effects’ of those Russians: ‘Don’t say you have not been warned.’ Jen and her classmates ‘never said it. Nobody I ever met who grew up in the fifties…would have said it.’
Also towards the end Jen thinks this about the ‘solid enthusiasms’ of the coterie of ‘educated women’ in the age group to which she belongs:
Our ambitions were, nonetheless, what those of any sensible group of women at that time, perhaps at any modern time, ought to have been: to become safe and successful; to marry someone safe and successful; to have for our children some sort of worldly safety and success. From time to time, however, there is something, I don’t know, wistful, about how it has turned out.
This time her ‘I don’t know’ is poignant and moving. ‘We are thirty-five’, she says elsewhere. ‘Some of us are gray.’
Reflexive incomprehension seems to be the social norm. Only the watchful eye and hypersensitive consciousness of Jen remain a narrative constant; we make our inferences about what everything means on the frame she creates – and this surely only half makes sense to her. She and one of her boyfriends charter a boat from three deracinated Swiss people who are baffled by the behaviour of their clients:
They thought of selling their boat again and returning to Geneva. The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations.
This list of apparently unconnected objects, concluding with the abstraction of ‘dislocations’ embodies what Adler is maybe trying to achieve in Speedboat through Jen’s pondering the way things pile up, people, events. The lack of verbs in so many such sentences, the lack of agency in others, the adjective-free descriptions, point up the fragile dislocations of Jen’s cluttered, urban life.
Although the narrative is largely engaging, then, and I admire Adler’s brilliant attempt to render an intelligent person’s struggle to make sense of things, it’s not always possible to find this novel completely satisfactory. The accumulated details and pronouncements can seem inconsequential or contrived. ‘The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the centre holds. Or so it seems’, Jen muses, alluding to Yeats presumably; what’s presented as an aphoristic, poetic truth is surely just muddled thinking presented as if debatable (that apparently uncertain final tag), but it’s dogmatically asserted.
A sub-plot about her murdered landlord is taken up and dropped, but not before this enigmatic reflection of Jen’s:
It is possible that I know who killed our landlord. So many things point in one direction. But too strong a case, I find, is often lost. It incurs doubts, suspicions. Perhaps I do not know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I think it does, though. When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.
I felt, by the end of Speedboat, that perhaps this novel itself, witty and daring, dazzling in parts, really ‘doesn’t matter’; like the image Adler uses when Jen is thinking about stories and plots, it’s like a ‘game of solitaire or canasta’, the narrative is shuffled and dealt, but doesn’t ultimately ‘come out’. But it’s much to Adler’s credit that she puts up such a spirited fight in playing this game of Jen’s life.
Photos as they appeared in the Open Letters Monthly review.