What, Me Worry?

Renata Adler's Speedboat is just over 36 years old. Well, if it was published in 1976, then it's 37 years old, so it's 37 years old, not 36 years old. Let's just call it 36 years old plus one year.

People who turn 36 seem to feel fucked up about the fact that they're turning 36. I've seen this more than once. Twice, in fact. So it's not a trend, but it makes a lot of sense to me, so that's good enough. I'm sure it has something to do with the idea that you're closing the gap with 40, which should be anxiety producing except that it's really not nowadays. I mean, maybe it is if you're a virgin or some other Judd Apatow plot — or maybe just Judd Apatow in general. Whatever. Point being, if you spend too much time letting Judd Apatow invade your mental space, you might feel fucked up about turning 40.

Which is why 36 is so scary to people. They worry about their prospects. They change careers. They get married. They stop being married. They cut their hair. They grow their hair. They freak out. In short, they get screwy and emo and start to "reevaluate" things.

The same is not true for books, but while reading Speedboat, I considered the symmetry and subsequently avoided the incoherence of thinking of a book turning 36 (plus one).

Speedboat is not a long book — only 170 pages — but it takes a long time to sift through. One, its fragmentary conceit requires more attention than you're used to giving a book — the fragments are memories, anecdotes, random thoughts. Sometimes it sounds like the character is holding court at a bar. Sometimes it sounds like she's talking to a therapist. Sometimes it sounds like she's being deposed for an affidavit. I think what it's meant to do is — wait, I should back up now.

So such as it is, there is a character in Speedboat named Jennifer Fain. She is a reporter for maybe a tabloid or something in New York City. She has a boyfriend or two — I think — the names sort of run together. You get the sense she comes from a privileged background. She has no attachments in the world, so she's able to travel and go out to dinner and attend cocktail parties and take tennis lessons — basically a typical urban existence. She's sort of neurotic about shit.

OK, back to the previous paragraph: the fragmentary conceit mirrors her tabloid job — you imagine the character constantly hearing snippets of details along the way and recording them, and a neurotic lets all the shit jumble together. And her personal life is sort of logged and recorded with the same kind of clinical approach.

At the same time it's sort of a "New York" kind of book, in the sense of cramming in all this humanity into one's mental space; I can see how such an environment might crowd out other parts of your world. I don't get the sense a lot of people have that problem, even people in New York, but it's an impression of urban life, so there's that.

And ultimately the fragmentary conceit is the cadence of the neurotic — skipping around, glomming onto fleeting thoughts, imbuing thoughts with extra weight. It's interesting in that respect.

These were my impressions while reading Speedboat. I don't know if Guy Trebay would validate these impressions because I didn't read the afterword, though I do really appreciate the fact that it was an afterword and not a foreword, so I wouldn't be tempted to read anything in advance. I don't like to read commentary beforehand. It's not that I feel like I'm cheating. It's more that I'm stubborn.

Also, those last couple of sentences, and probably most of the sentences and paragraphs herein, consciously ape the way she constructs these snippets of story. There's a cadence to it. It's got a flat, affectless tone (like a news article). At the same time, it's somehow super emo; world weariness plus hopelessness multiplied by koans. And there are no exclamation points. Just a few words at the end of a paragraph. They kind of thump on the floor toward the end, just like this.

And on and on. It's kind of addictive to write like this, and I need to stop myself or I'll be stuck in an eddy of writing this way. Forever, perhaps. It's tough to stop. I will excerpt a short passage from the book, to illustrate what I'm talking about, and also to get out of my own head space:

Friends kept wandering into Mattie's apartment to talk about legal matters. Everyone was drinking beer. I drank beer. I tried to look as though I knew what I was doing there. "Are you here for an interview," Mattie finally said, "or are you going to sit there like death on a soda cracker?" We became friends, of course.

While reading Speedboat I began to wonder whether Seinfeld was a watershed moment in that it finally allowed people to indulge their true neurotic selves. You know: double dipping, festivus, SHRINKAGE! It went on and on and on — and sometime in the early 1990s we all became George Costanza, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And the world became insufferable.

Jen Fain existed in a pre-Seinfeld world, so instead of goofing about whether Jim is spongeworthy, she . . . well, you see where this is going.

I don't know if Adler totally telegraphs the ending, but in the recesses of my wandering mind — and it's easy for your mind to wander as you read Speedboat — I feel like it sort of occurred to me that it might be going in that direction, and it wasn't surprising when it did go there. Well, I guess all that abortion doctor stuff was a big clue, but — ironically — there's nothing like a baby to get you to chill the fuck out and focus a little.

(Interesting — out of curiosity I just Wikipedia'ed Adler because I had a hunch from the ending that she never had a kid — I was half right: her kid was born ten years later. Someone should study writers who lob baby bombs in stories; for childless ones, merely being pregnant is the game changer in a story; once you actually have a kid you start to realize that there's a very long grace period before "things have to change" — maybe up to two years! This doesn't apply if you're on drugs, however.)

There's something interesting about the fragmentary conceit — the overwhelming sense is that they read like scraps of ideas for scenes or characters. They're totally incoherent otherwise. I know each of the seven parts are thematically related, or at least they seem that way, or that they should be, but honestly, it feels like an onslaught of sketches. And yet it's interesting because I think every writer on the planet probably — probably — writes this way; the germs of ideas are sketches and snippets and not fully formed and dripping with emotion and laden thick with meaning. But they're not stories. And so 96 percent of them get shunted aside or lost or edited out. So when I say that the conceit is "interesting," I'm not just being lazy — it really is interesting to get lost in these snippets. It's like a giant ball pit of neuroses. Fun. But also kind of draining, and a lot of times you're wondering where the story is going, and then it really doesn't go anywhere, because you can't really construct a coherent story this way. So while it's interesting . . . it's just kind of "interesting."

I think I will read Guy Trebay's afterword now.

[A few minutes pass . . .]

OK, I read Guy Trebay's afterword. I forgot about the 1970s thing — we talked about that in book club, how the tone evokes the hopelessness of the decade (or what you hear about it at least). Twitter isn't the right comparison: yes, tweets are fragmentary and "short" but it's a facile comparison. I don't see Adler as a DJ. I don't think DJs are that interesting. I mean, they're "interesting," but . . . I suppose you could say that Speedboat anticipates the fragmentary, undisciplined blockquote culture of blogs (or whatever you want to call them), but "blog" is such an ugly word, and why use an ugly word like that when you could call it "sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant" (SOMRA)? But why go there? Why be neurotic about what it all means 36 years later (plus one)? What if it's not like a DJ, or a Tweet, or anything else from the mid- to late-2000s? Because then it's just a period piece, and the last thing someone 36 years old (plus one) wants to hear is that he or she is a period piece.

Posted: September 6th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , ,