Saturday, June 25, 2016

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Summer.  The speedboat was serious.  The young tycoon was serious about it, as he was serious about his factories, his wife, his children, his parties, his work, his art collection, his resort.  The little group had just had lunch, at sea, aboard the tycoon's larger boat, a schooner.  The speedboat, designed for him the year before, had just arrived that day.  The tycoon asked who would like to join him for a spin to test it.  The young American wife from Malibu, who had been overexcited about everything since dawn, said she would adore to go.  Her husband, halfway through his coffee still, declined.  The young Italian couple, having a serious speedboat of their own, went to compare.  In starting off, the boat seemed like any other, only in every way--the flat, hard seats, the austere lines--more spare.  And then, at speed, the boat, at its own angle to the sea, began to hit each wave with flat, hard, jarring thuds, like the heel of a hand against a tabletop.  As it slammed along, the Italians sat, ever more low and loose, on their hard seats, while 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.

Why is this anecdote so central to this book, more or less a collection of anecdotes, that it provides the title: Speedboat?  It is certainly typical of the book's style.  There are characters, only tangentially connected to the narrator, who appear only to tell this specific story.  It is brief, minimalist, and the twist of shocking and violent.  It's wry and ironical.  The miniature stories that make up Speedboat come quickly, with their own hard thuds.  Is that what life is, a series of anecdotes lived out at breakneck speed?

There is a narrative arc to Speedboat which takes us through the story of the narrator, a New York journalist named Jen Fain, as she passes through assignments, apartments, groups of friends, boyfriends.  But this narrative arc seems less important than the small, crystalline stories that gather around it, many of which have little or nothing to do with Jen herself.  You might say the book itself is journalistic, in function and in style.

I loved Speedboat.  I dog-eared almost every other page.  Some of the stories are just funny:

In a public school in a run-down section of Brooklyn, Mrs. Cavell, under a grant for special projects, was conducting her kindergarten civics class.  "What are you?" she would say to her little people, right after the bell each weekday morning.  "I'm free," they learned to say, as one.  On a particularly cold, bleak morning of midwinter, Mrs. Cavell tried a variation.  "Today, we are going to say it in our individual voices," she said.  "When I call on you , I want you to stand and say it proudly.  All right.  Jefferson Adams, what are you?"  Jefferson Adams got it.  "I'm free," he replied.  "Right.  What are you, Franklin Atell?"  "I'm free," Franklin Atell said.  Mary Lou Jones had to me asked to speak up, but then she said it frimly, "I'm free."  Up and down the rows of carved and gum-stuck desks in the pre-school classroom, the words rang out, but Mrs. Cavell, a good soul, who had taught for thirty years in Brooklyn, saw a look of somehow disquieting revolution on Billy Martin's face.  "What are you, Billy Martin?" Mrs. Cavell asked.  "I am four," he said.

Others seem powerfully true:

Last week, I went to a dinner party on Park Avenue.  After 1 a.m., something called the Alive or Dead Game was being played.  Someone would mention an old character from Tammany or Hollywood.  "Dead," "Dead," "Dead," everyone would guess.  "No, no.  Alive.  I saw him walking down the street just yesterday," or "Yes.  Dead.  I read a little obituary notice about him last year."  One of the little truths people can subtly enrage or reassure with is who--when you have looked away a month, a year--is still around.

I love this oblique meditation on what I understand as the moneyed class in NYC:

The camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great difficulty, through the eye of the needle.  The Apollo flight, the four-minute mile, Venus in Scorpio, human records on land and at sea-- these had been events of enormous importance.  But the camel, practicing in near obscurity for almost two thousand years, was passing through.  First the velvety nose, then rest.  Not many were aware.  But if hte lead camel and then perhaps the entire caravan could make it, the thread, the living thread of camels, would exist, could not be lost.  No one could lose the thread.  The prospects of the rich would be enhanced.  "Ortega tells us that the business of philosophy," the professor was telling his class of indifferent freshmen, "is to crack open metaphors which are dead."

Sometimes Adler tosses up a stark and affecting image:

Sometimes a stupid child would tie a firecracker to a crayfish or a frog just once, and light the fuse.  Or give a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.

And I can't tell you how much I love this description of television commercials, the last sentence of which I am officially inducting into the Great Sentence Hall of Fame:

A lady lifted the lid of her toilet tank and found a small yachtsman, on the deck of his boat, in the bowl.  They spoke of detergents.  A man with fixed dentures bit into an apple.  A lady in crisis of choice phoned her friend from a market and settled for milk of magnesia.  A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.

Speedboat is one of those books where I find myself not having much to say, preferring just to show you my favorite bits and get out of its way.  These little stories never really cohere into anything, but they give a unified impression, true perhaps to the frenetic pace of life in the city--instantly recognizable to me, even forty years after the book's publication--and the dizzying speed of the passage of life.

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