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Good Letters

The cell phone on the conference room table in London buzzed in the middle of the meeting, and the man glanced down at it, mid conversation. “My God,” he said. “They’ve arrested Assange.”

A block away, at the Palace of Westminister, protesters on the sidewalk held signs either for or against Brexit: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Brexit-What a shambles!” and “Self-serving liars are destroying our nation.”

It was a sunny, windy, chilly day. Across the street, a man was handing out Gospel tracts with a copy of the London Underground map, telling people that Jesus was the only “way” to Heaven. I said to him that I was already a Christian, but I would take one of the tracts anyway. It fluttered to the bottom of my purse and mixed with the scent of Miss Dior from a sample at the Duty Free.

It seemed especially poignant then that I had “accidentally” chosen that week to be rereading New Yorker staff writer Renata Adler’s spectacular novel Speedboat.

You never step in the same river twice, Heraclitus said, and that’s how we have come to view our lives today: in medias res, an endless stream of juxtaposed details, “High” and “Low,” periodic media interruptions punctuating our days. (More Heraclitus: “The most beautiful arrangement is a pile of things poured out at random.”) Everything in our lives seems to be marked with references, everywhere passim. There’s so much mediation that we wonder what is real.

We tend to view this state of affairs as a purely contemporary phenomenon—since the introduction of Twitter, or the Internet, or CNN. But there is nothing new under the sun, and Speedboat, originally published in 1976, seems in tone and spirit to have anticipated The Way We Live Now. Or, perhaps more accurately, Speedboat is a reminder that our current chaos is perhaps perennial—just with more electronics.

The novel consists of seven chapters narrated by sometime tabloid journalist/sometime professor Jen Fain, but you are well into the reading before you even find that out. The book seems to be representative of the chaos itself. It begins with an observation that is almost oracular: “Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered . . .” and then just runs on from there, page after page of observations and anecdotes of quotidian life that can be funny and troubling, but most of the time do not seem connected to one another.

Here’s one vignette, from the first page:

“A large rat crossed my path last night on Fifty-seventh street. It came out from a wooden fence at a vacant lot near Bendel’s, paused for traffic, and then streaked across to the uptown sidewalk, sat awhile in the dark, and vanished . . .”

Three pages later, there’s this revelation:

“For a while, I thought I had no real interests—no theater, concerts, museums, stamp collections. Only ambitions and ties to people, of a certain intensity. Different sorts of people. I was becoming a ward heeler of the emotional life. Now ambitions have drifted after the interests. I have lost my sense of the whole. I wait for events to take a form. So I steeped myself, in thrillers, commercials, news magazines. The same person who used to write ‘tepid’ and ‘arguable’ all over the margins of what our obituary writers wrote. I now think ‘tepid’ and ‘arguable’ several times a day.”

On the narrative goes, by turns ironic or banal: A woman is attacked by her own Doberman Pinscher. Vacations are spent with boyfriends on Mediterranean islands or on the West Coast. Jen makes trips to Egypt and Biafra and the American South during the Civil Rights movement. Things keep happening: “When Dan rode his bicycle over a cliff, we all behaved in characteristic ways.” One odd section involves a New York city doctor who performs illegal abortions every Thursday night after hours, from midnight to 8:00 a.m., and who is suddenly faced with how to make up the difference in his income once the procedure has been legalized.

Renata Adler

In the Afterword, Guy Trebay speaks of this experimental novel’s style as akin to the art of a dance deejay:

“. . . with its deft cutting and splicing, abrupt tonal shifts, subtle repetitions, inherent impatience, urgent rhythm, and jagged dissonances, Speedboat deploys basic deejay strategies . . . Adler conjured a novel whose angular brilliance is how deftly it sampled the sounds and rhythms of contemporary life.”

What is amazing is how much of what happens in Speedboat remains contemporary: Jen Fain speaks of the rigorous education at an all-women’s college, and how its graduates go out in the world looking for jobs, only to be asked whether they can type. She teaches college writing courses herself, and is dismayed when her lax students expect all A’s.

It’s that quest to see the truth, undigested or spun, that also feels so contemporary. Trebay reminds us that this book was published in a year when

“…the Irish Republican Army exploded bombs in the West End of London; the publishing heiress Patty Hearst, aka Tanya, was sentenced to jail for her part in armed robberies undertaken by the improbably revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army; Steve Jobs founded a company that manufactured machines that would forever alter our relationship to the consumption of information (and everything else); and Jimmy Carter became the first candidate from the Deep South to gain the presidency since the Civil War. “

But slowly, the text comes into view as Jen’s own autobiography, and with her hard, exact journalistic eye, her quest to see truth—wherever it is concealed. You can pick out the story of Jen’s own bildungsroman, written here, and the next, serious choice she is going to have to make.

Everything was different then, everything is the same now.

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Written by: Caroline Langston

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

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