My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Almost every member of American literature’s last unambiguously major generation, the giants passing from the scene, was born in the 1930s: Carver (b. 1938), DeLillo (b. 1936), Didion (b. 1934), McCarthy (b. 1933), Morrison (b. 1931), Oates (b. 1938), Pynchon (b. 1937), Roth (b. 1933), Sontag (b. 1933), Updike (b. 1932), Wolfe (b. 1930)—and we can add some that are only a few years off in either direction for good measure, like Le Guin (b. 1929) or Ozick (b. 1928) or Irving (b. 1942). We might even take a cue from the Swedish Academy and adduce Bob Dylan (b. 1941).
This fact should be surprising since the Silent Generation, born from around 1925 to 1945, is so called because it came between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers and seemed to leave less of an obvious historical mark than either. But perhaps its greatest effect was on American letters. I came across an explanation for why this might be so in a 2015 profile of the renascent journalist and novelist Renata Adler (b. 1937):
In an essay from 1970 (“Introduction, Toward A Radical Middle”), Adler argues that her generation “grew up separately, without a rhetoric.” They, the Silent Generation, are small, caught between two Americas: too young to have been involved in World War II or to fully absorb its traumas, but too old to have been wholly included in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. “In a way, in culture and in politics,” Adler writes, “we are the last custodians of language—because of the books we read, and because history, in our time, has wrung so many changes on the meaning of terms, and we, having never generationally perpetrated anything, have no commitment to any distortion of them.”
Precisely the sociological in-betweenness that made this generation less interesting for demographers than stereotyped GIs or hippies also made its members ideal, because somewhat detached, observers of the mid-to-late 20th century.
(By the way, I should admit I take a self-serving interest in this dubious topic of generational analysis because I wonder if those of us born around 1980 might not form a similarly well-positioned cultural cohort. We were also reared on a historical fulcrum: our childhood and adolescent sensibilities were shaped by the print/analog world of the lingering postwar liberal order even as we grew to adulthood after 9/11 and on the Internet. Like the Silent Generation before us, we have a foot on each side of our time’s major socio-historical divides.)
Renata Adler’s Speedboat is a 1976 novel that had an autofiction-inspired revival earlier this decade when it was brought back into print by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint in 2013. Eschewing traditional plot (“There are only so many plots”), composed rather of small episodes, observations, dialogues, and vignettes recording urban intellectual life in the 1970s from the perspective of its journalist narrator, Jen Fain, Speedboat more than most works exemplifies this quality of Silent Generation social observation sculpted into high art at a bemused and sometimes alarmed distance.
At one point, Jen Fain gives us a professor’s lecture on structuralist linguistics, poetics, and anthropology (Adler studied with Roman Jakobson). The professor says that the two poles of language, and the two extremes of language pathology, are “synonomy and contexture,” or repetition (“the same word is repeated, endlessly”) and rambling (“a word heap”). We can hear the author there ungenerously characterizing her own novel as a pile of accreted, disordered contexts, especially since the narrator can find no reliable order to existence or to language:
I am not technically a Catholic. That is, I have not informed or asked the Church. I do not, certainly, believe in evolution. For example, fossils. I believe there are objects in nature—namely, fossils—which occur in layers, and which some half-rational fantasts insist derive from animals, the bottom ones more ancient than the top. The same, I think, with word derivations—arguments straining back to Sanskrit or Indo-European. I have never seen a word derive. It seems to me that there are given things, all strewn and simultaneous. Even footprints, except in detective stories, now leave me in some doubt that anyone passed by.
If this sounds like Joan Didion, it’s true that the authors—both fiction-writing journalists, both intense skeptics, both sharp literary stylists, both non-feminist and somewhat conservative female political polemicists in revolutionary times—are often compared. A critic even suggests that Speedboat “owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays,” but Didion’s novel has a plot, and even its most stylized little half-page chapters advance the action. Speedboat does organize itself around Jen’s erotic relations with several men—Will, Aldo, Jim—and does end with an intimation of Jen’s abortion, but this theme has nothing like the centrality it has for Didion’s Maria Wyeth. Didion’s novel is inward-looking, moreover, while Adler’s is about everything Jen sees and hears more than it is about Jen herself.
Consider all the novelistic material Alder denies herself. One tempting form of the “traditional” novel Speedboat evades is a quirky family-and-school saga about privileged eccentrics—something like Salinger’s Glass stories, The Hotel New Hampshire, the Incandenza parts of Infinite Jest, or their onscreen descendants The Royal Tenenbaums. Jen recalls growing up “in the country,” reared by a family that prized sleep and solitude: “Twenty hours out of twenty-four, in short, the hush of sleep lay over the house.” Another section recollects her attendance at a boarding school “run by Communists, though few parents were aware of that”:
Knowledge itself was a democracy. We studied fanatically. We were as competitive as only a child state can be. We voted to stone a girl who banged her head—not because she banged her head, but because she was so fat and furtive and whining all the time. She lost a loafer running across the athletic field. None of the stones hit. We were too uncoordinated and too young to throw accurately across the distance we had also, in all fairness, voted for. The space-time continuum became clear to us with that event. So, perhaps, did the quality of mercy, after all.
Though passages like this are rarer in Speedboat than its better-known urban or urbane vignettes, they fill in Jen’s unusual background: this is not everywoman’s story and these are not everywoman’s apprehensions. The defamiliarized style in which Jen recounts her observations of contemporary life is her real story. She makes us see—with the anthropologist’s inability to take anything for granted—the strangeness and arbitrariness of our society, as in this famous paragraph about the commercials that run on TV between the Watergate hearings:
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 a crisis of choice phoned her friend from the market and settled for milk of magnesia. A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.
The alien impersonality of such passages recalls DeLillo, who turns the quotidian into science fiction, more than Didion, in whose undertone you always hear the cry of the scandalized humanist.
But people do take Speedboat personally. The generation Jen writes about on the cusp of its disillusioned middle age is one of precocity and promise, set adrift in post-Watergate chaos:
We are thirty-five. Some of us are gray. We all do situps or something to keep fit. I myself wear bifocals.
This sense of generational promise and peril is what has endeared the Millennial media class in its digital-age precarity and servitude to this novel, all its rueful comedy about the neuroticism and liberal guilt found “among highly urban and ambitious people” who “are trying to lead some semblance of decent lives.” Speedboat contains sentences that stand out from their contexts like hyperlinks to the Twitter epoch, that glow with a rebuke to our own puerility and hysteria:
I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time.
I think a high tone of moral indignation, used too often, is an ugly thing.
The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the center holds.
There is a difference, of course, between real sentiment and the trash of shared experience.
A passage that rehearses Adler’s infamous 1980 polemic against movie critic Pauline Kael (“This film will literally grab you by the throat”) presciently observes that “baby talk took over private conversation” before satirizing the ’70s anticipations of today’s “self-care” discourse (“therapists earned their living by saying, ‘You’re too hard on yourself'”). Speedboat often has this vatic quality, often creates this sense that it was written out of a perception less of the present than of the future’s seeds in that present. Or maybe, more dishearteningly, nothing much has changed.
But for those of us who dislike autofiction’s self-absorption, self-congratulation, and ahistorical sense of fiction’s history, Speedboat also offers much to complain about. And I mean this in no way politically. Jen’s or Adler’s “moderate position,” her wounded conservatism (“Well, I voted for him. Not twice, but once. I did vote for him,” she concedes of Nixon), her sense of betrayed patriotism (“To promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—I believe all that”), is refreshing in this age of “left Straussianism,” when the literary class and academic humanists pretend in public to an absolute radicalism that is in no way reflected by how they live their everyday lives and which they tend (in my experience) to admit in private is quixotic or dangerous.
But there are perhaps too many passages in this novel for my taste set on “Islands” (this is the title of one chapter) among culture-class vacationers, too many passages in which Jen (or Adler), like Elizabeth Bishop before her, complains about the help in poor countries’ hotels or rentals or hostelries. This is admittedly thematic. The novel takes its odd title from an episode about a rich man’s young new wife breaking her back as his speedboat rides the swells. Jen comments:
But violent things are always happening to the very rich, and to the poor, of course. Freak accidents befall the middle classes in their midst.
The moderate classes in radical circumstances, jarred to paralysis by the speedboat of postmodernity—this is the novel’s center. But does it really mean that fiction is no longer possible, fiction in the sense of imagined characters distinct from the author and her circle whose lives are arranged into a logical drama and progression that implies rather than states its themes? Are we doomed to publishing only our artfully arranged diaries? In Guy Trebay’s afterword to the NYRB edition of Speedboat, he quotes Adler:
You couldn’t be, say, Dickens now, or George Eliot, or Henry James. Or maybe you could write like them, with luck, but it would not be true to our time, false somehow.
I have never understood the argument that radical skepticism about the possibility of human knowledge—a skepticism I share—means that one form of literary artifice, namely, plot, is an unusable and unwarranted and arbitrary imposition, while every other form of literary artifice, such as Adler’s parabolic vignettes and articulate, cunningly ironic sentences, somehow remain intact.
This theory is an ill-thought-out dogma of late modernism, a puritanical self-mortification devised by guilty unbelievers: “Well, if God didn’t create the earth in six days,” pouts the teenaged atheist, “then I won’t write a story!” Which is fine—I love novels without stories—but the problem with the avant-garde is its demand that everyone else obey: “And you shouldn’t write a story either!” That the avant-garde controls just a few institutions—only the universities, the museums, and the prestigious small presses—while plot still reigns in the richer precincts of the bestseller lists and streaming services is no justification for its aggrandizement: excusing your own excesses by pointing to your enemy’s power is always the despot’s worthless gambit.
Whereas I think if all artifice is arbitrary—and it is—then why rule out any artifice at all? Speedboat’s own stylization, its crystalline little episodes or observations ending in an understated punchline or absurdist knight’s move, becomes as predictable over the course of the novel as any other organizational device. Here is Speedboat’s literary style in a nutshell, from one of its early paragraphs:
Lyda was an exuberant, even a dramatic gardener. She would spend hours in her straw hat and gloves, bending over the soil. When somebody walked past her in her work, she was always holding up a lettuce or a bunch of radishes, with an air of resolute courage, as though she had shot them herself.
This is brilliant on three grounds. First, the canny, comic, compressed observation of character (“air of resolute courage”). Second, the logical comedy of “shot them” as inappositely applied to vegetables. Third, the illogical comedy of “shot them herself” (implying that someone else might in fact have shot them if Lyda hadn’t), which raises with one word the whole paragraph to a sublime of ironic absurdity, the radical intellect disporting itself in ingenious dialectics at near random.
And yet, you can see that 170 pages of this punchline style might grow tiresome, as tiresome as any mere story about family or school—or worse, as it’s a gesture that repeats itself in Speedboat on every page or half page rather than serving as a book-length architecture.
As for the claim that modernity or postmodernity or late capitalism or whatever is uniquely unsuited to coherent narrative because of its wars and dislocations and authoritarianisms—this is just presentist bias. Why didn’t Dickens’s early experience of poverty or George Eliot’s agnosticism cause them to abandon plot and character? We should beware the self-congratulatory temptation of this style of resentment, we who suffered far less from socio-political calamity than did even earlier figures, the likes of exiled Dante or enslaved Cervantes, and yet cannot create the forms of literary order that these maimed authors attained in times fully as frightening and chaotic as our own, if not more so.
Such presentism is the danger of the generational thinking with which I began. We don’t want to fall into the trap of believing we’re the first to face no money, declining standards, bad governance, corrupt institutions, exhausted faith, or confusing social change.
We also might consider that it’s not even unethical but actually just distasteful, gauche, to communicate only about our own circles to our own circles. The very writerly chumminess that attracts me to Speedboat repels me from it as well. I find much of myself in it—but can’t you tell me about anyone else? and when you do, can’t you manage any tone but that of the puzzled structural anthropologist?
Somewhere, or in several places, Toni Morrison decries autobiographical fiction and says that the novelist’s job is to invent. I agree with this and find invention, the creation of a mental object outside my own personal experience, the best way to communicate the unique vantage that we of the in-between generations—whether of the ’30s or the ’80s—command upon contemporary life: except that it’s about everything I care for most passionately, my own fiction is completely impersonal.
But such theoretical polemics should never intrude on the reading experience itself. Adler isn’t to be blamed for her vogue or for the scenesters who have annexed her. When we say what kind of fiction we prefer—or proclaim from on high the only kind that should be written—we are trying to legislate for the worst-case scenario: which type of novel would I prefer to read given a choice of two bad novels—aleatory autobiography or plotted realism? Genre judgments of all sorts betray literature by assuming failure in advance and trying to blunt its effects with the guard rails of a predetermined aesthetic.
But Speedboat succeeds wonderfully, in its precise language, its trenchant social comedy, its journalistic hyper-awareness, and its ability to acquaint us with a sensibility so uncommonly intelligent and wise you’d love to encounter it outside the pages of a book. Such an achievement is rare enough in any generation.