In the wake of the speedboat: on the novel by Renata Adler from 1976

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My storytelling experience – especially in New York City, where every approaching train cuts through every approaching thought, where the constant abrasion of the unknown with madness desensitizes, so I often end up with white noise and notes jagged digital world seep further into reality – is fragmentary. I had a friend who assured me that it was impossible to read certain books in the 21st century city. Henri Jacques, for example. You need a quiet corner, she said. Otherwise, “before I even finished a sentence” – but it was cut. I became fascinated by this idea of ​​a patchwork approach. Admittedly, this is not new, but who made it good?

When I asked three very different types of readers – a young psychologist with a soft spot for traditional storytelling, a writer with a penchant for the avant-garde, and a professor halfway between the two – which was better example of a piecemeal American project. novel, each replied immediately: Featured through Renata adler. Well, it did. I had my triangulation.

blanketThe problem was, Adler’s 1976 novel, written in short vignettes, had been out of print for decades. The title struck a chord. I remembered it mentioned in that of David Shields recent meditation reality hungry, itself a piecemeal work, but if Adler Featured was so vital to the history of the American novel, why was it out of print?

After investigating which books members would like to see reissued, the National Book Critics Circle wondered the same. Again and again the answer was Featured. And in 2010, they requested that the book be reissued, and so, this month, NYRB Classics reissued Featured with an insightful afterword by Guy Trebay.

Featured combines brief anecdotes, braided themes, flashes of urban imagery, and whimsical reflections from 35-year-old journalist narrator Jen Fain to create a novel that revolves around the idea of ​​observation. You could say that as a journalist, Jen is trained to observe. But what to do with this observation? The book lacks any sort of conventional plot in favor of these flashes of the life of an overworked and often drinkable story collector. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Jen tackles the plot issue head-on:

There are only a limited number of plots. There are glimpses, flights of prose, rhythms, bliss. But only so much intrigue… Maybe there are stories, even, like the lonely or the canasta; they are mixed and distributed and then they either do it or they don’t come out. Or the bridge falls to the ground.

Adler does exactly that. His collection of New York sightings – often among strangers, but sometimes invoking recurring characters – is mixed and processed. And a lot of times they don’t “come out”, but I’m not sure that’s the point. The disjointed accounts come to an oblique conclusion. What appear to be insightful allegories turns into pitiful jokes. After each anecdote, my head was almost always tilted. Nothing quite adds up, and nothing is quite what it seems. What narrative strategy is more accurate to portray a country in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam?

While Adler includes these historic touchstones – the Kent State shootings, to give another example – his observations strangely carry over to our own times. In one particularly memorable episode, Jen boards a plane and the flight attendant clears the first three rows “for safety reasons.” Amid the commotion and argument between stubborn passengers, an elderly woman, unconscious, remains in the front row as the plane takes off. No one is demanding that she move. Jen notes the fear among passengers that there has been a security breach:

She needed her bag. There was another wave of apprehension that she might be, after all, the most unlikely terrorist in the world, with a weapon hidden, after all, in that huge bag. She spent the rest of the flight, however, staring, cracking, hanging onto the bag by its string.

Fear, we sometimes forget, follows us in every decade. This passage strangely describes the post-September 11 atmosphere in airports, on board the planes themselves. Everyone instantly became a keen observer of the minutiae that surrounded them.

Adler’s brief, punchy mind reads perhaps better today than it did 35 years ago. Scroll through information and status updates between runs of Featured, I’m stunned by how the novel reads like a somewhat wordy Twitter thread. Meaning wordy for Twitter. succinct for everything else.

Where others might end a passage, Adler adds an additional line that turns the whole episode upside down. For example, Jen tells an anecdote about two grandmothers: a rich, a poor. The rich grandmother buys the children gifts they never appreciate. An old pocket watch, a fragile 18th century doll, a row of pearls. The poor grandmother, however, takes the kids to the convenience store and buys them cheap toys, which they immediately adore, and the poor grandmother is “perhaps unfairly, by far the most popular grandparent in the world. their early years “. Adler follows and ends this juxtaposition with three words: “Twenty years have passed. “

blanketAdler allows us to get into Jen’s life at times, albeit in the same patchy glimpses of the rest of the novel. Early on, Jen appears to have a romantic relationship with a man named Will, though she sneakily confides that he is “married to his job.” Lots of anecdotes, standalone stories about strangers, and what Jen’s dates with other men might be like go by. Forty pages later, while recounting a bizarre evening with an obituary writer, Jen writes, after the fact, “Either way, Will is gone.” Like the bracketed death of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s Towards the lighthouse, a man who had seemed to be a central figure in the story disappears. Adler suggests that, in the same way, we can never predict the major players in our own lives.

What also strikes me Featured are its different layers of resonance. This is an accurate portrayal of a functional alcoholic, an uncertain journalist, a lonely mind on fire in a city of strangers, and a woman ambivalent about her own gender or the prospects for life. maternity – simultaneously. Jen Fain seems to represent many archetypes of the townspeople at once, and Adler’s skillful writing positions the archipelagos of the narrative in this way. You will find what you are looking for.

Undoubtedly, Featured presents an impressionistic landscape of New York. “… There are times in this place,” Jen says, “where everything becomes a show of force. Classes, races, cultures, professions, sexes, politicians, all clash in a game unknown to all. But rather than tracking down various disagreeable characters, Adler is at her best when she lets the city speak for itself, as in this standalone section:

“The score,” said the megaphone on the ferry around Manhattan from time to time, without further explanation, “is one to none.” To outsiders, perhaps unaware that a World Series was underway, this may have seemed like an obscure instruction, or a commentary on the views. “At the top of the fifth,” he said with some excitement as we rounded Wall Street, “the score is five to one.”

blanketblanketIt’s interesting to me that I set out on a search for an exemplary vignette novel in response to the city, and came across a novel that uses vignettes to define the urban experience. Full circle. After 200 pages of short and loosely linked text, Featured can exhaust the mind. But perhaps Adler’s roundabout route in his character’s story is the most accurate way to maneuver a city. Featured certainly influenced by Elizabeth Hardwick Sleepless nights, also written in short sections, and also centered around New York, which Hardwick calls “A woman’s city…” that of Ivan Vladislavic Portrait with keys also comes to mind, dealing with the same structure in an attempt to make sense of Johannesburg. Maybe the city can’t be strangled in a grid. Fortunately, this reissue will not make us forget that.

Eric Dean Wilson’s essays and poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and Third Coast. He lives in New York.


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