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Sense of the Present

Speedboat

by Renata Adler
Random House, 178 pp., $7.95

Guilt

Do you know a brooding Bulstrode? Guilt, central to classical fiction, was the secret of dramatic natures who found themselves greedy for something and conscious of the injustice the greed sent forth, like a poisonous cloud, to someone else. This “type”—the greedy, demanding, guilty one—lives in a condition beyond irony, the attitude that complicates guilt and changes it to comedy and absurdity. The private and serious drama of guilt is not often a useful one for fiction today and its disappearance, following the disappearance from life, appears as a natural, almost unnoticed, relief, like some of the dramatic illnesses wiped out by drugs or vaccines. The figures who look out at us on the evening news—embezzlers, crooks, liars, murderers—are furiously inconvenienced by the trap that has snapped shut on the free expression of will; they face the menace of arithmetical lapses, the folly of insurance policies cashed with impractical haste, the weakness of accomplices. And how rapidly does the arrested gaze of the accused change to the suspicious glance of the accuser.

What sustains the ego in its unhappy meeting with consequence—the meeting that was, previously, the essence of fiction and drama? The “popular” response to error, discovery, discomfort, impatience, to exigency in which our own actions are involved, is paranoia. Bad luck, betrayal, enemies, the shifting sands of the self-interest of others, briberies—the troubled spirit is seldom alone with his deeds. He rages around in the crowd of these others who for the moment seem likely to go scot-free at his expense.

Character

The literature of paranoia is naturally different from the literature of guilt. A wild state of litigious anxiety slides, as if on grease, into the spot held by the ethical. Free floating, drifting in absorption and displacement, the paranoid is not a character at all. Most of all he comes to resemble a person with a cerebral stroke and shows peculiar, one-sided losses, selective blocks and impairments, judicious and injudicious gaps.

Natalie Sarraute said in a lecture that she could not imagine writing a novel about a miser because there was no such thing as a miser. Human beings with their little bundle of traits and their possession of themselves, a synthesis—yes, they have vanished because they are not what they seemed to be, least of all to themselves, which is what counts.

The coquette, the spendthrift, the seducer, the sensitive were points of being, monarchies of self, ruled over by passions and conditions. How smoothly the traits led those who possessed them, led them trotting along to their lives, to the end of the road of cause and effect, to transgressions that did not fade but were there at the last stop.

When the young man in The Mayor of Casterbridge comes into town and decides in his misery to sell his wife and daughter we know what is ahead. He will succeed, he will be mayor and the wife and daughter will return, borne on the wheels of plot, the engine of destiny, and he must be ruined. As he says, in the midst of gathering consequences, “I am to suffer, I perceive.”

For us, the family could very well vanish, into their fate, which is expressed in the phrase “make a new life.” Still, mayors fall, the past is discovered by the opposition and we have our plots—in the conspiratorial sense. Ruin is another matter, however. It becomes harder and harder to be ruined. There are always the sympathizers with every error of the well-placed. Through support, flattery, and the wonderful plasticity of self-analysis, paranoia enters the wrongdoer’s soul and pronounces him innocent or at the least no worse than others. Fiction, taking this in, shrugs, and while a shrug is not as satisfactory in the aesthetic sense as ruin, it will have to do. Aesthetics, Kierkegaard said, “is a courteous and sentimental science which knows of more expedients than a pawnbroker.”

Possibilities

Contrivance is offensive to the contemporary novelist and it has been known since the Greeks that one cannot commit an offensive act in ignorance. Without contrivance the novelist cannot write what everyone insists upon—a novel. It is easy to imagine that all possibilities are open, that it is only the medium and not life itself that destroys the branches of the tree, one by one. Caprice, fashion, exhaustion, indulgence—these are what the novelist who has not produced a conflict of motivation is accused of. He is told that he is freer than he feels himself to be. Meanwhile he looks about, squinting, and he sees the self-parodying mirror and this is the present, now, in its clothes, make-up, its dialogue, its library of books read, the very hair on the head made up of words, references, of Ishmael (a favorite hair, American), of spy stories, films, baseball scores, old murders, magicians, revolutionaries, of Don Quixote to be rewritten, Snow White and “all of this happened, more or less.” What happens rather than why.

The newspapers are alive with new fiction, with realities that do not give up an answer. (Men safe in important positions, earning huge salaries, do not file income tax forms even though they appear to have paid the tax on the with-holding system.) It is not true that we must make sense, that we must or will “act in character.” Even if a number of opinions and habits have attached themselves like moles to the skin of our image—image, “a reproduction of appearances”—even then one is not obliged to keep faith either with the details or with the gross accumulation of what he has asserted himself to be.

Spiro Agnew, with his long donkey face, his arresting alliterations, his tall, broad-shouldered ease in the pulpit, was in his reign old fiction. He might have been Mr. Bounderby in Dickens: “I was born in a ditch, and my mother ran away from me. Do I excuse her for it? No. Have I ever excused her for it? Not I. What do I call her for it? I call her probably the worst woman that ever lived in the world, except for my drunken grandmother.” But in collapse Agnew was an unaccountable creation of new fiction who ceased suddenly to be a character, his own character, and became a man who roams the world without a memory of alliteration, without a voice, born again in middle age as a baby, free of the “role’ that had brought him to our attention in the first place as a character, freely “mutating” like V—Veronica, Victoria, Venus, V-D, “the incursion of inanimate matter into twentieth century life.”

Time

The three-act play is no longer in fashion, having given way to the long one-act occasionally punctuated by an intermission, an intermission that is a convenience for the audience rather than the signal of a diversion in the flow. Impatience plays its part as one of the powers of our existence, probably replacing duty if one feels that a sort of celestial arithmetic prevents an unbearable loading of commands. More importantly—a three-act play implied a three-act life.

Curtain lines between the acts, a question, a riddle, leading to unexpected turnings but nevertheless an answer, act three returning in some way the call of act one. In the realistic American theater flashes of “understanding” arose like a sudden perfume out of the soil of the past. Yes, I have been selfish and just where I had been most convinced of my nobility.

In real life, in domestic conflicts, in matters of wounded feelings, it is so often those who have been acted against who are the upholders of the forms. (I do not mind what you do to me, but it is so awful for the children.) The pedantry, the conservatism, the intransigence of the hurt and the inconvenienced are scarcely to be separated from bitterness and frustrated will. Resolutions, recognitions, things tied up? In the contemporary drama, it is usually the popular and commercial work, manipulating the assumed moral and aesthetic traditionalism of the audience, that insists the gun hanging on the wall in the first act must go off before the curtain falls.

The tyranny of the nineteenth-century three-volume novel leaves its wreckage in Gissing’s New Grub Street. A chapter entitled “The Author and his Wife”: the wife anxiously inquires about a work in progress, where are you? what have you done?

Reardon, the burdened novelist, cries out, “Two short chapters of a story I can’t go on with. The three volumes lie before me like an interminable desert. Impossible to get through them. The idea is stupidly artificial, and I haven’t a living character in it.”

The Novel

Perhaps we cannot ask for a novel. We can at most discover the terms of a “novel.” In the reviews of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a work of unusual interest, many critics asked whether this “novel” was really a novel. The book is, in its parts, fastidiously lucid, neatly and openly composed. It is the linear as opposed to the circular construction that leads to the withholding of consent for the enterprise, at least on the part of some readers.

The narrator—a word not entirely apt—is a young woman, a sensibility formed in the 1950s and ‘60s, a lucky eye gazing out from a center of complicated privilege, looking with the cool that transforms itself into style and also into meaning. Space is biography finally and going from one place to another is itself the thread of experience.

The girl takes flying lessons; she lives in a brownstone in New York with others not deeply connected except as voices, personal scenery; she visits the starving Biafrans as a journalist (“We had been told to bring cans of food, jerry cans of gasoline, and a lot of Scotch”); she examines her generation (“Some of us are gray. We all do situps or something to keep fit”); she teaches at City; she worries about language (” ‘Literally,’ in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally.”).

For the girl, the past has not set limits and the future is one of wide, restless, interesting “leaps.” Not the leaps of lovers (she has lovers, but this is a chaste book), not leaps of divorces, liberations, but a sense of the way experience seizes and lets go, leaving incongruities, gaps that remain alive as conversation—the end result of experience. She writes that “the camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great difficulty, through the eye of the needle…. First, the velvety nose, then the rest.” And how right she is. If the rich can’t get into heaven, who can?

To be interesting, each page, each paragraph—that is the burden of fiction which is made up of random events and happenings in sequence. Speedboat is very clear about the measure of events and anecdotes, and it does meet the demand for the interesting in a nervous, rapid, remarkably gifted manner. A precocious alertness to incongruity: this one would have to say is the odd, dominating trait of the character of the narrator, the only character in the book. Perception, then, does the work of feeling and is also the main action. It stands there alone, displacing even temperament.

For the reader of Speedboat, certain things may be lacking, particularly a suggestion of turbulence and of disorder more savage than incongruity can bear. But even if feeling is not solicited, randomness itself is a carrier of disturbing emotions. In the end, a flow is more painful than a circle, which at least encloses the self in its resolutions, retributions, and decisions.

American Practicalities

Our novelists, sensing the shape of lives around them that are not novelistic in the usual sense, nevertheless are reluctant to alienate, to stand on their sense of things and leave most of life morally unaccounted for. Novels that are profoundly about fornication have a way of ending on accidents, illness, or death.

In Rabbit, Run, the young husband is in a restless mood of flight and infidelity; the wife is confused, sore, exhausted, and not sober. The new baby dies in the bath in a powerful scene very near the end of the book. This is meant as a judgment on poor Harry and Janice. It says that Harry is not supposed to be looking at television in the afternoon, drunk. In Francine Gray’s Lovers and Tyrants, the heroine, Stephanie, has to pay for her promiscuity by having a hysterectomy. In Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, the hero pays for his disgruntlement, acrimony, and fear by the death of his damaged son. In Speedboat, the girl, perhaps worried that her autonomy is out of line, like a much-used expense account, announces that she is going to bear a child. In this way she chooses the impediments of nature to act as a brake on the rushing, restless ego.

Deaths, accidents, illnesses, and babies are a late resurgence of morality or normality (late in the books). They seem to say that horrors accompany a distraction in the order of things. They say that free as we are, determined on experience as we are, there is a sort of puritanism somewhere, a mechanical accountability that links transgression with loss and grief.

The resolutions are not convincing. The drowning of the baby in Rabbit, Run is the most truly prepared for and has the least hint of a retroactive moral assertion. The unconvincingness is the measure of the practicality, the businesslike accounting at the end of a spree, the drawing back from observed life. The telegram about your mother’s death after you have been in bed with your secretary, the automobile accident as you come home from an infidelity: how far all of this is from the nihilistic grip on experience that has preceded it. The willingness to accept a bleak vision without palliative intrusions such as one finds in European masters like Genet and Beckett is not in the end congenial to the American writer. Perhaps it is that the author steps aside from the scene he has created to punish not on his own behalf but on behalf of his audience, whom he judges, somewhat patronizingly, as vindictive.

Banalities

A strict and accurate ear for banalities provides much of the subject matter in the work of Barthelme, Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Renata Adler, and many others. Blood, sex, and banality, as Malraux recently described the “terrible world in which we are living.”

Vonnegut:

Toward the end of maneuvers, Billy was given an emergency furlough home because his father was shot dead by a friend while they were out hunting deer. So it goes.

Speedboat:

The girl was blond, shy, and laconic. After two hours of silence, in that sun, she spoke. “When you have a tan,” she said, “what have you got?”

From a California newspaper:

The pastor of the New Life Center Church in Bakersfield and a woman member of his congregation were arrested on suspicion of plotting to murder the pastor’s invalid wife.

Banalities are not meant as a narrowing of intention. The contrary. Banalities connect the author with the world around him. They connect the extreme and the whimsical with the common life, with America, with the decade, with the type. They serve, in a sense, as a form of history.

Older Banalities

Emma Bovary, struggling along with her last lover, Leon—a man whom even romantic love and adventure cannot sever from the anxious calculations of a bourgeois—finds “in adultery all of the banality of marriage.” The most moving instance of banality and boredom in literature is Vronsky’s exhaustion with Anna Karenina’s love and with his own. It is not so much that he falls out of love as that the conditions of the great passion are exhausting: isolation, anxiety, idleness, the criticism of society. Boredom with love is as powerful as love itself and much more devastating. Anna herself chooses one of the masks for boredom with love, obsessive jealousy. Both of the women, Emma and Anna, try to modernize, to politicize their situations. Anna and Vronsky live in a corrupt, self-indulgent world that retains its pieties about the details of indulgence. At one point Anna pathetically cries out that in living with Vronsky she is at least being “honest.” Emma, a naïve provincial, appears with a cigarette in her mouth and can be seen in town, “wearing a masculine-styled, tight-fitting waistcoat.” Anna’s passion is inseparable from her position in society and Emma Bovary’s passions are inseparable from her debts.

Sex is a much narrower basis upon which to build a fiction. The limitations of the human body are nowhere more clear than in the fantasies of Sade. Nearly all of his “tableaux” involving more than two people are physically impossible. In current American fiction, the novels that are most concerned with sex are often the most traditional in form and imagination. The challenge of the medium has been narrowed to the body, a poor vehicle for novelty. In current women writers the union of license and conventionality is particularly acute; more and more they suffer from what Colette called the great defect in male voluptuaries: a passion for statistics.

Conservatives

The enclosed, static, oppressive nature of Soviet society makes it possible for Solzhenitsyn to write books that are formally conservative and yet profound and far-ranging in their significance. His fictions concern nothing less than the soul of Soviet Russia itself. The cancer ward is the diseased state, the prison, the concentration camps are the scenery in which history, morality, infamy act upon imagined characters realistically. The resonances of these grand works from the cage are far greater than we can produce in the openness and freedom of our lives; and altogether different. Totalitarianism is nothing if not a structure.

In Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow, a novel that is very American and yet conservative in both form and matter, Bellow needs the voice of one who has not shared in the complicities of the generations in America, who has not come under the blur of the economic conditions here after the War, who in his own life has no need for the sexual revolution, the draft, divorce, television—anything. He has chosen rightly Mr. Sammler, over seventy, a European, profoundly formed and sure in character and values. Mr. Sammler is the suitable instrument of refusal: he says, I will not accommodate the new left students or the nihilism of New York. I will not find the Negro pickpocket in his camel’s hair coat, his Dior dark glasses, his French perfume, merely interesting.

A novel like Pynchon’s V is unthinkable except as a production of an American deeply saturated in the 1950s and ‘60s. It is a work that, in its peculiarly brilliant decomposition, explodes in a time of seemingly expanding capitalism. It comes out of our world of glut, endless consumption, enviable garbage, and numbing disorienting possibility. Life is not a prison. It is an airplane journey and on this journey the self is always disappearing, changing its name, idly landing and departing, spanning the world in hours. Geography is a character and town names have no more meaning than the names of the passenger lists. The novel does not end. It journeys on in a floating coda: “Draw a line from Malta to Lampedusa. Call it a radius….”

In a recent article on the new fiction, Tony Tanner looks upon much of the work as a game, “games trying to break the games which contemporary culture imposes on us at all levels.”* Entropy, carnival, randomness—the language of the critics of “post-modernist fiction”—seem to bring the novel too close to a poem, to put it under the anxiety of influence and to find it more subject to the refinements and tinkerings of craft than a prose work of some length can actually be.

What is honorable in “so it goes” and in the mournful shimmer of some of Barthelme’s stories (“‘Sylvia, do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No”’), in Speedboat, in the conundrums of V is the intelligence that questions the shape of life and wonders what we can really act upon. It is important to concede the honor, the nerve, the ambition—important even if it is hard to believe anyone in the world could be happier reading Gravity’s Rainbow than reading Dead Souls.

  1. *

    Games American Writers Play,” Salmagundi, Fall 1976.

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