By happy coincidence, my reading of Speedboat by Renata Adler coincided with the discovery that a paperclip makes a perfectly adequate bookmark, as this is exactly the kind of off-beat fact that could (though didn’t) make an appearance in Speedboat. It’s a strange type of book. It’s not factual, it’s not a memoir, but it feels factual and it feels like a memoir. It’s not a story, yet it is. It is unlike any other book I’ve ever read.
Speedboat is best described, I think, as a series of loosely linked anecdotes, about which something is a little off-kilter. The unnamed narrator is a journalist, and the anecdotes are her observations about her life, her friends, the structures they interact with like schools and universities, their frailties and oddness. It is a book which defies any kind of definition and which, in the end, speaks better for itself. It is funny, sharp and observant. I found myself re-reading passages for their amusement value. It is incredibly well written, an homage to the beauty of a sentence, a paragraph, well constructed. Like here:
“I often wonder about the people who linger over trash baskets at the corners of the city’s sidewalks. One sees them day and night, you and old, well dressed, in rags – often with shopping bags – picking over the trash. They pick out newspapers, envelopes. They discard things. I often wonder who they are and what they’re after. I approach and cannot ask them. Anyway, they scurry off. Sometimes I think they are writers who do not write. That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.”
Somehow that small passage gives me hope. Or here:
“It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. But this I know, or think I know, that idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind. Embarrassment, though, on the scale of things to feel, is trivial. It does not even constitute – as do humiliation, envy, guilt – an actual emotion, a condition of the soul. Its command of the attention is absolute. Someone who needs and does not have a handkerchief is likely to be as preoccupied as someone scared to death. Most of the safest form in this is established by form, by sameness, by rote. For others, the stereotyped is most embarrassing. It is by no means clear on which side of this question humor is. A surprise can be comic, as can a certainty. Leaving humor out of it, there exists embarrassment pure. Alas.”