Saturday 22 August 2020


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


Speedboat by Renata Adler     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
You’re soaking in it, he said when I asked him how he was getting on with the review of Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat, the review he was supposedly writing for the newsletter that his bookshop issued each week. You’re soaking in it, he said, but he did not elaborate further, and it was unclear to me what he meant. He was referring, perhaps, to the decades-old advertisement for a dishwashing liquid that softens your hands while you do the dishes, if we are to believe the advertisement, a liquid that undoes the effects of work upon the worker, a liquid that leaves a person who commits a certain act seeming less like a person who would commit that act than they did before they committed that act, in this case washing the dishes but presumably the principle could apply to anything, providing that the appropriate liquid could be found. You’re soaking in it, he repeated, and, yes, I thought that perhaps he was right, we are immersed always in something that undoes the effects upon ourselves of our own intentions, something that Adler alludes to when she writes, “For a while I thought that I had no real interests, only ambitions and ties to certain people, of a certain intensity. Now the ambitions have drifted after the interests, I have lost my sense of the whole. I wait for events to take a form.” But there is an uneasy relationship between the narrating mind and the world in which it soaks, in which it is softened as it does its work, he might think. “Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind,” wrote Adler. The world in which we soak is comprised of random events, or at least of events sufficiently complex as to appear random or to be treated without fear of correction as random, he might think, a world of discontinuity, of agglomeration and dissolution, of fragmentations, collisions and tessellations, he might think, a world in which the one who is soaking in it instinctively, or, perhaps, instinctually, it’s hard to tell which, searches for meaning even while acknowledging its impossibility, for this, he probably is thinking, is the nature of thought, or the nature of language, if that is not the same thing. We cannot help but narrate, narrate and describe, observe and relate. There is no meaning, I suppose he is thinking as he contemplates, or as I suppose he contemplates, the review he could be writing of the book that he has read, or claims to have read, may well have read, no meaning other than the pattern we impose by telling. Stories both create and consume their subjects, he thinks, I think, or he might as well think. Writing and reading, the so-called literary acts, are concerned with form and not with content, or, he might say, more precisely, concerned primarily with form and only incidentally with content, so to call them, he might think, the literary acts are patterning acts and it is only the patterning that has meaning. Renata Adler writes beautiful sentences, he thinks, and this you can tell by the small pleasant noises he makes while reading them, she turns her sentences upon the sharpest commas. The comma, is the way in which life, so to call it, impresses itself upon us. Each assertion Adler makes is mediated by the realisation that it could be otherwise, either in point of fact, or in change of context, perspective, or scope. There is no progress without hesitation: no progress. Each comma is a rotation. There is humour in precision. “Doctor Schmidt-Nessel, sitting, immense, in his black bikini, on a cinder-block in the steam-filled cubicle, did not deign immediately to answer.” Speedboat is filled with such perfect sentences arrayed on commas. Sentences in paragraphs, often brief, filled with the jumble, so to call it, of the life of its ostensible narrator, Jen Fain, but, perhaps, of the life of Renata Adler, if such a distinction can sensibly be made, the narrator does not observe herself but those around her, she is a space in what she observes, she is an outline in the snippets that attach themselves to her. The real subject of the book, though, is language, others’ and her own. The book might be a novel, it is almost a novel, it is a novel if you don’t expect a novel to do what a novel is generally expected to do, it is information is caught in a sieve, the nearest to a novel that life can resemble, if this is of any importance. All novels, even the most fantastic, are comprised predominantly of facts, he is probably thinking, if he is in fact thinking, and it is only the arrangement of facts that comprises fiction. Adler’s narrator is entirely extrospective. She reports. She dissolves the distinctions between novelist, gossip columnist, journalist, and spy, the distinctions that were always only conceptual distinctions in any case and not distinctions of practice. Fain wonders what several of her friends actually do who have become spies. “I guess what these spies — if they are spies, and I’m sure they are — are paid to do is to observe trends.” Fain as a journalist cannot conduct an interview, she cannot impose herself to seek an answer, she has no programme, she can only observe. At one point she “receives communications almost every day from an institution called the Centre for Short-Lived Phenomena”. Her news, and it is news, is her own life, but not herself within it. She knows the risks: “The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you will miss the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.” Is meaning a hostage to circumstance, or is it the other way round? When the narrator starts to think about the world in terms of hostages it is because she has what she sees as a hostage inside her, a pregnancy she has not told her partner about, all things are hostages to other things, this is perhaps a sort of meaning. Hostages are produced by grammar. There he sits, hostage, I suppose, to his intention to write a review, or at least to the set of circumstances, odd though they may be, that contrived to expect of him this review, the review he will not write, disinclined as he is to write, though he will say, I am sure, if you ask him, that he enjoyed the book Speedboat very much. He makes no presumption upon you. As Jen Fain or Adler writes, “You are very busy. I am very busy. We at this rest home, this switchboard, this courthouse, this race track, this theatre, this lighthouse, this studio, are all extremely busy. So there is pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say but to justify its claim on our time.”

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