Tell It Slant | Hilton Als | Granta

Tell It Slant

Hilton Als

On Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

I don’t know of any journalist who’s had the pleasure of reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat and not dreamt of writing a book ‘just’ like it. And that’s because the author’s brilliant stop and start 1976 novel about a female reporter living in an unnamed city glistens with authenticity, not only when it comes to her protagonist Jen Fain’s career as a journalist, but all the existential stuff that fucks your head up as you go about the business of trying to report, including how to navigate the uneasy marriage of language and truth and back again.

‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant –’ So says Emily Dickinson, and part of the joy to be found in Adler’s short, dense and intellectually vast text is the author’s investigation into those various slants, including how language changes your mind, and how your mind changes language. The very act of describing a fact – describing anything – is to reveal one’s own subjectivity, and to become, in effect, a storyteller. Does it matter what kind? Speedboat is riddled with facts, ‘real’ observations, all presented as fiction. What can it mean, then, when a reporter is paid to be ‘objective’? Is it even possible to do one’s work wholly as a reporter knowing that truth is specious, or, at best, a faulty enterprise? Speedboat is, among other things, about the tension between our subjective self, and the objective eye, the thing we see, and the stuff we feel. Indeed, one could view the novel as a kind of bridge between those two poles, and what each looks like together and apart in our splintered, defined-by-truthiness world.

Like any number of memorable fictions, Speedboat, Adler’s first novel, is about the power of the author’s voice. Adler’s is sui generis, while Speedboat itself is part of a marvellous tradition – one that includes Nathanael West’s masterful short novel Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). Like West’s eponymous character, Adler’s Fain is a journalist who has a slant but powerful relationship to language, all modern-day cynical evidence to the contrary. But, unlike West’s advice columnist, Fain doesn’t seek to reorder her surrounding atmosphere with misguided empathy; instead, she lives in the divide between real feeling and commodification, chilly brand names and the heart. And Jen is able to do that – to stand upright in our modern slippage – because she can see her times – her epoch – for what they are because they are what they are, just as other times have been what they are, too.

Jen may be a journalist, but she’s different than the others; she’s not ‘rushing frantically about, desperate and verbal about deadlines, dangers, reputation, the problems of safely reaching a telephone’, as Adler describes some of her newspaper colleagues in the introduction to her 1969 collection of movie criticism A Year in the Dark. Instead, Jen takes her time to consider the power of the period, the grace of a paragraph – and when sentences run out or gain momentum.

Jen’s tone is removed, reflective, sometimes ironical, accessible but private, a little close to the vest but lithe as it sprints from one moment of being to another. As the book goes on, you understand why Jen sounds the way she does: the better to keep herself for herself or away from other people who might want to possess her, keep her from realising her self, her voice, people who want to keep her hostage, everywhere. That might include the baby Jen’s carrying at the end of the novel:


The idea of hostages is very deep. Becoming pregnant is taking a hostage – as is running a pawnshop, being a bank, receiving a letter, taking a photograph, or listening to a confidence. Every love story, every commercial trade, every secret, every matter in which trust is involved, is a gentle transaction of hostages. Everything is, to a degree, in the custody of every other thing.


Conversant in history and philosophy, Jen has ‘covered’ Biafra, and has taken flying lessons. For the late critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Jen is a ‘sensibility formed in the 1950s and 6os, a lucky eye gazing out from a center of a complicated privilege’. Indeed, whether she likes it or not, Jen comes from, and is part of, a society that sees the world through an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ lens.


We are thirty-five. Some of us are gray. We all do situps or something to keep fit . . . We have had some drunks, an occasional psychotic break, eleven divorces, one autistic child, six abortions, two unanticipated homosexuals, several affairs of the sort that are lifelong and quiet and sad, one drowning, two cases of serious illness, one hatred each, no crimes. No crimes is no small thing. We might have run over somebody in high school and left the scene. Before that, we might have stopped putting pennies on tracks to be bent by trains, and tried to hitch rides on freight cars just as they began to move. We were always daring each other to do that. It would not have been a crime, of course. But it would have taken us over that edge of irreversible violence where, whether in a pattern of years or in the flicker of an oversight, crime begins.


The exceptional brilliance of the above passage is based on an awareness of one’s privilege, and the rot it can cause, and how power replicates itself, even if it’s ‘wrong’. Reading it brings to mind all those people who swear they have committed no crimes despite committing criminal acts, such as date rape, and call it something else, like horsing around, or blowing off steam, or something. ‘No crimes’ is the privilege of the class that produced Brett Kavanaugh, and got him elected to the United States Supreme Court.

What is Jen doing with these people? We are all born to someone, and their something – their codes of behaviour, their awful need to be included in the right groups, their desire to form. The white space between the paragraphs in Speedboat is the space we need or claim in order to imagine Jen as she was. (Rarely does Adler rely on standard fictional devices such as the back story to make Jen or anyone else easier to decipher, or ‘get’. The reader must figure the characters out as they figure out themselves. Or not.) Jen is everywhere in that white space, right over there, an adolescent too, seated at her parents’ dinner table, silently criticising everything Mom and Dad try to pass off as truth with wit and wistfulness as she looks out the dining room window, longing for the larger world just outside the carefully tended lawn. Jen may be of the ‘we’ class, but in Speedboat, she is also an emphatic ‘I’, made nervous about the possibility of ‘we’.


In any group of two or more, it seems, somebody is on trial. Sometimes more than one person is on trial. Sometimes everyone is. But not for long. Under the law, a person can be said to plan alone or to plot alone, but not to conspire alone. There are other things, of course, no one can do alone: be a mob, or a choir, or a regiment. Or elope.


No one ‘belongs’ to anyone else in Speedboat. (Jen doesn’t even tell her lover, Jim, that she’s pregnant with their child.) Sometimes a relationship, which is not the same thing as intimacy, lasts, but mostly not. Are we ‘just’ bodies? People that help to fill time as time erodes us? Commitment is not a word that comes up often in this story.

The novel is not absurdist but is filled with absurd moments. Along with fascinating discussions around and about language. ‘I love the laconic,’ Jen says about a third of the way through the novel. Then:


Clearly, I am not of their number . . . There are, however, people who just sit there, silent. A question is addressed to them. They do not answer. Another question. Silence. It is a position of great power. Talkative people running toward those silences are jarred, time after time, by a straight arm rebuff. A quizzical look, a beautiful face perhaps, but silence. Everyone is exhausted, drinks too much, snarls later at home, wonders about the need for aspirin. It has been that stubborn wall.


Silence is Jen’s true Other. And while Speedboat has been described as a book composed of ‘fragments’, that doesn’t feel quite right. Read in a certain way, Adler’s book is, among other things, a series of pensées about things – people, stories, ideas – as they occur. What can history matter in this lackadaisical moral universe where the opportunity to be good isn’t so much jettisoned as minimised, a confusing ‘sign’ not in sync with our disinterested times?

Adler writes:


‘All babies are natural swimmers,’ John said, lowering his two­ year-old son gently over the side of the rowboat, and smiling. The child thrashed and sank. Aldo dived in and grabbed him. The baby came up coughing, not crying, and looked with pure fear at his father. John looked with dismay at his son. ‘He would have come up in a minute,’ John said to Aldo, who was dripping and rowing. ‘You have to give nature a chance.’


More questions: who is Aldo, and why must he save John’s child and why can’t John save his own baby? Is John trying to prove something to Aldo? Is John less a parent than his received ideas about parenting and nature? Is the baby an abstraction? Thrashing and sinking and thrashing again – it’s what happens to us all in one way or another at some point in this life, and all the time. And yet we’re startled when it does happen again. This scene of parental neglect or cruelty or both is but one of Speedboat’s heart-wrenching stories in a book filled with stories that stay and then slip into the next story, like steam running down glass.

Born in Milan in 1938, Adler was raised in Connecticut. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in 1959, and became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1962. Selma, the Six-Day War in Israel, the Sunset Strip, Biafra, performance art, pre- and post-Godfather movies: these were just some of the subjects she wrote about with the eye and sensibility of a politically astute littérateur, one whose narrative thrust is driven, it seems, by a question, or questions, about morality, and how, given the chance, man defines himself not in relation to but in opposition to man. Often, that opposition manifests itself in violence. Not ‘just’ in violent acts, but in words, ideas that perpetuate. From her 1968 New York Times essay on violence in film:


The motion picture is like journalism in that, more than any of the other arts, it confers celebrity. Not just on people – on acts, and objects, and places, and ways of life. The camera brings a kind of stardom to them all. I therefore doubt that film can argue effectively against its own material: that a genuine antiwar film, say, can be made on the basis of even the ugliest battle scenes; or that the brutal hangings in The Dirty Dozen and In Cold Blood will convert one soul from belief in capital punishment. No matter what filmmakers intend, film always argues yes.


To read Adler’s early pieces is to hear Jen in embryo. In a 1966 New Yorker essay about performance art, the then 28-year-old reporter and critic said:


Sub-adult mystics, under-educated cynics, doctrinaire propagandists, and pop philosophers have this in common: they like to think and talk of paradox . . . A kind of muzzy half­truth – with a heady whiff of portent – that conceals a simple failure to distinguish between levels of discourse. Boredom is a state of utmost fascination. The ultimate plan is to be completely random. The form of the creative work is to be entirely indeterminate. The facts are irrelevant to the real truth of the matter. The audience is the performance.


And, finally, from a 1972 review about politics and TV:


Whatever expectations television may have raised at the outset, it is now clear that television is not a medium at all. It is an appliance.


While non-fiction is mostly show and tell, fiction can be about one’s process of intellection, the story of a mind. While Speedboat ends with the possibility of a new life, it also ends with the possibility of a sentence, which contains the hope the writer brings to the table day after day after day. Adler writes, ‘The shortest distance between two points may well be the wrong way on a one way street.’ Then:


All the same, all the same, I think there’s something to be said for assuring the next that the water’s fine – quite warm, actually – once you get into it. You can’t miss it. It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime.


Image © crodriguesc



This essay introduces the new reissue of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, out now with Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Hilton Als

Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for Talk of the Town. He became a staff writer in 1994, a theatre critic in 2002, and chief theatre critic in 2013. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing, a George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, the American Academy’s Berlin Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his work at The New Yorker in 2017. He is the author of the critically acclaimed White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Lambda Literary Award in 2014 and a Professor at Columbia University’s Writing Program. He lives in New York City.

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