Patchwork absurdities

Speedboat by Renata Adler Random House, 178 pages, $7.95

RENATA ADLER'S SPEEDBOAT is less a novel in the conventional sense than a series of journalistic sketches of contemporary life. The anecdotes and scraps of dialogue that make up the book are loosely linked by the device of a first-person narrator, but the storyteller offers so little commentary on her material that we develop only a vague awareness of her personality. The narrator's carefully maintained neutrality works largely to good effect in Speedboat. It saves the book from let-me-tell-you-what-it's-all-about pretentiousness. Adler presents a catalogue of images and events: her landlord is murdered, her friends' marriages break up, she catches a plane out of Egypt just before the outbreak of the 1967 war, a tenant in her brownstone steals another tenant's Sunday Times. She gracefully credits the reader with enough acuity to size up all this for himself.

The narrative of Speedboat jumps around both in time and space as Jennifer Fain, a journalist, relates a series of stories about her past, her friends, her assignments, things she has read or seen. The vignettes, few more than a paragraph long, are juxtaposed with apparent disregard for the way we supposedly perceive reality. However, the jaggedness of the narrative is happily suited to the subject matter of Speedboat, life with "the jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations." The reader learns about the characters and events of the book the way Jennifer learns about them: through the accumulation of isolated details.

The narrator (and presumably, the author, for much of this is obviously autobiographical) claims she doesn't believe in evolution. "It seems to me that there are given things, all strewn and simultaneous." That is an excellent description of the way her novel works. All the information is there, but there is no way to piece the fragments together. Life, as Jennifer Fain sees it, resists the ordering processes we try to impose upon it. Because she cannot detect a pattern in experience, she contents herself with collecting examples of the perverseness of life:

I knew a deliverer of flowers, who, at Sixty-ninth and Lexington was hit by a flying suicide. Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind.

Sometimes Speedboat reads like a believe-it-or-not collection. In addition to the flying suicide, there is the man who lulls himself to sleep by counting, not sheep, but all the people against whom he has grievances. When the imagined assembly is complete, he rounds them up and shoots them all with a machine gun. There is the woman from public broadcasting who calls Jennifer to ask whether she'd like to participate in a seminar on the female orgasm in literature. There is the airplane cargo door that opens in mid-flight, releasing, out of all the cargo, a coffin. The coffin lands in the garden of a recently widowed woman who draws the obvious conclusion.

The matter-of-fact presentation in Speedboat enhances the humor and incongruity of these episodes. It also heightens our sense of grotesqueness. Nothing turns out as expected, a fact that may make us laugh, but the sort of laugh that trails off into a faint feeling of seasickness. For all its humor, Speedboat is ultimately saddening. Adler evokes a feeling of frustration with a reality that appears only as a series of bright but impenetrable surfaces:

Everyone hangs on in his own way, however. When I wonder what it is we're doing--in this brown-stone, on this block, with this paper, the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.

ONE OF THE IDEAS--they can't really be called themes--that accumulates a certain weight of detail in the novel is superstition. Jennifer makes several references to finding coins and four-leaf clovers. She sees a rat in a restaurant and wonders whether it could be the same one she saw uptown a few weeks earlier. She always gives money to beggars, not as "a bribe to my own fortunes any longer. Even lighting candles in a church I have never prayed quite in specifics. It is just a habit now." She clings to her habits, though: they may be silly, but she's keeping her bets covered just in case.

The unmanageability of experience is not the only problem Adler confronts. Just as technology burdens us with an unprecedented amount of strange information to assimilate, the language needed to describe and thus understand it is being tampered with and degraded. The professions that rely most heavily on language--journalism, academe, politics--are the ones, Jennifer implies, responsible for the worst assaults against its linguistic integrity.

Fortunately, Speedboat is not a casualty of the war on language. Adler's prose is lean, straight-forward and exact. The compactness and order of her language provides an interesting contrast to the structural choppiness of the book. Adler's control of her structure is also consistently good; in rendering the incoherence of experience, she never lets herself lapse into unintelligibility under the assumption the reader wouldn't notice. The contrast between her narrative control and the defiant irrationality of the life she describes effectively heightens the sensation of vertigo that Speedboat is intended to inspire.