Speedboat

Some books must be lingered over, drawn out, luxuriated in, expanded/extended by being swooned over and put away for a bit to let the words plinko their way down your mind’s peg board. This is such a book, tucked away on bookshelves since 1976; I am only gloomy about the four decades it took me to discover it. Short vignettes, glimpses into narrator Jen Fain’s life as a journalist scattered across the globe or home in NYC, chance encounters with cabbies and glum dinner parties with snippets of conversation like “How I envy you for reading Magic Mountain for the first time.” (Agree!) Tirades against singing the birthday song. Perhaps this is what I like best in the writing– the strong sentences can stand alone, withstand torrential rains, do silly handstands, understand? Tight, unimpeachable lines. Perfect five sentence stories like:

We had been standing outside his tent for eleven hours. The crowd was large. When at last he came out, the guru stared, then threw an orange, savagely. He returned to his tent. That was all. (p 43)

More delicious crumbs:

Once, a heavy man, with a thick accent or combination of accents, was brought by a young French actress to dinner. He was introduced as Boris. He said he was a doctor. When someone asked what sort of doctor, he said “mnnh, mnnh, a healer,” with an “h” as though someone had thrown him a medicine ball. (p 91)

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. (p 131)

“So for these purposes, digitalis, adamantine, apple orchard, gonorrhea, labyrinthine, motherfucker, flights of fancy, Duffy’s Tavern, Halley’s Comet, birthday present, xenophobic are all synonyms,” the great professor said. “Synonyms, in terms of meter, that is.” (p 153)

I wonder if I suffer from what ails Joel Seidington?

Joel Seidington thought when he knew what a thing was called, he had it nailed. Or rather, a thing burned more brightly for a second when he held its name to it; then it was ash. Joel thought he understood other people’s pleasures when he had found the word for them. That’s a tango, he’d say, with considerable satisfaction, to the girl he’d brought to sit beside him at a prom or, years later, in a night club. That’s a lindy, now, and there’s a walz. They would sit. He would smile. They would watch. He would name what went by… This insistence on calling things something had little to do with true pedantry, an obsession for getting things right… It was a more primitive instinct- as though to name a thing were to cut its nails and hair, and pocket them, and put the adversary in his power. In another way, the instinct was entirely modern: to impress on everything that passed his way Joel’s word for it, his personal bureaucratic rubber stamp. (p 120)

Musings on plot and perhaps an explanation for the lack of one in Speedboat:

There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a lower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier… But here, the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time. Seven people go off into the sunset, and the eighth is the custodian of the plot. There were so few variations… The plot of things converging… as in any story where a rendezvous must be kept. The plot of things separating, not so common, disintegration , breaking up. The plot of one thing following in the track of another, as in thrillers, chases. The plot of things parallel. Suspense, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the future. Nostalgia, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the past. (p163)

I don’t think much of writers in whom nothing is at risk. It is possible, though, to be too literal-minded about this question. In the Reader’s Digest, under the heading “$3,000 for First-Person Articles,” for example: “An article for this series must be a true, hitherto unpublished narrative of an unusual personal experience. It may be dramatic, inspirational, or humorous, but it must have, in the opinion of the editors, a quality of narrative interest comparable to “How I Lost My Eye” (June ’72) and “Attacked by a Killer Shark” (April’72). Contributions must be typewritten, preferably double-spaced…” I particularly like where the stress, the italics, goes. (p 62)

After doing a bit of research, I love her even more: “her quarrelsome nature, her low tolerance for fools and frauds, and her seeming inability to tell lies…”