by Mara Jebsen
One of Claire Messud's interviews for “The Woman Upstairs” has got a lot of people talking about literature and likeability, and about whether a book’s protagonist ought to be warm, and about whether expectations about that warmth are gendered. Messud, in a tone and with a vividness that ultimately pleased even the interviewer, took exception to a question about the pleasing-ness of her character, and gave with the following response:
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”
So what shall we make of Jen Fein, the gossip columnist and protagonist of Renata Adler’s “Speedboat”? Jen is both likable and unlikable—but I keep reminding myself that that is not the question to ask. Jen, who considers the possibility that a rat she spotted in one part of New York City is likely the same rat she saw earlier, in another part of the city, seems to think in prose poems crammed with something between wit and wisdom. She rejects her mind’s own proposition about the rat, summarily, with this: “I think sanity, then, is the most profound moral option of our time.”
The book has a clear ‘70s sound, something certain and breezy and broken. After rejecting a much older man, Fein muses on the uses of calling yourself a neurotic, as a way to gently block sexual advances. The man sets her up with his son. The meeting is awkward because “it was hard to sit there, being a generation.” I began to wonder why I’d never heard of Adler. Midway through reading I looked her up. I understood why the book had been featured in my community bookstore– it had been out of print for years, and started enjoying reprinting, and a sort of revival, a few months ago. I also realized that I was encountering the mind of a controversial figure in the history of the New Yorker. I wished I hadn’t looked her up. The looking lead me into a thicket of competing opinions and narratives about who had said or performed what unkindness to whom in the literary circles in the ‘70s. I tried to enjoy the rest of the book, but I was starting to feeling that it had a meanness to it, and couldn’t tell if I’d been overly influenced by the gossip I’d found on the internet. Still, I kept seeing it, in the descriptions of schoolmates who love awful poems, porn-reading cab drivers, great classical pianists who think they can play jazz, and many English women named Vanessa.
“Speedboat” is whimsical and formally interesting, and it was a wonder that I wanted to keep going through the book at all, since I tend to like plots. The plot is very much not the point, though the vignettes are organized so masterfully that a sort of gigantic image emerges—for some reason I’m thinking of a big comic book, or of the film MASCULIN FEMININ, which similarly counters many of the easy moral centers of traditional storytelling. Her first lines are simple but stellar. There’s “Myra Miller broke a leg.” And “At that school, sex and mysticism set in, simultaneously.” One vignette begins: “Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop”, the moderator of a talk show said.” while another veers into the personal with: “I am not technically a Catholic.”
Some sentences are like little subject headings, like the titles of short stories: “The Piano.” “Four Leaf Clovers.” “The Constituency. “About Money.” Each vignette has a little ‘bite’ to it, which, cumulatively, adds up to rather a lot of biting. Is being insightful and biting the same as being ‘alive’-the value Messud wants from a character?
Ultimately, I recommend that new readers ‘discover’ Adler, and am pleased that her books are back in print. I do think, though, that I have to temper the enthusiasm for hard-to-like female protagonists that Messud rustled up in me, if only because its too easy to say that women have been expected to be likable and so now we must like hostile women. It seems important to distinguish between rage and meanness. Adler has written that although she was in her late ‘30s when she wrote the book, she felt like she was about 19. Occasionally Jen Fein mildly regrets the starkness of her views on other people, which gives us the sense that she can’t help it. And she does call to mind Holden Caulfield, or any other brilliant and angry teenager. These are painfully bright, emotionally young protagonists, somehow condemned to reveal the phoniness and stupidity of everybody.
I often think of what I know about unkindness, and its relationship to honesty, which we are supposed to value in literature. Are both novels and criticism to be thought of as a kind of purging, a method by which undesirable elements in life and prose are detected, isolated, removed? Or does the appetite grow by what it is fed on, and we find that the pleasure of criticizing an object becomes more important than the object? I do suspect the question is unanswerable in general terms.
“Speedboat” is worth reading. It is populated with unpleasant people who do ridiculous things and somehow, without even relying on a plot, it thrills. But its a meanish thrill, an intellectual version of a “mean girls” thrill. I’m looking forward to “The Woman Upstairs” as I hope it’ll help me sort out what sort of female rage I truly like.