Formal Letters: Pushing the Limits of the American Novel

Article excerpt

Towards the end of his consistently enjoyable, occasionally convincing memoir How Literature Saved My Life (Notting Hill Editions, [pounds sterling]12), David Shields, the one-time novelist and, more recently, "poster boy for the death of the novel" (his description), provides a list of 55 works "I swear by". A number of fiction writers make the cut, though usually for their journals or criticism, or for writing novels with a low fiction content. Proust's "commitment is never to the narrative", he explains; it's to the narrative "as a vector on the grid of his argument". The "expository" first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five "renders moot the rest of the book and everything else he ever wrote. I live and die for the overt meditation."

The book best equipped to make Shields's revolution look plausible and even desirable is Speedboat, the first of two brittle fictions by the journalist Renata Adler--who is at the top of his list alphabetically and also, perhaps, in terms of preference. Shields describes the book as an oblique Bildungsroman and an anthropological autobiography, proposing a little perversely that the name of Adler's narrator, Jen Fein, "suggests that she's not real, that she's Renata Adler", much as when, celebrating his "doppelganger of the next generation", Ben Lerner, he calls the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station by the author's name ("Ben won't mind!").

There may not be a category that adequately pegs Adler's mixture of anecdotes, daydreams, "bons mots spliced together" (Jen's words), newswire reports, travelogue, "prose flights" (ditto) and punchlines, though if "novel" is good enough for her, it should be good enough for her admirers.

Originally published by Knopf in 1976 and recently reissued (after a bidding skirmish) by NYRB Classics ([pounds sterling]7.99), Speedboat unfolds in a grammar closer to channel-surfing ("So many rhythms collide," Jen writes) than to the novels Adler wanted but failed to emulate: "thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen, and things you do not".

Instead, she produced a book of things abstracted from the feelings they produce: "A girl of eighteen was taking the sun with great seriousness"; "We passed three men, two beating up a third ... A crowd had gathered, interested"; "A single-story drunk told his single story." It works by accretion. In the end we have a picture, smudged though not inscrutable, less of a scene than of a mind--nervous, not quite associative, trenchant.

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Shields represents one version of the writer as reader. On encountering Speedboat, he saw it not as a beguiling one-off but as a reproach. He has identified it as one of the works that "sent me like Alice down the rabbit hole, never to emerge again on terra firma". A novel he had been writing about "imaginary beings' friction vis-a-vis mass culture" became, after the fall, a book about "my own ambivalence toward mass culture", Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. He has been sceptical of the "traditional novel" ever since.

In How Literature Saved My Lift, he ascribes his capacity for discontent to having studied at Brown University in Rhode Island. He claims to notice "a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance" in the "artistic work of a striking number of Brown grads". With its "flawed, tragicomic, self-conscious relation to power/prestige/privilege", Brown can be seen, Shields contends, "as a crucial incubator-conduit-catalyst-megaphone for the making of the postmodern American imagination". (It was the site of the vibrant semiotics class in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.) Lerner studied at Brown, too--it's one of the reasons for the doppelganger claim, though Ben Marcus, another Brown graduate (and, like Shields, a bald one), is a stronger candidate. Marcus's essay "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It" was filleted in Shields's collage of quotations, Reality Hunger, for its claim that the term "realism" should be "conferred only on work . …