Reactionary Language and Characterization in Speedboat
In Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat, dynamic syntax is juxtaposed with images of violence to create an urgent, or anxious, tone in the narration. The narrator, Jen Fain, reveals details about her life through short bursts of anecdotal information rather than through a chronological plot—often leaving the reader guessing about who the narrator really is in the diegesis of the story. Jen’s tone is affected by her profession as a reporter, as she rarely refers to herself directly in the text, speaks in mostly objective facts, and keeps her narration concise. As a result, this draws attention to passages in the text that do not follow her typical narration style, such as when she is reacting to the thought of a twenty-four-hour curfew. The experimental style in this moment—the dynamic syntax, abstract imagery, and repetition—allows Adler characterizes her narrator through her manipulation of language rather than through concrete descriptions.
There is a rhythm to this passage that departs from the fact-based, reporter-like tone that is emblematic of the text, as seen in the references to herself and the repetition. This stylistic shift indicates that she is entering a narration style similar to that of a stream-of-consciousness, which makes clear her various internalized fears and anxieties: In the South, in simpler days, I remember a middle-aged gentle black worker speaking to his son who had insomnia. “When you can’t sleep,” he said, “just tell yourself the story of your life.” Now sometimes when I can’t sleep, I wonder. A twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let’s just have it a little quiet around here. (Adler 51)Beginning with a reference to insomnia—a condition which can be stress-induced—this passage shows Jen musing about how society should handle the issues brought up by all-day curfews. This thought is triggered by her memory of hearing a man giving his son advice about insomnia, which suggests that Jen considers a twenty-four-hour curfew to be “the story of [her] life.” She is reacting negatively to the idea of being surveilled and controlled by “a twenty-four-hour curfew every day, for everybody,” as shown by the fact that her thoughts immediately turn to destruction. Her intense discomfort with her own lack of control in the situation is conveyed through her suggestion that “we blow up the whole thing” rather than continue to live under regulation. Furthermore, the shift from the first-person singular pronoun in “I wonder” to the first-person plural in “we blow up” underscores a loneliness in her character; in moments when she cannot sleep, she is alone with her thoughts rather than engaging in a discussion with someone else. The fluctuating implications of “everybody,” which means “each person present on a particular occasion, or included in a specified group,” functions in a similar way (“everybody, n.”) It is likely that the first use of “everybody” is referencing only the group of people being surveilled by the curfew, since those that enforce the curfew are placed in a different position of power. This group included in “everybody” is redefined upon a second usage of the word, as it follows the all-inclusive “everything.” When preceded by “everything” and followed by “no room,” the word “everybody” takes on a larger group of people; this time, referring to every person who is living in buildings in the city, taking up room. The first use of the word distances Jen from others, the enforcers in power, while the second use joins both groups together creating a similar effect to that of “I” and “we.” This awareness of her own isolation can also be related to her anxiety, as seen in her desire to join a group (of “everybody” affected by the curfew, and “everybody” killed in the blast) in order to dismantle the power which is causing her distress instantaneously.
The most urgent section of the passage, though, hinges entirely on her perception of herself rather than that of others. Directly following her proposition that “the whole thing” be blown up comes a list of clipped sentence fragments, describing the moments leading up to and the consequences of the explosion she imagines. She deals with her high level of anxiety first by reminiscing about a “simpler” time in her life, and then by following the advice which a parental figure gave to his child—and, by extension, to her. Her thoughts are rapidly shifting from subject to subject, alluding to an internal tension as she analyzes what would happen as a result of her suggestion. The short, assertive sentences parallel the blasts of an explosion that she references, another way in which her pent-up anxiety is revealed through her language. At first, she is describing the state of her life; she is feeling claustrophobic and anxious about her position (“me”) in relation to the rest of her world (“everything” and “everybody.”) Because there is a constant curfew, everyone must stay in “buildings,” leaving them with “no room” to live comfortably. Jen’s level of stress becomes unbearable when she finally does come to this realization that there is “no room” left, resulting in the “blast,” or “severe and violent outburst,” in her thoughts (“blast, n.”) The way she describes the aftermath of the explosion—the release, from the curfew, from her loneliness, and from her own anxiety—is far shorter than the build-up, with only two sentences: “All dead. No survivors.” It is only after this violent outburst of tension, in which everyone and everything is destroyed, that she experiences a moment of relief. In addition, the language used in this section is absolute; she emphasizes the all-encompassing emptiness left by the explosion by essentially repeating the same idea twice, since “all dead” already implies that there are “no survivors.” The release she experiences upon imagining an absence of all people is indicated by yet another shift in language, as she repeats “and then I would say” twice, creating a conversational tone.
The fantasy which Jen constructs contrasts with the reality in which she lives because she reverses the positions of power. While in reality she is anxious about her lack of control as a result of the enforcement of a curfew, in her imagination she gets the final word—she decides when it is time to “have it a little quiet.” The phrasing of her final statement highlights her desire for her voice to be central and valuable; not only is it the longest sentence in the passage, but it is also the most complex. The conclusion to her speculation is heavily emphasized by the repetition, as well as by the lack of quotation marks around a clause that is meant to be dialogue—implying that she is never able to say this phrase out loud, in reality. It is for this reason, her mental transfer of power is necessary; since she is not able to change her circumstances outwardly, she must engage in an internal dialogue in order to confront her discomfort with the curfews.
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In Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat, dynamic syntax is juxtaposed with images of violence to create an urgent, or anxious, tone in the narration. The narrator, Jen Fain, reveals details about […]