This interesting and original first novel by an accomplished journalist and film critic is not conventional in form. It has no plot or story as such, though it does, in moving backward and forward in time, come to a kind of indecisive climax. It is not concerned with character development or revelation, though we gradually learn a great deal about the narrator, the only person whom the novel attempts to present in any depth or detail.
The narrator is Jen Fain, a thirty-five-year-old woman journalist who works for a New York tabloid newspaper. She has also worked at a public library and university infirmary, written promotional material for a foundation, and been a film critic and a speechwriter for a political candidate. She has taught classes on film theory and history at the city university.
Since this novel does not tell a story in the conventional sense, Jen Fain is not the average storytelling narrator. True to her occupation, she is a reporter, an observer. One of the arresting things about this fascinating book is that it reads as if written from both a limited and an omniscient viewpoint. This is a sensitive reporter’s notebook, a random collection of conversations and confessions, anecdotes and aphorisms; it is a scrapbook made of fragments from the life and times of a sophisticated, urban American from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Some of these incidents, observations, and philosophical asides are interconnected and some are not, but the general effect is one of discontinuity. Some incidents have definite significance, while others seem to be shaggy-dog stories that, whatever their intention, lead the reader up a blind alley.
Most of the vignettes are from the firsthand experience of their reporter, but they are usually presented in an impersonal, reportorial manner. Thus we learn the aforementioned facts about Jen Fain, as well as other information, by indirection, almost by accident, by means of an extra line or autobiographical aside injected into one of her observations. The observations usually turn out to be witty or sad or satiric or ironic or absurd, or sometimes all of these, despite their straightforward rendition.
With the occasional exception of an intentional satiric gibe, the objective stance of the good reporter is held. The irony and absurdity are inherent in the material itself, and in the author’s skillful use of it. Never do we catch Adler stretching her notes, straining for an effect. The individual incidents are often ludicrous, but always believable—even those that are hard to fit into any general context. The same original, skillful tone that Adler has used to make her report seem both personal and omniscient has also enabled her to write a novel that seems realistic in each of its short sections, and yet, in final effect, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. Perhaps Bruce Jay Friedman was right in answering critics who attempted to categorize him as a black humorist or writer of the absurd by claiming that he was no such thing. Friedman’s contention was that he writes realism, and that if it comes out absurd it is because the times and society in which he lives are often more than a little crazy. Adler confirms Friedman’s point in Speedboat.
Here are some of the other things that we learn about Jen Fain: she was educated at a progressive private school and an Eastern woman’s college, going on to graduate studies in Paris and England, taking special courses in clinical psychology and anthropology in order to understand better the origins and nature of the society in which she lives. She has slept, or is sleeping—as the book flits about among the past two decades with no consistency in time progression—with at least four men: Adam, a graduate student of political science; Aldo, a writer with whom she has been having an off-and-on affair as far back as her graduate school days in England; Will, a lawyer for the foundation for which she writes requests for grants; and, most recently, Jim, the campaign director for the politician for whom she has been writing speeches.
These men are shadowy figures. No sustained attempt is made to give them any presence or personality. They exist only as names, and, as is the case with most of the remaining cast of even less-mentioned minor characters, only as first names. We learn of Jen’s relationships with these men in the usual indirect manner, as she makes notes or records anecdotes about school days, the foundation job, the political campaign. There is no fashionable, explicit sex in the book, just as the novel is not explicit about...
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