Truth and Memory in Speedboat and Sleepless Nights

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side by side series of the cover of Sleepless Nights

“Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages,” begins Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976). These lines signal that we are not about to read a typical novel; instead of the inciting event of a conventional plot, we have the opposite—the assertion that nothing much has happened. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, published three years later, adopts a similar tone, commencing in a moment of stasis: “It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today.” Speedboat and Sleepless Nights, both reissued a few years ago by New York Review of Books, are now seen as classics of a particular kind of 1970s experimentalism, one that eschews plot and character development in favor of a fractured narrative style, a collage of short segments of anecdotes, aphorisms, observations, and brief personal disclosures. These fragments are connected in each case by the assured voice of a first-person narrator who just happens to share many biographical details with their authors. By foregoing the conventions of plot and, at least superficially, fictional artifice itself, both novels push at the boundaries of the novel as genre.

With their self-aware, first-person narrators, both books now read like prototypical examples of autofiction. Coined by the French writer Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 in relation to his novel Fils, and originally closely associated with the nouveau roman, the term has become common parlance in English when discussing contemporary works by writers such as Ben Lerner, Edward St. Aubyn, and, in translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Feminist critics have long voiced unease about the commercial and critical success of some works of autofiction—particularly Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle—in as much as this technique has been hailed as groundbreaking despite the fact that its antecedents can easily be found in the work of earlier women writers, of whom Adler and Hardwick are key examples. In terms of narrative voice, with both narrators hollowing out the space where we might usually expect to find their own interiority, instead allowing others’ voices and experiences to speak for them—and in a marked coolness of tone—Sleepless Nights and Speedboat perhaps most resemble Rachel Cusk’s recent Outline trilogy. Yet both Adler and Hardwick are more formally experimental than writers like Lerner or Knausgaard or even Cusk, pushing the fragmented narrative style to its limits.

The narrator of Adler’s Speedboat is Jen Fain, whose surname, punning on “feign,” draws attention to its own artificiality. Like Adler, Jen’s parents fled Germany before World War II. Also like Adler, who worked for several years as a reporter for the New Yorker, Jen is a journalist who has traveled widely and reported from places such as Vietnam, Biafra, and Mississippi. The novel is deeply enmeshed in the political and cultural climate of the 1970s: in Watergate, Patty Hearst, and Civil Rights. Anecdotes from the reporting life rub up against scenes of drunken literary parties in New York City, memories of dorm life at an all-girls college (Adler herself attended Bryn Mawr), and tales of eccentric neighbors. Often, a section seems to stop before it reaches its punch line; other times the cool irony of the observation sinks in slowly, at a delay. One such section reads in its entirety: “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.” These short fragments juxtaposed against one another create a kind of narrative motion sickness for the reader, a sense of the dizzying aspects of modern urban life, and in this sense, Speedboat is a work that tries to capture the feeling of actually being alive at a particular moment in time by inducing in its readers the same confusion and moral nausea that is felt by its protagonist.

Jen Fain searches for connections between these shards of experience, positing one possibility only to undermine it in the next moment. It’s easy to pull single quotations from Speedboat that read like aphorisms; “There are times when every act, no matter how private or unconscious, becomes political,” is one such oft-quoted line that loses some of its power when put back into context:

There are times when every act, no matter how private or unconscious, becomes political. Whom you live with, how you wear your hair, whether you marry, whether you insist that your child should take piano lessons, what are the brand names on your shelf; all these become political decisions. At other times, no act—no campaign or tract, statement or rampage—has any political charge at all. People with the least sense of which times are, and which are not, political are usually most avid about politics. At six one morning, Will went out in jeans and frayed sweater to buy a quart of milk. A tourist bus went by. The megaphone was directed at him. ‘There’s one,’ it said. That was in the 1960’s. Ever since, he’s wondered. There’s one what?

Adler is not so much interested in taking any political side as she is in trying to capture the particular strangeness of being alive in the world at this particular moment in time. This is the note that so often cuts through the narrator’s apparent coolness: “What is the point,” Jen writes—and it’s a statement, not a question. “When I wonder what it is we are doing—in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper—the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.” Speedboat’s tension arises not from any external plot but from the feeling of a narrator desperate to find meaning in the seemingly absurd.

Traditionally we would expect to see growth in the protagonist over the course of a novel, but Jen seems to change little. As an unattached adult woman focused on her career, she represents a possible feminist ideal, yet her life appears disordered and chaotic. She dates Will, then Aldo, then Jim. She drinks a lot sometimes and takes Valium on airplane flights. By her own account, she is a journalist who is not very good at asking questions, though the whole novel is essentially leading up to a single question. In its final pages, Jen reveals that she is pregnant with Jim’s child: will she keep it or not? Is such a world, with its violence and its absurdities, worth bringing a child into, a child whom she refers to as “this hostage”? Not surprisingly perhaps, we don’t get to know Jen’s final decision. The most that Speedboat’s narrator can offer us by way of hope is the observation that it’s not so bad here, once you get used to it: “All the same, I think there’s something to be said for assuring the next that the water’s fine—quite warm actually—once you get into it.”

Like Adler, Hardwick was a prolific nonfiction writer who applied some of the techniques conventionally associated with memoir and reportage to the novel. At the time that Sleepless Nights was published, Hardwick was a successful critic and also well known in literary circles as the second wife of the late poet Robert Lowell. The marriage ended in divorce in the early seventies when Lowell left Hardwick and their daughter Harriet for another woman. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick gives her narrator her own first name, inviting a clear identification between author and character. Like Hardwick, Elizabeth grew up in Kentucky and has lived in New York, Boston, and Amsterdam. Given the many similarities between Hardwick’s life and her narrator, readers might well have expected to find in Sleepless Nights a replay of the dramatic events surrounding the break-up of her marriage. Yet “the Mister” appears only in passing in Sleepless Nights, through the eyes of the cleaning woman, with his “Appalling disarray of trouser and jacket and feet stuffed into stretched socks.” Elsewhere, the narrator notes that she is “no longer a we.” As Eimear MacBride writes in the Guardian, “when read in the light of such intimate betrayal, Sleepless Nights’ unwillingness to engage in any score settling or setting straight of the record is nothing short of remarkable and, for hungry wound-hunters, doubtless a disappointment.”

While Elizabeth takes little interest in her ex-husband, Sleepless Nights consists largely of character sketches, with memories of one friend or acquaintance leading to another such memory through a web of clear association. In one chapter, Elizabeth recalls her early years in New York living with her friend J., which leads to a luminous sketch of Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Another chapter is devoted to remembering several of her cleaning women, with whom she kept in touch over the course of many years. This associative train of memory causes the book to read convincingly like the thoughts a person might have while trying to fall asleep, one reminiscence spinning off into another.

Sleepless Nights has a more intimate quality than Speedboat and also tends to pause longer, giving us more fully developed characters. Elizabeth may say little about her own marriage, but she is deeply interested in the “intimate betrayals” that occur in the lives of others. One chapter recalls her years living in Amsterdam and becomes an extended sketch of the relationship between Dr. Z; his wife, Madame Z.; and Simone, a younger artist. Dr. Z, we learn, was “half-Jewish and had spent time in a labor camp in Germany.” He became well-known in Holland for his many romantic adventures. “History assaults you and if you live you are restored to the world of gossip,” the narrator wryly notes. When a depressed Simone breaks off her relationship with Dr. Z, not only he but his wife and the nurse with whom he is also involved are “affronted” by her selfishness. Years later, Elizabeth meets Dr. and Madame Z. for a drink in New York City. Simone, at this point, died years before, and the couple, now elderly, spend their time complaining about America while Madame Z. drinks too much and must be escorted back to her room by her husband. The section ends on the ironic observation that Madame Z., who grew up in Paris and has always complained about her life in Holland, when glimpsed from afar in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, has “at last become Dutch.” The narrator offers no judgment of the characters aside from this rather fond, compassionate portrait of them. It’s this generous portrayal of people that separates Sleepless Nights from Speedboat. While Adler’s narrator interrogates her own text, desperate to find the meaning in it, Hardwick’s narrator does not seem to seek a meaning beyond the comfort of close observation, reminiscences rendered into art: “The torment of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the disguise, and in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs.” For Hardwick, the act of writing is its own kind of answer, the act of shaping experience into a coherent whole its own reward.

At the very end of Sleepless Nights, Hardwick does seem to address the notoriety of her life off the page: “Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.” Here, Hardwick herself takes up some of the debate surrounding the relationship between life, art, and truth. If Hardwick’s narrator finds “fact” to be a hindrance to “memory,” she apparently dispenses with the smaller facts in favor of the greater “truth” of memory. Memory, after all, is not simply a reliable recording of the facts. If asked to retell the same memory over a period of years, most of us will tell the same events differently, emphasizing one aspect of our experience while forgetting or minimizing another. Memory is distinct from truth in that it serves the need of the rememberer at a particular moment in time, and thus is always a subjective process.

Both Speedboat and Sleepless Nights mine their author’s experience in order to present a kind of fictional truth that is separate from the mere external facts of their lives, even as they borrow and reincorporate some of those facts. The tricky thing about autofiction is that even as it dispenses with the contrived machinery of plot and made-up characters, it usually does so only to build another kind of artifice in its place—in this case, the illusion that these carefully curated fragments are somehow more “real” or life-like than a made-up plot. In the end, even in their formal experimentalism, Speedboat and Sleepless Nights are both carefully crafted works of fiction whose art is inextricably linked to their artifice.