Smart Women Adrift

Katie Roiphe coined an interesting term in her review of Renata Adler’s Speedboat:

Speedboat belongs to a genre of ’70s women’s fiction, in which a damaged, smart woman floats passively yet stylishly through the world, a genre which includes books like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. In all of these Smart Woman Adrift novels, there is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost. They center around an intelligent but emotionally fragile or keenly sensitive woman without a man, or moving from man to man, a woman, in short, without a stable or conventional family situation, in a state of heightened, nervous awareness.

Having recently read these three books, I’ve been thinking about the analogs and precursors of this type in other genres. In a general sense, the “smart man adrift” is such a common protagonist in fiction that he’s almost an archetype of the contemporary novel — it’s largely because of the underrepresentation of women in literature that this female version stands out so clearly.

But getting a little more specific, and setting aside gender, the most direct precursors to these novels may be two cult favorites from 1939 — Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight (which Roiphe mentions) and John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Each is narrated by a thinly veiled version of the young author, down and out in Paris and Los Angeles, respectively, drifting through life and checking all the boxes above — particularly those “melancholy vignettes”:

Walking in the night with the dark houses over you, like monsters. If you have money and friends, houses are just houses with steps and a front door — — friendly houses where the door opens and somebody meets you, smiling. If you are quite secure and your roots are well struck in, they know. They stand back respectfully, waiting for the poor devil without any friends and without any money. Then they step forward, the waiting houses, to frown and crush. No hospitable doors, no lit windows, just frowning darkness. Frowning and leering and sneering, the houses, one after another. Tall cubes of darkness, with two lighted eyes at the top to sneer. And they know who to frown at.
[Good Morning Midnight]

Maybe it’s because I just went through a long private eye phase, but the women of Roiphe’s trio also remind me of private eyes, or at least the more “psychological” type associated with Ross MacDonald and some of his followers. They fulfill the same basic role: a somewhat damaged observer of a badly damaged society. Cynical, observant, clever and well-spoken; attractive to others but always a little detached from them. These women live the way I imagine a private eye like MacDonald’s Lew Archer would live if he didn’t have any cases to solve — as a journalist, maybe, like Adler, or drifting among unhappy friends and lovers like Didion’s protagonist. When he’s not at work, his narrative voice is not so different from hers:

In the dream that took over my sleeping mind I was due to arrive someplace in a very short time. But when I went out to my car it had no wheels, not even a steering wheel. I sat in it like a snail in a shell and watched the night world go by.
The light coming through the bedroom blind changed from grey to off-white and woke me. I lay and listened to the early traffic. A few birds peeped. At full dawn the jays began to squawk and dive-bomb my window.
I’d forgotten the jays. Their sudden raucous reminder turned me cold under the sheet. I threw it off and got up and put on my clothes.
There was a last can of peanuts in the kitchen cupboard. I scattered the peanuts out the window and watched the jays come swooping into the yard. It was like watching a flashing blue explosion-in-reverse that put the morning world together again.

We might think of the private eye as being the way he is because of the things he has to do, but it’s just as valid to say that he winds up doing that kind of work because there’s not much else that a man like him can do. He doesn’t solve the case through Sherlock’s “observation and deduction” but through a kind of critical empathy, sharpening his picture of each character and their flaws and desires until the whole chain of events begins to seem obvious. As Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher after mixed reviews of The Big Sleep:

I do not want to write depraved books. I was aware that this yarn had some fairly unpleasant citizens in it, but my fiction was learned in a rough school, and I probably didn’t notice them much. I was more intrigued by a situation where the mystery is solved by the exposition and understanding of a single character, always well in evidence, rather than by the slow and sometimes long-winded concatenation of circumstances. That’s a point which may not interest reviewers of first novels, but it interested me very much.

But what do you do with that kind of penetrating insight into the people around you when none of them is a murderer waiting to be exposed, when there’s no constructive purpose for it other than to distance yourself from them? In a way that’s the central question of Speedboat, and it figures heavily in the other two.

There are really two things about Roiphe’s trio that stand out from their predecessors: one is their sharply stylized prose, a different style for each of the three — I don’t like the “experimental” tag because there’s nothing inaccessible about any of them, but there’s no question the writing itself is foregrounded to a greater extent than in my other examples.

The second and more important difference is that all three of these female protagonists, as well as the authors to some extent, were insiders — to the literary world, to Hollywood, to the social set of the cities they lived in. A private eye, by contrast, is always an outsider. So were Rhys, Fante, and the writer/subjects of most of the other romans à clef we might add to the list, like Christopher Isherwood in Berlin or George Orwell in Down & Out. The Smart Women Adrift don’t seem to worry much about money, and they don’t have to worry about being accepted socially. They’re not that concerned with taking care of themselves (maybe not concerned enough) and that’s ultimately what gives them such a detached narrative voice, and the sense of a furiously churning mind without anything really worth focusing on:

My argument with the psychiatrist of Jim’s younger brother, Simon, was as follows: whether the natural gait of the horse is, in fact, the gallop or the trot. I said it was the trot. He said it was the gallop. Or the other way around. The point is that we insisted, all through dinner; we pursued it for a long, long time. It is not an argument that ramifies much. Within the first few seconds one has said all there is to say. There are many such questions, which, once they are stated, are completed. Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s, for example, does not ramify. You have got no further if you go on to Does Saks tell Bendel’s, does Bonwit’s tell Bergdorf’s, does Chanel tell Givenchy, does Woolworth tell Kresge’s, does Penn Station tell Grand Central, does Best’s tell Peck and Peck? You are no longer expounding a proposition. You are having a tantrum. Simon’s psychiatrist and I pursued our tantrum, in duet, all evening long. The horse might have two natural gaits, the Charleston and the entrechat, for all it mattered. I meant, I didn’t like the man and I thought that, within twenty years, his profession would have vanished, leaving no artifacts of any interest except a dazed memory of fifty years of ineffective and remunerative peculation in the work of a single artist, Freud. I also meant I didn’t like his flowered shirt. He meant, I think, he didn’t like me, either.