Renata Adler is an American author, journalist and critic – she worked for The New Yorker for over four decades. Her first novel, Speedboat, published in 1976 won the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel.
The notes on the back of my NYRB Classics edition state that when Speedboat arrived in the mid-seventies, it was ‘like nothing readers had ever encountered before.’ Speedboat doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. What we have here is a series of fragments from the life of an American investigative journalist, Jen Fain, seen through the eyes of this woman as she is our narrator, our guide through this fascinating work.
Episodic in style and form, Speedboat presents a collection of Jen’s reflections, observations and vignettes from a variety of stages in her life ranging from her days at boarding school and college, her time as an investigative journalist, as a speech writer for a political candidate and more. We encounter the inhabitants of Jen’s brownstone in New York, friends and acquaintances, taxi drivers, and some of the subjects of her journalistic dispatches from around the world. Jen’s lovers and partners also feature, but these characters appear to be on the periphery of her story, coming and going into the frame from time to time.
Timelines move backwards and forwards giving the novel a sense of elasticity and fluidity as we flit from one situation to the next, from one topic to another. One of the pleasures of reading Speedboat stems from not knowing where it is going to take us and whether we will return subsequently to the same period in this woman’s life or move on indefinitely. In this example, Jen touches on her days as a student in Paris – It’s a brief stopover, and we don’t know if we’ll hear more at a later stage:
One night, in Paris, during the last days of the Algerian crisis, I was studying in a common room at the Cité Universitaire—where I used to live and where four apparently interchangeable Americans incessantly played bridge. A bomb went off. The explosion was enormous. Windows smashed. Doors fractured. The reception desk blew up. The lights went out. The first words after the thunder and reverberations in the darkness were an imperturbable, incredulous, “Two hearts.” (pgs. 30-31)
Adler’s slices of prose vary in length—anything from a sentence or two to a couple of pages. And they vary in tone, too—some are underscored with laconic wry humour, others convey a darker mood. Several fragments are keenly observed:
The wallflower sat reading in the Paris restaurant. There used to be so many categories of wallflower: the anxious, smiling, tense ones who leaned forward, trying; the important, busy, apparently elsewhere preoccupied ones, who were nonetheless waiting, waiting in the carpeted offices of their inattention, to be found. There were wallflowers who clustered noisily together, and others who worked a territory, resolute and alone. And then, there were wallflowers who had recognised for years that the thing was hopeless, who had found in that information a kind of calm. They no longer tried, with a bright and desperate effort, to sustain a conversation with somebody’s brother, somebody’s usher, somebody’s roommate, somebody’s roommate’s usher’s brother, or, worst of all, with that male wallflower who ought—by God who ought—to be an ally, who could, in dignity and the common interest, join forces to make it through an evening, but who, after all, had higher aspirations, and neither the sense nor the courtesy to conceal it, who in short, scorned the partner fate and the placement had dealt him, worst of all. The category of wallflower who had given up on all this was very quiet, not indifferent, only quiet. And she always brought a book. (pg. 151)
Adler is especially good on the use of language: the implied meaning behind particular words in newspaper reports and reviews; the unintended impact of certain phrases in our conversations:
It certainly does not do to have too low a threshold for being insulted. Even the affectionate insult, or the compliment with any sort of spin on it, can reverberate in memory in awful ways. “I love your little fat legs,” Paul said to Joanne. He had watched her walking toward him on the beach. He was so in love with her that, although he meant it, he may not even have heard what he said, exactly. She never forgave him. She slept with him for another year and then married his enemy and rival, the only man Paul had ever hated in the world. “You have beautiful eyes and lovely hands,” Leroy said to Jane, “and when you smile, to me you’re beautiful.” She never forgave him, either. She married him. Their life together was hell for fifty years. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re lovely?” is, of necessity, a minefield. There is no conceivable proper answer. It all ends in disaster anyway. (pg. 130)
At first there appears to be no clear connection from one episode to the next. But as the novel progresses, we begin to build a collage of a life refracted through the lens of a disaffected America in the mid-seventies. The fragmentary form of the novel on its own could imply a feeling of dissonance and unrest. And perhaps more significantly, many of Adler’s vignettes are underscored (or signed off) with a weariness, an uncertainty, a sense of fear, even, that seems indicative of this period in American politics and culture:
When I wonder what it is that we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives (pg. 68)
Jim works for the candidate just about full time now. I’m surprised that I hate it, but I do. For a time, our people used to mill about saying “The system works. The system works” –the way kids used to run off the field shouting “We won. We won. We won,” when the game had been called on account of rain, or darkness, or because somebody had decided to take his baseball home. I am sure it does work, or I hope it does, and I used to think it did; but I was glad when we could all stop saying that. (pg. 148)
People seem to be unhappy in so many different ways. (pg 145)
Speedboat is a revelation; broad in scope, intimate in detail. Adler brings a deep intelligence to this work, and the quality of her writing is top notch. It’s a book to savour, one I’d love to revisit in the future.
I can’t recommend Speedboat highly enough, although it might not be to your taste if you like plot-driven narratives and novels that follow fairly conventional principles. If you’re in the mood for something different, however, something that seems way ahead of its time in terms of pushing the boundaries of the novel form, then Speedboat could be for you.
Speedboat is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.