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-1970s. 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 read slowly and reflect on – maybe one to revisit at some point 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.
Sounds like an excellent book. I’d worry with the shifting back and forth in time it would become disorientating, but sounds like one of those books you’re happy to just go with and enjoy where it takes you.
Exactly, Eric. It is a bit disorientating at first but once I grasped the episodic nature of the book I just went with it. I can see how the shifting timelines might be frustrating for some, though..
The NYRB list is such an interesting one. I like the sound of the Adler very much – sounds like a book that you read for the joy of the writing.
I don’t know who curates the NYRB Classics list, but they’ve got great taste and a knack for picking interesting stuff. I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of their books. Yes, I was just happy to go along and enjoy the ride – I love the way Adler writes.
I’ve seen mention of this, but not such an excellent review as yours – this book does sound very appealing!
Thank you! I’m glad you like the sound of Speedboat as it is quite unusual and distinctive.
I’m glad you reviewed this. As you know I’m a NYRB fan but hesitated on this one due to its style. Thanks to the preview feature on Amazon, I was able to read a bit of it and I wasn’t sure I’d like it at all. I’m still not sure to be honest. I’ll have to re-read the quotes and the review again, and chew it over.
Thanks, Guy. If you’ve read a few sections and were unsure about the style, I’d say it might be worth holding off on it for a while. The closest comparison to Adler I can think of (based on books I’ve recently read) is Valeria Luiselli. Speedboat is probably closest in style to Sidewalks (Luiselli’s essay’s), but I think you have one of her books – Faces in the Crowd? Perhaps read that one first and see how you find it?
Yes I have Faces in the Crowd. I think Pitch Black sounds appealing. I think I’ll start there.
I tend to like books written in unconventional ways if only for the fact that they are a change from what we read so much of. When the unconventional style really works then I really like the book.
I love the passages that you quoted. The one about the hurtful comment, relationships and marriage was particularly striking and a little disquieting.
That’s a great point about books with an unconventional style, Brian. The style did work for me; once I’d got my head around the episodic nature and timeline shifts (which became clear at a fairly early stage) I was very happy to go along and enjoy Adler’s writing.
Thank you – the ‘hurtful comment’ passage (along with the ‘wallflower’ one) really stood out for me.
Must get to read this at some point wonderful review nyrb have yet again reissued a writer that needed attention
Thanks, Stu. I agree with you there – the NYRB team does a great job with reissues of this nature. I think you’d like Renata Adler as Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks is somewhat reminiscent of Speedboat.
I must admit I was a bit disappointed with Speedboat – though I think that was partly because various comments had led me to expect something earth-shatteringly original and that’s not quite how I found it. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I should perhaps take another look at it!
Oh, that’s interesting, Grant! I don’t think it would be seen as particularly original if it came out now, but perhaps it was more atypical at the time of its release? I really liked it, but can see why it might not click with everyone…and it would be a very boring world if we all liked the same books.
I was happy to see NYRB re-release Speedboat and Adler’s other novel, Pitch Dark, as I read both many years ago and remember liking them a lot, especially Speedboat. But I must be getting old; I can remember almost no specifics of the book, even after reading your post. Sounds like it’s time for a re-read.
I wonder if that’s a function of the fragmentary nature of the book, (along with the shifting timelines)? I can envisage the details slipping from my mind in the months ahead…I loved Adler’s prose, though – one of those writers you’re happy to follow and go wherever they take you.
Like Guy I’m glad you reviewed this, really glad actually. I’ve picked it up several times but had no feel for it, hadn’t seen a review of it from anyone I trusted. It sounds absolutely up my street and really interesting. A must read actually.
My only hesitation is that I tend to prefer to get books on kindle, but that is such a nice cover. Still, a moment in the hands, a lifetime on the shelves to paraphrase (and that lifetime on the shelves is a large part of why I tend to prefer digital, but I digress).
Digress away, Max, digress away…The cover is very attractive, and I find it hard to resist the NYRB Classics when they’re as beautifully produced as this one.
Loved Speedboat, everything about it. I thought it might be a book for dipping into from time to time, but once I started reading, it became hard not to consume great chunks in a single sitting. I don’t think I’ve seen any other reviews of Speedboat, but I know Ian Curtin rates it pretty highly – I think you follow Ian on twitter?
I do follow him on twitter, don’t think I knew he was a fan though. Anyway, definitely one to try to get to this year.
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I just finished reading After the tall timber, a collection of Adler’s nonfiction also from NYRB — which I couldn’t put down. Apart from the superb prose, so many impt lessons about looking harder, asking the right questions, digging where most observers don’t think to dig… I saw that she had also written two works of fiction but was unsure if it might be one of those cases where a writer excels at nonfiction and disappoints when she tries her hand at fiction. I will definitely read Speedboat now thanks to you. So pleased to have come across this!
Oh, excellent! I’ll have to add her non-fiction to my list – thank you for the recommendation. I think you’ll find some of that same digging in Speedboat – her style is very insightful and reflective. In some ways, Speedboat almost reads like non-fiction, a series of vignettes and snapshots that come together to build a broader picture. I very much hope you enjoy it.
Your review captures the tone & method of the novel perfectly. It’s a couple of years now since I read it but your quotations bring it back: as you say, a broad scope with intimate detail.
Thanks, Simon. I just left a comment over at yours – I enjoyed reading your take on it. She’s an interesting writer. I liked her combination of breadth of vision and intimacy in detail.
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I missed this when you first posted it. So pleased to have caught up now. Thanks for this post. You make it sound irresistible. Caroline
You’re very welcome. It’s quite a difficult book to describe in some respects. In terms of structure and style, the closest comparison I can think of is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, also published by NYRB.
You’re so right about that weariness of tone Jacqui, and yet it doesn’t drag the reader down somehow, perhaps because Adler is so witty. Great review as always, I’m glad I had the chance to catch up with it!
Ah, thanks for dropping by, very kind. Your review brought this book back to me and reminded me of the fluidity of Adler’s prose. It all seems so effortless when you read it on the page, and yet that cool style almost certainly belies the sheer effort that must have gone on behind the scenes to make everything flow so smoothly. A wonderful book.