Speedboat by Renata Adler. NYRB Classics. 192pp, $14.00.
1. “Too many people have access to your state of mind.“
A completely arbitrary way to structure a book review, yes, but then we’re dealing here with a collage novel, one that I won’t insult by calling its structure “random” but which is nevertheless propelled more by the narrator’s fleeting sensations and thematic juxtapositions than by any real plot. And so in that spirit, these ten sentences: they provoked, caused me to pause, made me reread. And often enough, made me feel so embedded in Renata Adler’s state of mind that I became convinced she had access to mine.
2. “But now I know it’s an agony of trying to please, a cast of mind so deep and amiable that it is as stark in consciousness as death.”
The bulk of Renata Adler’s considerable written output over the last fifty years has been media criticism and journalism of one kind or another, and even her two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, often read like reportage. Filled with minor but telling details and told in a quietly declarative voice, Speedboat in particular feels as if a reporter snuck out of her newsroom and spent a few hours inhaling Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror while deliberating whether or not to take her antidepressants. There is a sense of freedom and play inside Speedboat that makes it one of the most readable experimental novels I’ve ever come across. It’s effortless, even though it’s horribly anxious and genuinely abstract.
The sentence above, for example, is how narrator Jen Fein describes the tragic victims she encounters as a beat newspaperwoman. People whose houses have flooded or whose relatives have been murdered, and who now have to address the media and explain the experience in a couple quotable phrases. Fein shows up, bothers them, then leaves. Like most of the countless mini-sections that comprise Speedboat, this scene is presented as a parable for the emotional temperature of New York City in the early ‘70s.
Little story-scraps—some only a paragraph, others as long as four or five pages—pop up like cue cards or items in a notebook, with no exposition to speak of. But Adler is so observant and her book so finely detailed that it embodies the whole soul and essence of its time. I get the same feeling watching Altman’s movies of the decade. They all share a sense of large-scale simmering chaos that defined much American art in the ‘70s. A communal spirit, coupled with a soft satirical edge, can be felt in everything from Charles Mingus’s Let My Children Hear Music to A Chorus Line. Likewise, the characters in Humboldt’s Gift, Ragtime or J R are all overwhelmed schemers in the middle of a cyclone.
The pop music of the time was similarly bustling. The Rolling Thunder Revue, The E Street Band, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Concert for Bangladesh, and that’s not even counting the black artists: Isaac Hayes’ orchestra, Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Miles Davis’ massive jungles, Chic’s jet airliner. In all cases: big swarms of good-minded, earnest people creating a complex racket. Speedboat is filtered through one particularly articulate consciousness, but even that one perspective is shattered into hundreds of tiny shards, rendered as a multitude.
3. “None of us is, however, at all one of those stencil bohemians who live in the Village, cultivate for their public lives something leftish and for their private lives a guru or an analyst, who are likely to be by birth and accent New York, and who are likely at parties to have somewhere in the room a stereo; elsewhere a baby, pale and whimpering, until its mother, having until last week breast-fed it at just such parties as this one, mashes a little Phenobarbital into its bottle and around its pacifier; elsewhere still one large Cuban or Jamaican, who is cooking something difficult, which includes rice and bananas and which, since it is very late and is the only supper, makes it certain that everyone will be joylessly, sickly drunk all evening on the Gallo wine and sangria in paper cups.”
Being a New Yorker lifer, Adler’s commas devour all. But she’s also beautifully adventurous with her prose, and a considerable deadpan comic. This is Fein at rest, observing fellow partygoers. She’s endlessly cataloguing and looking to sum up every story in her lede.
Speedboat is a torrent of details, almost all of them superficial. There are clues to Adler’s method sprinkled throughout, little tips of the hat that signal her ultimate artistic aim:
4. “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray.”
There’s a hint here as to why this book, published in 1976, is currently having a moment in 2013. Blurbed or endorsed by a raft of contemporary writers and rescued from out-of-print oblivion by popular demand, Speedboat fits within the current vogue for therapeutic reading and recovery literature. Even TV comedies are now regularly praised for their depiction of the “horrifying loneliness” of human existence, and certainly Jen Fein’s detached yet oversensitive mindset can be seen rippling through our modern literature, from Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest to Adam Gordon in Leaving the Atocha Station.
Adler and her narrator largely remain calm amid the din. But they feel both adrift and “truly stuck,” lousy with ennui. They also, because of their discomfort with crowds, spend a huge amount of time obsessing over group behavior.
5. “The students wanted to strike on behalf of the local people of Santa Cruz—who loathed them.”
Is Speedboat satire? Again, I think the best analogy is Altman, who satirizes whatever he sees yet whose very insistent interest in social activity belies his ultimate embrace of human silliness. Adler is not embittered so much as bemused. Fein is never presented as a hero or a voice of reason, she’s merely one character in an ocean of them, as unknowable and harried as the characters in her micro-stories.
The closest we come to a biography is in a passing description of a relative:
6. “My cousin, whom I have always admired—for his leap-year birthday, for his pilot’s license, for his presence of mind—said that he would certainly examine the cobra in the morning but that the best thing for it after its long journey must be a good night’s rest.”
Time-capsule sociological qualities aside, Speedboat is, on a purely stylistic level, virtuosity incarnate. I went back over this sentence multiple times just to savor the way it proceeds by its own strange logic, ending in a completely different place from where it began. By the third or fourth time through I realized that the middle, dash-ensconced clause guides us through a lifelong relationship in only three images. A leap-year birthday: the kind of thing that impresses a child. A pilot’s license: a source of awe for a pre-adult. Presence of mind: the goal of every thinking grown-up. The density of Adler’s prose is a wonder. Speedboat is only 160 pages but it feels loaded with trap doors and hidden tunnels.
7. “And then, at speed, the boat, at its own angle to the sea, began to hit each wave with flat, hard, jarring thuds, like the heel of a hand against a tabletop. As it slammed along, the Italians sat, ever more low and loose, on their hard seats, while the American lady, in her eagerness, began to bounce with anticipation over every little wave.”
Like this one-page story about an unnamed “young American wife from Malibu,” cruising around the Mediterranean in an unnamed tycoon’s speedboat. Obviously this anecdote must have special thematic importance, bearing as it does the sole mention of the novel’s namesake vessel. I’ve cheated and pulled two sentences just to give it its due.
Right after that vivid “heel of a hand” description, the lady breaks her back. She doesn’t die, but that’s the only further information that Jen Fein gives us. Instead the whole accident reminds her of an offhand remark by an old friend: “How too like life.”
So why “Speedboat”? Is it because Adler perceives her compatriots as being recklessly in thrall to leisure and cheap thrills? Is it because the stop-start structure of her book is meant to mirror those jarring thuds? Or is it because Fein’s response to this story reflects our own engagement with the novel? We draw whatever conclusions we wish, call forth whatever associations we may. Every reminiscence or fiction is, in the end, all too like life.
8. “Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together.”
Even people aimlessly drinking. Especially people aimlessly drinking.
9. “‘Ah, jobs, jobs in the ghetto,’ said the tenured pedant on the investigating committee that, yearly, covers up corruption in our branch of the city university.”
So yes, I’d say Speedboat is ultimately a satire, though not in the era-specific way that some of its settings or dialogue imply. It’s broader than that—a catalogue of the ways that people interact with each other while still remaining essentially unknowable and foreign. The biggest joke in this very funny novel is that its irrepressibly observant narrator never reaches any understanding of the things she observes. Nor do we, despite a prolonged immersion into her train of thought, ever really get to know her. It’s not that kind of story. This one’s about “not-knowing,” as Donald Barthelme, another quintessential 1970s poet of behavioral chaos, put it.
10. “Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor. Or a piece of country music, a quartet, a parade, the flag—all the things one ought by now to be too old for—touch, whatever it is.”
Apologies: I cheated again. This is the kind of book that makes you overgenerous.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. In addition to writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Slate, and other venues, he’s working on a memoir about becoming a father during college.
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