Speedboat by Renata Adler

FA review tag

I heard that Speedboat by Renata Adler was amazing, but I didn’t hear why. People talked about its schematics—quick, disconnected passages, neither fictional nor factual, koans ripped from the headlines, memories of dubious origin. Do you know Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau? It’s the inverse of that—many random stories, one unifying voice. Okay, but what’s it about?

Then David Shields adopted it, like Madonna flying to Malawi to save a refugee child. He said, “I yield to no one in my admiration of Renata Adler’s first novel, Speedboat: It is, I think, one of the most original and formally exciting American novels published in the past 25 years.” Which, for me, was like coveting an outfit in a store window, and then watching in horror as David Shields wore it first in Salon.

Adler wrote Speedboat in the 1970s, when she was a critic for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Using autobiography, invention, and war stories from her long career in journalism, she tries to get at the absurdity and inscrutability of modern life. Speedboat is full of personality and personalities, a clown car of memorable neurotics and creative types, all captured in what Guy Trebay, in an afterword to the New York Review Books edition, correctly calls “sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant.” Like this one.

Matthew, the man I had arrived with, was drinking brandies. I was drinking gin. Suddenly, my zabaglione vanished, cream, cup, strawberry, and all. I had a distinct, an eidetic memory of seeing it there before me. It was gone. I looked for it. Matt looked for it. It was nowhere. Somebody’s handbag was on the floor beside my chair. I felt that a whole zabaglione could not have fallen, tidily, into a stranger’s handbag. I couldn’t search in a stranger’s handbag, anyway. We stopped thinking about it. Matthew said that he had been very fat as a small boy. He read a lot. He ate. When he noticed how alarmed his parents were at how fat he was, he obediently laid his chocolate bars aside. Then, his parents were called to the school. It was a friendly, permissive, finger-painting sort of place. There was a huge papier-mâché policeman in the hall. The policeman’s knee had begun to erode. Matthew had been eating papier-mâché. He denied it at the time. He is quite slim now.

So Matthew ate the zabaglione. It is typical of Adler that she not only refuses to spell this out, but she gives no hint, halfway through the story, as to why she has apparently switched topics. Also typical are the exacting, almost natty prose, and the explicit self-doubt in her voice. This story is probably funnier if you know that in French papier-mâché means “chewed paper.”

Adler’s subjects (“subjects” feels like a better word than “characters”) are like her—tentative in their actions, forceful in their observations.

She apologized to one egg for having boiled it, to another for not having selected it to boil. Since it was impossible to know with much precision whether an egg prefers to be boiled or not to, she was always in a state of indecision, followed, as soon as she had taken any action, by extreme remorse. Since this is not far from the predicament of most people with any sensitivity or conscience, she passed for normal.

As with every “rediscovered” writer these days, Adler is said to have prefigured the age of Twitter and texting. Her brand of wit is bite-sized and incisive. Shields thinks she toes a line between fiction and non-fiction. But what she really does is flood the airwaves, broadcasting fact and fiction up and down the dial, jamming our frequencies. Trebay says the apparently random organization of Speedboat is, in fact, “deeply patterned,” but he doesn’t say what those patterns are. One section returns, intermittently, to the unsolved murder of a landlord. Another touches upon the bureaucratic lunacy of a college faculty. I don’t see these as deep patterns. It’s just Adler refusing to be anything—refusing, even, to be strictly random.

The thing is, I recognize every literary style at once, and I detest them all.

Speedboat feels influential. You worry for all the writers who will try, unsuccessfully, to mimic Adler’s pinpoint intelligence and just-the-facts tone. Because it’s rock candy—sugary and hard to crack. Like the story that begins, “When Dan rode his bicycle over a cliff, we all behaved in characteristic ways.” Speedboat is full of these diamond-bright scenes that leave you blinkered.

But Adler quarreled with everyone, so I will quarrel with her. Why does every story end in a punchline? Not a punchline, exactly, but a twist, a nudge, a careful anti-punchline. She uses line breaks as if they were rimshots. “…He is quite slim now.” Ba-dum ksssh! “…She passed for normal.” Ba-dum ksssh! Adler is always toward these anti-punchlines as if she’s afraid we’ll outfox her and get there first. That’s not a novel—it’s competitive witticism. And the author is the only person who gets to play.

With her comic distance and protestations of objectivity, Adler is seeking a kind of ignorance. She wants to tell a story and then excuse herself from having to know why it was told. She is waiting for her stories to tell her why they belong in the book. This is the stroke of genius that animates everything in Speedboat. In a telling passage, she describes the great theme of her work as the search for “the point.”

What is the point. That is what must be borne in mind. […] Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an intimation, a thing said or unsaid. […] The point changes and goes out.

Adler calls Speedboat a novel. I suppose it’s a novel for the same reason that Duchamp’s urinal is art—because we say it is, and because it’s more interesting to think of it that way. But I would call Speedboat a narrative sensibility without a story. Ever the reporter, Adler gathers evidence of a certain slice of society, a certain lifestyle of the mind, and refuses to bias our conclusions. Perhaps that is the point.

The truth, I would like to say here, is as follows. But I can’t.

Can I get a rimshot?

– Brian Hurley


  1. “Which, for me, was like [working on a book about J.D. Salinger], and then watching in horror as David Shields [announces that he is co-authoring a book about J.D. Salinger].”

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