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Speedboat (NYRB Classics)
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2010
This strangely wonderful novel isnt for every reader as it has no real plot, no conventionally constructed characters, nothing but an oddly appealing first-person narrator with a quirky sensibility & an intelligent take on a broad range of things. It could be accused of being a messy ragbag of a book, only it's written in punchy short bursts of spare prose, clean & concise even when most off-the-wall, & weighing in at 170 pages, this is a light-heavyweight contender. It was written in the '70s, but it feels contemporary as if it were fresh out of the box. Any of you serious readers of modern prose fiction ought to check this out. Renata Adler is a whip-smart unconventional prose artist.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2011
"Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written - disrupting a cliche' and, presumably, creating a genre." OK, that's what it's like. The narrator is a young, intensely observant, funny, rather neurotic New York woman. I've greatly enjoyed reading it three times. I recommended it once; they hated it.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2000
Why are so many astonishing novels from the 1970s out of print? (James McCourt's Mawrdrew Czgzowchwz is another.) Adler's cunning collage of seemingly unrelated vignettes -- tart apercus distilled through a youngish woman's relentless intelligence -- contrives to sum up a particular kind of brittle, urban intellectual existence. "Speedboat" is a challenge, but each piece of the puzzle is short and brilliant enough to keep you mowing through. This is the best, and most original, book Adler ever wrote (before law school tamed her imagination and killed her sense of humor).
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2012
this book is like what I wanted Joan Didion's White Album to be (and almost was but not quite) - a period of time distilled into super-interesting observations and anecdotes, artistically arranged - as startling as poetry but with the addictive power of prose - i couldn't put it down!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2013
WELCOME BACK, RENATA ADLER
POSTED BY MEGHAN O'ROURKE---I thought this described (on the New Yorker blog ) the book beautifully

I first read Renata Adler's then out-of-print novel "Speedboat" in my mid-twenties, curled on an IKEA chair in my room in a shabby rental in Brooklyn, devouring the book's jagged, cool, aphoristic prose and its elliptical and mordant portrait of a certain kind of worldly adult life that I had just begun to live but hardly understood--certainly, not the way the narrator of the novel did.

What is amazing about Adler's novels is the way that they integrate cultural analysis with telling details of social nuance. "Speedboat," like "Pitch Dark," has just been republished by NYRB Classics, after years of being passed along to new readers like samizdat pamphlets. Both novels have more in common with the New Novel than with the thrillers that Adler has said she loves. Both are written in a "discontinuous first-person" (in Muriel Spark's phrase) that cumulatively conveys what it is like to be a female intellectual in the world of publishing in the nineteen-seventies. These are not works of realism--they have a dreamlike quality-- but they contain as much reality as a Balzac novel does. It's just that their reality is incantatory, sparse, periodically blazing, and not a little self-consciously neurotic.

In the rhythm of their sentences, in their singular tone, in their resonances, echoes, and repetitions, "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" convey something of what it is like to be alive in any time--but specifically, they convey the psychic climate of the seventies. These novels are records of a penetrating intelligence, a skeptical intelligence (but, thank God, not a reflexively skeptical intelligence). They are novels that persuade you of their claims to truth, and ones in which any literate young person in publishing in New York can see a bit of her or himself. But the novels don't let you get away with a narcissistic surface reading. As accurate as they may be about a narrow swath of professional upper-middle-class life, they are not so self-enamored as to merely mythologize it. These are fundamentally probing, even discomfiting, books. If all you get from "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" is a shudder of pleasure and self-recognition, you are probably not reading deeply enough.

"Speedboat" may be the more radical of the two (and I think I prefer it for that reason). It is ostensibly about Jen Fain, a journalist at the Standard Evening Sun, who chronicles her life in a fragmentary, knowing fashion, shifting back and forth in time, and drifting around in the way that writers do. She teaches at a city college; she works in Washington, D.C., she circulates among mineral-water tycoons and a wealthy paterfamilias who makes a toast to Dow Jones on his sixty-eighth birthday. "Speedboat" is very much a novel of the seventies, full of what Guy Trebay calls the era's "flares signaling general cultural distress," but its portrait of urban life among the chattering classes feels strangely contemporary, and, surely, this is part of the novel's enduring appeal. Jen is involved with a handful of men, including Aldo and Jim (a political consultant), who make brief appearances and never seem to be the center of the story. After all, this is not a novel of interiority. (Jen herself remains rather thinly sketched out.) It's a collage, populated by poignant and witty observations of the habits and delusions of a certain kind of urban professional. "Speedboat" is one of the more penetrating and oddly hypnotizing books I know; reading it is like being in a snowstorm. The world is transformed by the blanketing, stylized sensibility.

"Speedboat" sometimes strikes me as a kind of travel writing, the jotted observations of a literary anthropologist, rendering, with great precision, the woman who asks the Japanese sculptor next to her at dinner if Americans "smell badly to him," the luncheon with a man known to be a murderer (whom the reader presumes is Claus von Bülow). This anthropologist happens to be a woman, which is important, because part of the books' novelty is the way they unapologetically represent a woman's experience of both loneliness and attachment. The style is aphoristic and analytical: "Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all," Adler writes, and "There are times when every act, no matter how private and unconscious, becomes political." Elsewhere, she notes, "Like most lonely women, like most women of all kinds, Margaret Dagemen had an imaginary lover.... I used to think this sort of lover was specific to girls or women who were left out.... It is not so. Most women have had them, at some time in their lives, or all their lives." Adler told Trebay that while writing "Speedboat" she found she kept stopping before she got to the end of the anecdote she had in mind. "I was biting off the thread before the thing I was writing, the part of the story, the anecdote, was done." The brief vignettes have a stinging intensity: she notes, of two well-known sports journalists who never wrote books, that they had "just enough money and not enough time." Elsewhere, she diagnoses the existence of the "angry bravo," in which an audience at the theatre is not so much applauding "No, No, Nanette" as denouncing "Hair."

The stakes in "Pitch Dark" are similar. Kate Ennis is deciding whether to leave her lover, Jake, who is away celebrating his thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jake is a figure of some renown, and their affair has gone on long enough that Kate thinks--being sensitive to nuances--that he wants her to leave. She travels to Ireland, to Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington, in pursuit of space that will bring her something like freedom. But she's less like someone seeking clarity than someone fleeing a murky place. Her lover, she muses, "is the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life." "Pitch Dark" is more narrative, a tad more fleshed out than "Speedboat," but we are talking degrees in kind: it, too, shifts in time, and makes use of haunting, inexplicable refrains to establish a sense of emotional progression. Both books share an associative logic, a reticent irony, in which the vignette is felt to do as much or more work as the narrative.

Reading these novels is inseparable from thinking about Adler as a cultural figure, with all of her intensities and fascinating contradictions. Adler was a reclusive type who was also friends with Brooke Astor and Oscar de la Renta, and on the scene: having drinks at Elaine's, lunching with the likes of von Bülow, and being photographed by Richard Avedon in the French West Indies, wearing her signature braid down her back. She worked as a film critic for the New York Times in the late nineteen-sixties, and a staff writer for this magazine in both the sixties and seventies, reporting on Vietnam, Biafra, and the civil-rights movement, among other things. She had studied literature at Harvard (under I. A. Richards) and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Hannah Arendt was one of her mentors. In her essays, Adler evinced a certain fatigue with the radical (and chic) left, instead espousing the idea of a "radical middle." ("The radical position in the moderate middle is the only place where the center holds.") In its reverent 1983 profile, New York called her "an outspoken defender of factual accuracy and intellectual rigor." She was never one to shy away from an attack--while she and Pauline Kael were colleagues, she wrote a fiercely critical review of Kael's collected pieces, and one of Adler's more recent books, "Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker," offers a rather scathing look at her time here.

Adler's heroines serve as a stand-in for the author herself; in her work, the line between fiction and non-fiction is a thin one. In "Pitch Dark," as Kate Ennis is trying to flee Ireland without being noticed, she thinks, "Traveling under a false name might be a crime of some sort. I should make the name as like my own as possible to account for the mistake. Alder, I thought." We never learn if this moment was a slip-up of the writer's--a momentary betrayal of the thin "fiction" here--or intentional, a kind of avant-garde reminder that these texts are hybrids, a mix of lyric essay, fiction, and memoir. Muriel Spark, in the afterward to this edition, suggests that this slip is a moment of "professional illogic," but I think that to the contemporary reader it hardly matters. It's actually one way the novel manifests the high shellac of its artifice. These books are fiction in the sense that their resolute shapeliness is a major aspect of how we experience them.

"Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" are in some ways sui generis. But they also fit into a brief nineteen-seventies efflorescence of elliptical, analytical, at times lyrical fiction by women who were also working as non-fiction writers: Joan Didion's "Play It as It Lays," Elizabeth Hardwick's "Sleepless Nights" (also recently republished by NYRB Classics), and even Susan Sontag's "Project for a Trip to China." For a generation of younger female readers like me, this writing provided a model that wasn't explicitly "female" in nature, but, by virtue of rendering a perceiving consciousness that was unmistakably a woman's, began to map a world that might be ours, a world that felt like ours. They are contemporary in a way that Mary McCarthy's "The Group" never could be. Their narrators, embodying a searching intelligence that isn't bound up in being married or having children, possess a questing quality I had previously associated, unconsciously, with the work of male novelists. It's great to have these novels back in print, at long last.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2013
I've heard about Speedboat ever since it first came out, but for some reason never picked it up. Thank you, NYRB for reissuing it! Not only did it meet but it exceeded all expectations. Perhaps it's "easier" to read now than in the '70s because it helped set a style that has been much followed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2015
SPEEDBOAT is a very good book.It's usually classified as a novel.I'd question that categorization.The book has no plot and only in a superficial sense does it have characters.It's a collage of literary fragments, brilliantly organized but not following any discernible pattern or progression.All the fragments ostensibly come from or concern the narrator , someone apparently named Jen Fain.Jen strikes me as an artifice.These are the ramblings of Renata Adler.I suspect she found she really couldn't write a novel and came up with this instead.It works because page after page it's filled with stunning anecdotes,insights and occasional bursts of humor.

One thought that recurred to me while reading this book is, who does a writer write for?The 'artsy" answer is , for himself.True and good , up to a point but no one other than secret diarists imagine that they have no audience(even the secret diarist fantasizes about being read).SPEEDBOAT was not written for the intelligent, common reader , whoever she may be.It's very New Yorky.Adler uses names and neighborhoods as signifiers.You have references to Elaines,Trader Vics,Bendel,Saks and the Village.These names have meanings that you know or don't know.Her people are almost all highly educated cosmopolitans who when not in New York flit from Angkor Wat to Mediterranean islands.This is a way of writing that is in sharp contrast to any number of traditional novelists.For some reason,I kept thinking of Thomas Hardy.Hardy's most famous novels have a definite geographic setting, the mythical Wessex( a fictionalized version of The Dorset of his youth that expanded with time).I don't think Hardy expected Wessexer's to read his books or thought you needed to know much about Wessex to understand them.This is not the case with Adler.I can't imagine a lot of people outside of relatively sophisticated circles familiar with New York reading or getting much pleasure out of this book .Let's face it , it's really a narrow book .That is not a bad thing but it's a limiting thing.

There is an afterword by Guy Trebay that tries to do for the book what the evangelists of abstract expressionism tried to do for Pollock That is make it into a historical inevitability.The form of SPEEDBOAT is an expression of the zeitgeist.Hence , it is truer and better than other books of the time. Progressivist, dialectical nonsense !This book doesn't need to rest on that kind of silliness.Any writer worth a damn would be proud to produce a book this good and fresh .In that sense , she made it new.(although I don't want to get started on the fetishism of "newness").
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2014
The book comprises a series of vignettes in the life of a woman. We learn that she is highly talented, highly cultured, somewhat snarky and clever in grasping and explaining situations in which she finds herself. These situations, seemingly independent of each other, provide entertaining reading. The lack of a plot and timeline is disconcerting at the outset, but the quality of the writing saves the situation and the totality of the vignettes hang together and tell us who this woman is. You can't help but admire her.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2013
speedboat is just a great read and has the feel of a particular time in america and the irony and beauty and all those memories piling up. very very affable
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2015
There are some beautiful vignettes in here (my favorite: a short one about a boy's haircut) but at the end of this book I don't feel like it's that impressive of a feat. I wouldn't quite label this as "kitschy" but it does seem to be intentionally appealing to a subset of urban readers/this is goodreads so I'm just going to say it: "hipsters."

I'll also say that there are some dynamite passages/sentences in here. Renata Adler is a good writer.
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