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Speedboat Paperback – February, 1988
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Adler's novels concede the necessity of making fiction quicker, more terse, descriptively less elaborate than the traditional thing called a novel, not so much in deference to shrunken attention spans, but as the most plausible way of rendering the distracted, fragmentary quality of contemporary consciousness [...] They describe what it's like to be living now, during this span of time, in our particular country and our particular world. This is what the best novels have always done, and with any luck will continue to do. —Gary Indiana --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Renata Adler's first novel, 'Speedboat" ... is that kind of book. The kind you buy multiple copies of to push on friends, the kind you dog-ear and mark up until it could line a hamster cage. A talisman, a weapon, a touchstone. ... I don't press "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" or "Beyond Good and Evil" on people anymore. But that's the kind of book that kind of book is, burning in your thoughts, a grass fire, consuming the air. ... Right down to its final, just-right sentence, it's -- well, it will literally knock your socks off. Read it. - Michael Robbins, Chicago Tribune
Aftter years of being passed along to new readers like samizdat pamphlet. ... 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. ... one of the more penetrating and oddly hypnotizing books I know; reading it is like being in a snowstorm. ...If all you get from "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" is a shudder of pleasure and self-recognition, you are probably not reading deeply enough. Welcome Back, Renata Adler. - MeghanO'Rourke, The New Yorker
I Was In Love and Then I wasn't, and sometime during the drifting gray interim I was told by a bookseller friend to read Renata Adler's 1976 debut, Speedboat, a novel that had long been out of print but was absolutely, he insisted, worth the trouble of the search. ... My friend was correct, as booksellers usually are; it was as though the novel had outstretched arms and I fell in - Anna
Weiner, Paris Review
No Longer Gone: After 20 years, Renata Adler Is Back In Print ... Adler is--to tweak a line she used in a notoriously negative review of Pauline Kael's criticism--page by page, line by line, and without interruption, brilliant - Miranda Popkey, The New York Observer
Speedboat is dazzling ...line for line and sentence for sentence, it seems to me thrilling. ... observant, funny, urbane. ... What is it is a war novel. ... after all - a narrative like any other. It will or it won't "come out." The way it eventually does, in a chaos of spies and hostages, is satisfying, even if it isnt optimistic. ... - Matthew Spektor, The Believer.
“Ms. Adler’s writing has turned out to be prescient and quietly influential, and her debut novel cast a long shadow on what I consider to be the strongest works of fiction published this year. Speedboat does not prescribe to any novelistic convention—namely, plot (linear or not, it does not have one to speak of)—and yet it distills the novel to its most basic necessities. It is a series of disjointed paragraphs, each a kind of novel in itself, in which every sentence has the urgency of a mortal wound.” —Michael Miller, The New York Observer
“…Renata Adler’s ahead-of-its-time novel Speedboat has gone from cult favorite to undisputed classic.” —The Fiction Advocate
“This novel is a semi-plotless investigation of contemporary life, both actual and intellectual, in which every sentence gleams and winks and lifts boulders. It is vital and dazzling and will never, never go out of style.” —Flavorwire
“Written before the ubiquity of writing workshops and the polished sameness that hovers over most of the polite novels published these days, these two books are triumphs now. They are evidence of what happens when messy life meets clean white page in exquisite prose and should be lingered over, not digested in gulps just to get to THE END.” —A.V. Club
“Told by Jen Fain, a journalist, Speedboat is a fragmentary and frequently hilarious novel about what it was to be an urban American in the 1970s. Here we have a narrator whose “I” looks out, not in. Fain describes her friends and work so keenly that at times she is almost effaced from her own narrative. In the space opened up by this near absence, Adler achieves a prose that, despite the odd bum note, sounds disaffected and despondent and charismatic all at once. ‘There doesn’t seem to be a spirit of the times,’ says Fain. But in Adler we sense the very crystallisation of one.” —The Irish Times
"She is one of the most brilliant—that is, vivid, intense, astute, and penetrating—essayists in contemporary letters, and most contrarian: much of what you think she will passionately undo. And she is a novelist whose voice, even decades after her books were written, seems new and original, and, if you are a writer, one you wish were your own." —Michael Wolff, The Guardian
“I think Speedboat will find a new generation of dazzled readers.” —Katie Roiphe, Slate
"Speedboat is as vital a document of the last half of the American century as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Right down to its final, just-right sentence, it's—well, it will literally knock your socks off." —Michael Robbins, Chicago Tribune
“Speedboat captivates by its jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice. Adler confides, reflects, tells a story, aphorizes, undercuts the aphorism, then undercuts that. Ideas, experiences, and emotions are inseparable. I don’t know what she’ll say next. She tantalizes by being simultaneously daring and elusive.” —David Shields, Reality Hunger
“Nobody writes better prose than Renata Adler.” —John Leonard, Vanity Fair
“A brilliant series of glimpses into the special oddities and new terrors of contemporary life—abrupt, painful, and altogether splendid.” —Donald Barthelme
“When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ‘70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry…. A touchstone over the years for writers.” —Bookforum for The Oyster Review --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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").
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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