Off for a Bumpy Ride
Speedboat, by Renata Adler
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Renata Adler’s Speedboat was originally published in 1976 and it has been bouncing its way across the waters to us ever since. It has been on my radar but remained unread for a long time. I hadn’t realized that it has been out of print for many years because, despite this, it continued to have a cult following. As Meghan O’Rourke describes it on the New Yorker blog, beloved and dog-eared copies were passed on from friend to friend like Soviet era samizdat pamphlets. It has always been a book to press on others.
Scarcity has its appeal, but all things considered, it is much better that the wonderful folks at the NYRB Classics have taken it under their wing (along with Adler’s second novel, Pitch Dark) and reprinted it this past spring.
Speedboat is a novel told in what I initially thought of as a series of vignettes, but which it might be more appropriate to refer to as shards. “Vignette” has the ring of something much more charming and airy than anything Adler sets out to do. On one level, Speedboat is simply an attempt to describe the zeitgeist as seen through the eyes of one intelligent, cosmopolitan and privileged woman. I believe that some of the book’s staying power over the years comes from the fact that for a lot of ambitious young women (and of course, some ambitious young men) , it portrayed the lifestyle of someone who had made it in the literary world on her own terms, one who was living the life they too aspired to live. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a New York brownstone, with assignments in exotic places and vacations on tropical islands? Who wouldn’t want to be a regular and esteemed writer for the New Yorker, as Adler herself was for decades?
But Adler’s novel isn’t really a literary version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. Or perhaps it is, but it describes that life honestly. It counts the cost. In the brownstone where the narrator lives her enviable life, the landlord has been murdered. Many people in her social sphere suspect that they may be having some sort of nervous breakdown. More than one person wants to kill someone else, usually for very little reason at all. Also, there are rats.
I‘ve seen Speedboat referred to as a kind of proto-blog, or a slightly verbose Twitter feed. Although I understand the impulse to see the book as something more relatable to our own era, I think this is a bit of a misreading. Despite its meandering appearance, the novel is too tightly controlled for that comparison. The “vignettes” are marshaled strictly under chapter headings, and the structure is not random. The title of the book is taken from the central chapter of the same name. And within that chapter is a story about a speedboat. Without giving it away, I think it’s fair to say that this short tale reveals the book’s overall dark theme.
I’ve been of two minds about whether Speedboat still holds up in 2013. For that reason, I’ve pored through more than the usual number of reviews, and in doing so have come to the conclusion that it does. No review was like another in what it found of interest in the book, suggesting that it is a very rich text indeed for a short work. Each review seemed to find something different to quote, and I found myself saying again and again, “That was good. Oh, yes—that was good too.”