It’s a strange thing that people don’t know the name Renata Adler anymore. When Speedboat was published, in 1976, she was a famous journalist and critic whose name was often coupled with Joan Didion’s. She has of late so faded from view that it’s necessary to begin reviews with rote career recapitulations: she was most famous for her work at The New Yorker and for her brief, memorable stint as the film critic at The New York Times. She was so scathing in her assessments that United Artists took out a full-page ad to complain about her; when she panned a military film, Strom Thurmond began to trash her on the Senate floor. Suffice it to say she made a splash.
So when Speedboat appeared, it was one of those books the publishers like to call “hotly anticipated” — and its recent re-release by New York Review Books Classics has been subject to a similar spike of critical interest. But as it turns out, Speedboat is not a novel for everyone, which for some is a way of saying that it isn’t a novel at all. It offers plenty of evidence for that claim, anyway. Speedboat is structured like a clothesline, stringing together a series of anecdotes and musings, each quite unrelated to the last, complete with gaps in between. But somehow, and this is a curious achievement, the epigrams and parables have a common thread beyond the book’s own binding. The consciousness that narrates them somehow manages to seem a complete person hovering above, if not represented formally in the jagged edges of the book. And this in spite of our only coming to learn by degrees, in dropped hints, that she is a journalist named Jen Fain. She works, and observes absurdities, and gets involved with men, and gets pregnant, and that’s about it for plot.
The achievement of this book is that, in spite of the gaps and curlicues of her thoughts, Jen is never cryptic. She is a good guest at the party in your head, in the sense that she is cool and clean and pretty much everything she says is unforgettable. She is direct, almost to an absurd point, which makes her the kind of person you go about quoting to friends, proud that you have the judgment and good sense to know her. She can say a lot in a small space about dating:
Since I got this job, I have gone out with four sons of famous fathers, two businessmen with unfinished novels, three writers with a habit of saying “May I use that” when I said something that seemed to them in character and a revolutionary editor who patted my hair and said “You’re very sweet” whenever I asked him anything.
Or about the usefulness of gossip:
One of the little truths people can subtly enrage or reassure each other with is who — when you have looked away a month, a year — is still around.
Or about the maladjusted dinner guest:
Once, a heavy man, with a thick accent or combination of accents, was brought, by a young French actress to dinner. He was introduced as Boris. He said he was a doctor. When someone asked what sort of doctor, he said, “mnnh, mnnh, an healer,” with an “h” as though someone had thrown him a medicine ball. His work, he said, made use of what he must call the most mnnh, mnnh healing words in any language. “The Lord is my shepherd,” he began. “I have not want.”
You get the idea. She is the friend who is arch and witty but also cutting, certainly entertaining of an afternoon or evening. But the Jens — and Adlers — of this world are also the kind of people you are afraid to hold too close, lest they see you well enough to describe you. Their irony cuts deep enough that one might refer to her as a “difficult” woman.
Difficulty, irony, coolness: these are the hallmarks of American postmodernism, and so of course Speedboat is often identified as a postmodern novel, blurbed by Donald Barthelme himself and found in the private library of David Foster Wallace. Adler has never gotten quite the reverence those other figures do, lacking the theatrics of a Pynchon or the academic scaffolding of a Barth. But she certainly got the same critiques: Anatole Broyard, who professed to admire Adler otherwise, wrote in the Times that Speedboat was “slice-of-lifelessness fiction.” In other words, it was too clever by half to add up to a whole worth engaging.
I do not agree. Speedboat‘s acid tongue never quite gets to the point of seeming defensive, a game of keep-away; there is always, in the aphorism, a clear sense that Adler has something to say. One doesn’t want to make the dreary, and essentially unprovable, accusation that the reason Speedboat went out of print (and other works by postmodern men didn’t) was because it was by a woman. Yet the analogies between those Jen-figures at the party, the fading of Adler herself as a public figure, and the book do exist. There has been a long tradition of the lacerating and droll woman in American letters, and it is one that Speedboat dramatizes very well. Perhaps this isn’t obvious to everyone, but she’s the one who jokes because, as the cliché goes, you’d have to laugh, or else you’d — well, you know.