Renata Adler Essay - Adler, Renata (Vol. 8)

Adler, Renata (Vol. 8)

Adler, Renata 1938–

American critic, short story writer, and novelist, Renata Adler is best known for her contributions to The New Yorker. Speedboat is her first novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

"Speedboat" makes no concession to any craving—vulgar or sophisticated—for an engrossing narrative. Furthermore, though concerned fleetingly with motivations, "Speedboat" avoids the sustained psychological rendering of character as rigorously as the novels of Robbe-Grillet, but without attempting their quasi-musical purity as linguistic constructs. The book does have an emotional impact—a strong one—but one that derives more from a painfully exact transcription of the life many of us lead than from the creation of a powerfully imagined fictional world. From almost any approach one chooses to take, "Speedboat" is a non-novel.

Yet it is a very good book: elegantly written, often funny, vivid in its presentation of the absurdities, the small and great horrors, the booby-traps with which our daily existence is strewn. Essentially it is a collage, an assemblage of tiny anecdotes, vignettes, overheard conversations, aphorisms and reflections….

The book's compelling interest comes from the way the narrator reports and reflects upon the phenomena that fall within the range of her edgy and perplexed sensibility….

"Speedboat" is a quintessentially "New York" book with its radical-chic parties, conversations with analysts, late-hour excursions to Elaine's, its encounters with rats, cabdrivers, early-morning stealers of the neighbor's Sunday Times, dubious loiterers, doorstep winos, glibly illiterate City University students….

The fragments of which "Speedboat" is constructed are seldom longer than a paragraph, though a few run to two or three pages. Repetitions, even sequences occur, though there is no real progression or resolution. The episodes and overheard conversations are believable, if bizarre…. Though Miss Adler is a realist in miniature, the cumulative effect of her book is dizzyingly surrealistic—and to my mind the impact is far greater than the deliberate, though perfunctory, surrealism to which so many contemporary "serious" novelists resort. In the presentation and analysis of her specimens Renata Adler is an exquisite craftsman. Her style is luminously exact, subtle in its rhythms, capable of both concrete immediacy and arresting generalizations. (p. 6)

Unlike the products of the French New Novelists—or what Gore Vidal has recently called the "plastic fiction" of their American disciples—"Speedboat" is neither boring nor dehumanized. Though paragraph by paragraph the book is entertaining and often brilliant, it can, because of its density and lack of narrative propulsion, have a clogging effect if subjected to too sustained a reading. (pp. 6-7)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1976.

It's only incidental praise of Renata Adler to say that she has written one of the best books I know of about contemporary New York with her first novel, Speedboat…. But it could hardly have sprouted from any soil besides Manhattan concrete. (p. 112)

Calling it a novel perhaps stretches a point. It is a gathering of stories, most of which have been published over the last couple of years in The New Yorker…. And the stories themselves are assemblages of small moments that lack the coherence of plot but nevertheless overlap and iridesce like the scales of a fish.

Although there are dozens of amusing walk-on figures, character in this book resides wholly in the voice of its faceless narrator. We learn that the voice belongs to a woman of about thirty-five, unmarried, a journalist, educated at an eastern private school for women, nicely connected, and addicted to observation. But what we learn of the circumstances of her life is more or less inconsequential: this is a novel of sensibility—it is all sensibility, and the only patterns of the book are the tracks a mind leaves in trying to come to terms with its surroundings.

The surroundings are the modern urban world, for which New York is the richest symbol, and the condition that Renata Adler addresses can be described in all sorts of sociological and artistic clichés. Anomie. Alienation. Absurdity. But the sensibility itself is not so easily categorized. It begins in wit. (pp. 112-13)

If Renata Adler—not to make the mistake of assuming that she and her heroine are the same, though obviously they share some qualities—has a single, simple virtue, it's that she trusts her own eyes. She doesn't fail to see the pieces that don't fit into the puzzle. ("The problem is this. Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in the literature.") Her world is full of defeated expectations, stories without endings, crossed wires and missed connections; it is an epidemic of inappropriate response and loss of affect.

But for all its attention to modern woes, Speedboat is free of stock response. No lamentations of vulgarity. No intimations of systemic evil. No love of madness, no chic despair. It is the work of someone who simply won't relinquish the right to say … "how strange." Every page in this book is touched by humor, but beneath the mirth lies a sort of ferocity….

Renata Adler is a spare, self-possessed writer who can do more in an aphoristic aside than many novelists can do with a chapter. Her book now and then luxuriates unfairly in its own formlessness, but at its center it is disciplined and clear-headed. (p. 114)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1976.

Renata Adler seems deliberately to have written the kind of novel she least admires. Speedboat has no plot, no tears, no characters flat or round, no conflict of great ideas, no deep scheme. You do not merely note the absence of such things; you miss them actively because the author has made you miss them. She has created a world precisely opposed to one we would prefer, has done so down to the form of her presentation which, as an argument against itself is effective on those grounds alone. But there is more to this book than cleverness.

The narrator (without a narrative) is a woman journalist whose "mind is a tenement," she says. The novel, then, is a form of slumming: half-baked reports on times and places—not hers alone, and in no special order—as if she were keeping a scrapbook of passages used in her articles, or perhaps discarded. To call her tone dispassionate would suggest that passion is sensed in abeyance, but that isn't it. If anything the tone is surprised, sometimes falsified for a laugh, sometimes genuine: one brilliant survivor peering with chatoyant eyes at the life which threatens her to the point of amusement.

Speedboat is concerned with the speed of that life. Our journalist has a mind of the ancients that naturally pulls back and away, which is the source of her ironies. She can write one sentence, for example, that moves in two directions, forcing a standstill: "His children own the town these days, for what it's worth." Everything else in the novel is going forward in spurts and plunges, too fast even for the celebrants who wish to move with the machines, so that the giddy lady who insists on riding in a brand new speedboat breaks her back from her own excited bouncing. Fractures in other passages are less severe, but in their battles with passengers the planes and boats and trains are clearly winning. Every chapter after the first begins with a ride….

[The] feeling one takes from Speedboat is in fact not the intellectual condemnation of a speed-bound world, but how wasteful it is for this woman to live in such a place. The senseless races she observes seem made for singles, people with feather-weight luggage who run better unencumbered by family and other ties. In a swift aside she dryly mocks the memorable lines of her college education, citing "only connect" from Forster's Howards End, the one phrase all English professors seem born with. But the mockery turns on her who unwillingly has mastered the life of no connections to the point where the novel ends, and she hesitates to tell her lover that she is pregnant.

She feels only connected to her words. She seems not so much a journalist by profession as a journalist by birth, as if implying that in a life of no events (the novel begins: "Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered") everyone is a journalist. Personality becomes the event. The investigative reporter is not an investigator of experience, but an investigator of self as it succumbs to experience. The crime or folly exposed sends someone to jail or to the corner, yet its main public value is cathartic. The people know pity and terror thanks to the journalist who has found a way of becoming a pity or terror by entering the story he writes. A way of life, of giving life to a dead thing. (p. 32)

Nothing in Speedboat is supposed to hurt you, but it does, which is probably what Adler is saying about the speed machines as well. The novel closes on the phrase "you can't miss it," meaning "you're never going to find it." The phrase has all the goodwill in the world. (pp. 32-3)

Roger Rosenblatt, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 16, 1976.

Renata Adler's novel Speedboat gave me a glimpse of what happened to those who grew up in the '50s. Speedboat's title derived from a one-page anecdote about a young woman who, through overenthusiastic response to a ride in a new speedboat, breaks her back: "… she exaggerated every happy bounce. Until she broke her back…. Martin said How too like life all afternoon." So now I know that the '50s people are still around, as brittle as ever, trying to slouch, so they don't break their backs.

Neither Adler nor her protagonist Miss Fain are in any danger from overenthusiasm. Miss Fain suffers from exquisiteness of sensibility. She has few passionate interests, other than precision in language. Her drugs are Valium and Scotch and martinis. She seems to be an accidental spectator at the events of her own life. Even where it is clear she has made choices, there is a numbness, a passivity. (p. 469)

Much of the material in Speedboat was published as separate units in The New Yorker…. Each unit consists of a collection of anecdotes and fragments ranging from two lines to several pages. The order of presentation of fragments in any given unit, and in the book itself, sometimes seems to matter, sometimes does not. Because Adler's subject is fragmentation, because she tries to build, as John Hollander puts it in a dust jacket comment, "a world of anecdotes in which any kind of Whole Story would appear to be a well-intentioned lie," she runs into difficult formal problems.

To give credit, Adler is a brilliant stylist. Her use of irony is assured and often delicate; her sense of humor is finely honed. She does try to weave a slight narrative thread into Speedboat, while keeping her fragmented method. But a novel consisting of fragments, to be successful formally, must be woven carefully. There must be composition, as in music or painting. Otherwise, if one's meaning is about the randomness of experience, and Adler's meaning seems to be this, one falls flat into the imitative fallacy….

When I first began to read Speedboat, it seemed to me that the book had a chance to be stunning, authentic. In the first three chapters there is a tension in their careful ordering, a silk cord being wound tighter and tighter. In these chapters Adler quietly builds momentum with her seeming randomness, her dispassion, her precision. When I got to the end of Chapter 2, where she says

Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, Let's just have it a little quiet around here.

I found I had ridden thirty blocks past my bus stop. To have created a degree of tension where the simple repetition of a phrase, "and then I would say, and then I would say …" can convey such pain, such intensity, takes extraordinary technical virtuosity. At that point I thought this talented book had a chance to be a great one. If she could pull that silk cord for another 150 pages, I would be happy to ride the bus all day.

The next chapter was "Brownstone," a somewhat different arrangement of which won the O. Henry Award in 1974. "Brownstone" in either version, comes close to being a perfect piece of writing. The structure of "Brownstone" is arhythmic, jarring. The bones of a self-contained narrative show through in a way that demonstrates, reinforces, the sense of dislocation, terror, absurdity that haunts the tenants of the brownstone Fain lives in….

"Brownstone" seemed a perfect piece of writing and so I got off the bus. There's something I call a "bouncer" in fiction. It's a piece, an episode that bounces the reader right out of a book. A piece that is complete in itself, inserted into a novel, is a bouncer. It cannot be woven into the fabric without making a big lump. I am not talking about an independent episode, though an independent episode, if woven badly, can certainly make lumpy fiction. I'm talking about something formally complete, self-contained, musical, the images and rhythms finished. "Brownstone" is like that. It blows the linear tension in Speedboat, and it bounced me right off the bus.

After "Brownstone" the structure of Speedboat disintegrates. Selective randomness becomes sloppy randomness. Insight becomes pretension. Precision becomes hair-splitting. What has been moving becomes simply mannered.

I got irritated, I sulked over Speedboat. Adler's stylistic brilliance is almost overwhelming. I told myself she is too obviously intelligent to think she can make a virtue of the imitative fallacy. Or is she?…

I think Adler knew she lost control of her book formally. Otherwise she would not have taken so many wild shots in the last third of the book; she would not have left all these pithy, meaningful clues; she would not have dropped so many keys that don't quite fit. And she would have been able to think of an ending that made sense. (p. 470)

Blanche M. Boyd, "A Mannered Slouch," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 6, 1976, pp. 469-70.

In the reviews of Renata Adler's Speedboat, a work of unusual interest, many critics asked whether this "novel" was really a novel. The book is, in its parts, fastidiously lucid, neatly and openly composed. It is the linear as opposed to the circular construction that leads to the withholding of consent for the enterprise, at least on the part of some readers.

The narrator—a word not entirely apt—is a young woman, a sensibility formed in the 1950s and '60s, a lucky eye gazing out from a center of complicated privilege, looking with the cool that transforms itself into style and also into meaning. (p. 3)

For the girl, the past has not set limits and the future is one of wide, restless, interesting "leaps." Not the leaps of lovers (she has lovers, but this is a chaste book), not leaps of divorces, liberations, but a sense of the way experience seizes and lets go, leaving incongruities, gaps that remain alive as conversation—the end result of experience. (pp. 3-4)

To be interesting, each page, each paragraph—that is the burden of fiction which is made up of random events and happenings in sequence. Speedboat is very clear about the measure of events and anecdotes, and it does meet the demand for the interesting in a nervous, rapid, remarkably gifted manner. A precocious alertness to incongruity: this one would have to say is the odd, dominating trait of the character of the narrator, the only character in the book. Perception, then, does the work of feeling and is also the main action. It stands there alone, displacing even temperament.

For the reader of Speedboat, certain things may be lacking, particularly a suggestion of turbulence and of disorder more savage than incongruity can bear. But even if feeling is not solicited, randomness itself is a carrier of disturbing emotions. In the end, a flow is more painful than a circle, which at least encloses the self in its resolutions, retributions, and decisions….

In Speedboat, the girl, perhaps worried that her autonomy is out of line, like a much-used expense account, announces that she is going to bear a child. In this way she chooses the impediments of nature to act as a brake on the rushing, restless ego. (p. 4)

What is honorable in "so it goes" and in the mournful shimmer … in Speedboat is the intelligence that questions the shape of life and wonders what we can really act upon. It is important to concede the honor, the nerve, the ambition…. (p. 6)

Elizabeth Hardwick, "Sense of the Present," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), November 25, 1976, pp. 3-4, 6.

[In] Renata Adler's Speedboat [the central figure] … hardly exists at all except as style. Speedboat is prodigiously witty, learned in every department of American foolishness just now, and definitely fun. It is a marvellously attentive essay in the cultural pretentiousness of everything over-valued and over-priced, not forgetting our dreams…. Some of the best pages in it deal with the misuse and misappropriation of language, with cultural dry-rot, with cultural faking. The book's great achievement is that Renata Adler has remained a tourist in the most familiar places. No one understands better the mystique necessary to devaluation. Or as another tourist, Gertrude Stein, put it: "Remarks are not literature."

But witty and necessary as Speedboat is, I fail to understand in what sense it is a work of fiction. The "heroine," or the style, significantly moves from profession to profession, from one example to another of the fact that the emperor is still passing by without a stitch to his name. The movement from incongruity to total mystification is irresistible! But nowhere in the book did I see plain the anxiety that makes it necessary for the narrator to move on so fast. (pp. 23-4)

Alfred Kazin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 27, 1976.

The narrator of Renata Adler's first novel is called Jen Fain; significantly, it took a good deal of searching to remind myself of this. For I suspect Adler feels the same way about a name as one of her characters does about a suntan: When you have one, what have you got? In this cerebral book names, like all the other usual narrative devices—plot, character, dialogue—are too fashionably unfashionable to be bothered with, and one wonders why the narrator is christened at all. Everyone else is merely dismissed: a "polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist," an "Indo-Chinese lesbian restaurant owner."

Such is the wit of Speedboat, with its bluejeaned young men and women who wear granny glasses over their contact lenses, its radicals in analysis, its nine-year-old who wears a "silver electric chair on her charm bracelet," its bartender who mixes a Last Mango in Paris. If you are amused, fine; if not, you may feel, as I did, that Jen Fain speaks for Renata Adler when she says, "It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time."

Speedboat is the perfect title for Adler's world, through which journalist Jen Fain rushes and reports, trying to cope, managing to laugh. Vignette piles upon vignette here, with all the random chaos that has made the 20th century a cliché before its time. Jen Fain is always at the center, though, and our response to her largely determines our response to the novel.

What I find least attractive about Adler's narrator is her fleshlessness. We get inside her head as she takes her reporter's notes on the '70s, but we also find her becoming pregnant without ever getting a strong sense that she slept with anyone. Jen tells us we are all "fighting for our lives," yet Adler's narrative choices allow us to share that fight only from the most intellectual distance. Well of course! many literary critics would counter. Other eras, however, asked more from fiction; future eras may ask more again.

What I admire about Jen Fain is that she (like Adler) realizes this: The crisis in contemporary fiction is one she embraces…. "There are only so many plots," she writes. "There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a slower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier."

These, then, are the criteria Adler offers us to measure her work by: insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. Speedboat does not even have what many readers would still call a "story" (though things happen, things change); we are asked to look elsewhere for our pleasure.

And so we return to the chaos at the book's core, to the international-set anecdotes that structure it, and to the struggles of Jen Fain, who would fain laugh in the city as escape to the country. (p. 19)

I find something ultimately disturbing about Speedboat. Sanity, we are told, is "the most profound moral option of our time." What is meant by sanity is suggested by the novel's ending: "It could be the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime."

In other words, dealing with future shock, keeping sane in the city, making do. Is this the sentence we need, and, in fact, always compose ourselves (as the major character in our own lives)? Or is Speedboat symptomatic of another kind of sentence entirely, one imposed by a fashionable intellectual climate? Is Jen Fain, with her witty coping, admirable? Or rather, to quote from Norman O. Brown's Love's Body, is her "resisting madness … the maddest way of being mad"? (pp. 19-20)

Charles Deemer, "A Fleshless Comedy," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 20, 1976, pp. 19-20.

There is [a detached and abstracting] intelligence in Renata Adler's Speedboat, labeled a novel by her publishers but much less persuasive as narrative fiction than as a blending of autobiographical fragments with reportage. A valuable satirist, Adler is as incisive as Mary McCarthy on the pretensions of academics, intellectuals, and financially comfortable culture-vultures. (p. 587)

But one way of crystalizing Adler's limitations, one way of acknowledging the relative modesty of her claims as a novelist, is to observe that [her] witty and telling lines also represent the author in one of her warmest, most sympathizing humors…. In most of the crisply written, discontinuous anecdotes that comprise Speedboat, Adler's narrator remains just as distant from her topics, and also frequently speaks in gloomier accents, alluding self-consciously to Yeats's overworked prophecy of our slouch toward apocalypse…. Except for a few significant sentences in the final pages, this world-weary narrator describes her anxious urban life, her journalistic tours through territories of pain and folly, even her own sexual experiences, with the neutral dispassion of an archeologist sifting alien fragments. Her disembodiment is so severe, confessions of bafflement and disconnection rush so easily from her lips, that her authority as a witness to outer events is radically enfeebled, and Speedboat comes to seem the authentic register of a malaise that resides not in the world but in the narrator herself…. [The] alienation and emotional numbness projected by Adler's narrator-double must seem familiar to anyone acquainted even superficially with the now attenuated conventions of literary modernism. Speedboat is genuinely persuasive as an autobiographical document, as a self-judging exposé of the easy posturing, the essentially derivative and literary nihilism, to which intelligence and sensibility are peculiarly vulnerable in these muddled times. Adler herself understands this, or comes to understand it during the course of her writing, for she ends her book with a paragraph that opens itself to vital energies that have been largely absent from the text until now, energies of sympathy and imagination that are inaccessible to mere wit or to satire even at its most ambitious. The paragraph begins with a surprising description of the narrator's lover: "Jim has in his mind, I think, one erratically ringing alarm clock, one manacled dervish, one dormouse, replete with truisms, and one jurist with a clarity of such an order that I tend to love his verdict in most things." Nothing in the book has quite prepared us for this affection and playfulness, which constitute an unmistakable judgment upon the self-protecting disengagement to which the narrator has been captive. Intelligence and accurate perception retain their centrality in her scheme of things, but are deepened measurably by her willingness to risk closeness and honest feeling. Her temperament has not reversed or radically transformed itself, but it has begun to open and to enlarge. "It could be," she says in her final sentence, as if to signal her rejection of the styles of avant-garde irony that had earlier defined her as a writer and as a woman, "It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime." (pp. 587-88)

David Thorburn, in The Yale Review (© 1977 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1977.