Speedboat Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Speedboat is a conglomeration of ironic incidents presented to the reader by an equally ironic first-person narrator, a newspaper reporter named Jen Fain, who sometimes radiates an acute sensitivity and at other times seems hopelessly numbed. This “notebook” on the frenetic pace and crazy logic in everyday urban (and urbane) living also examines the landscapes of urban escape—the Hamptons, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean—where the pace slackens but the logic remains flawed, and doubles as self-directed psychoanalysis. The sketches, or vignettes, that comprise the novel most often feature Jen Fain, but some relegate her to the role of bystander and others have her curiously absent; she merely relays the incident.

Many narrative conventions are ignored. Time, for example, is not handled linearly, nor are there conventional flashbacks. The book bounces back and forth haphazardly with respect to time, as well as perspective. Fain may be watching a rat cross her path on a Manhattan street “last night,” and then, a page later, she may be speeding along a rural road in a car with no reference to time, then quoting the ironic remarks of people at a funeral where she plays no part, then appearing back in Manhattan on an unnamed day at 3:00 a.m., and then appearing in the present, telling the reader about her job. She returns to her childhood years, visits her college dormitory, and shoots into the near past with little regard for temporal continuity.

Speedboat is a peripatetic account of a peripatetic life, the narrator’s dualistic vision toward her role in the unfolding (and unfolded) events of an unsettling autobiography. On the one hand, Jen Fain introspectively examines the loss of what she calls her “sense of the whole”; her experience comes in ragtag pieces and she feels forced to “wait for events to take a form,” to fall into order, which they never do. Thus, she finds herself leading a number of partial lives, none of them ethically satisfying. On the other hand, she is a journalist, an objective recorder of pieces, whose job is to describe events, not analyze them, to distance the self, not immerse it.

Although primarily set in Manhattan during the mid-1970’s, the novel’s scope covers not only a large expanse of time, but also takes the reader on journalistic junkets around the globe—to Paris, Miami Beach, Zurich, Venice, Las Vegas, London, Martha’s Vineyard, Kuala Lumpur, Cairo, Biafra....

(The entire section is 1022 words.)