Speedboat (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
This interesting and original first novel by an accomplished journalist and film critic is not conventional in form. It has no plot or story as such, though it does, in moving backward and forward in time, come to a kind of indecisive climax. It is not concerned with character development or revelation, though we gradually learn a great deal about the narrator, the only person whom the novel attempts to present in any depth or detail.
The narrator is Jen Fain, a thirty-five-year-old woman journalist who works for a New York tabloid newspaper. She has also worked at a public library and university infirmary, written promotional material for a foundation, and been a film critic and a speechwriter for a political candidate. She has taught classes on film theory and history at the city university.
Since this novel does not tell a story in the conventional sense, Jen Fain is not the average storytelling narrator. True to her occupation, she is a reporter, an observer. One of the arresting things about this fascinating book is that it reads as if written from both a limited and an omniscient viewpoint. This is a sensitive reporter’s notebook, a random collection of conversations and confessions, anecdotes and aphorisms; it is a scrapbook made of fragments from the life and times of a sophisticated, urban American from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Some of these incidents, observations, and philosophical asides are interconnected and some are...
(The entire section is 1884 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Speedboat is Renata Adler’s version of what nineteenth century novelist Anthony Trollope called “The Way We Live Now,” though in Adler’s case the “way” and the “we” are given a decidedly female spin. The speedboat of her title, though it figures in only one brief scene, or cinematic take, suggests at least two of the most salient qualities of this impressive first novel and its female narrator-protagonist: the fast pace and a seeming purposelessness. “Speedboat” is also the title of one of the novel’s seven sections, each of which is further divided into numerous subsections that range in length from a single line up to, on rare occasions, two pages (half a page is the norm). The first, “Castling,” sets the stage for what follows. It begins far beyond any conventional definition of in media res. The voice is personal yet detached, the pace not so much frenetic (a word which suggests a display of emotional intensity utterly foreign to Adler’s purpose) as rapid, a succession of quick cinematic cuts between subsections and at times within them. The overall effect—helped along by the introduction of pronouns without referents, characters named but never developed and in fact rarely even sketched, and brief anecdotes of teasingly allegorical significance—is to propel the reader quickly, almost superficially, over a vaguely defined period in the life of Jen Fain. Jen appears both powerless to direct her course and yet...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Winner of the Ernest Hemingway Award for the best first novel of 1976 and runner-up for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, losing by a single vote to John Gardner’s October Light. Since then, Speedboat has not fared nearly so well with either mainstream or feminist critics. No articles on Speedboat or any of Adler’s work, including her novel Pitch Dark (1983), have appeared in scholarly journals, and the standard literary histories fail to include her except for mere mentions. A half-paragraph in the “Women’s Literature” chapter of the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing does address Speedboat, but it is discussed as a novel by a woman rather than as a novel about the female experience. In addition, a brief discussion of Speedboat as a work of literary minimalism is found in Frederick Karl’s American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive and Critical Evaluation (1983).
Perversely enough, one of the longest discussions of Adler’s work is the one that proves most obtuse on the very issue of women’s writing. Joseph Epstein’s reading of Adler and Joan Didion in his condescendingly titled “The Sunshine Girls” focuses on their disjunctive style and unearned pessimism, which Epstein compares unfavorably with the “heroic” pessimism of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Like Pitch Dark, Speedboat bears comparison...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Adler, Renata. Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism. New York: Random House, 1970. The essays collected here and more especially the introduction provide valuable background for reading Speedboat in relation to Adler’s politics, generation, and experiences as a reporter.
Epstein, Joseph. “The Sunshine Girls.” Commentary 77 (June, 1984): 62-67. In this review of Adler’s Pitch Dark and Joan Didion’s Democracy (1984), Epstein surveys the two writers’ careers, criticizing both for their fragmented narratives and pessimism.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Sense of the Present.” New York Review of Books, November 25, 1976, 3-4, 6. Hardwick argues that Speedboat combines reportage, autobiography, and “deadly satire.” The narrator’s detachment and “disembodiment” is so severe and her alienation so predictable as to weaken “her authority as a witness.”
Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive and Critical Evaluation. New York: Harper and Row, 1983. Karl discusses Speedboat in his chapter on minimalist writers (Donald Barthelme, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jerzy Kosinski, Susan Sontag et al.) but not in his chapter “The Female Experience.”
Kornbluth, Jesse. “The Quirky...
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