(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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 not, but the general effect is one of discontinuity. Some incidents have definite significance, while others seem to be shaggy-dog stories that, whatever their intention, lead the reader up a blind alley.

Most of the vignettes are from the firsthand experience of their reporter, but they are usually presented in an impersonal, reportorial manner. Thus we learn the aforementioned facts about Jen Fain, as well as other information, by indirection, almost by accident, by means of an extra line or autobiographical aside injected into one of her observations. The observations usually turn out to be witty or sad or satiric or ironic or absurd, or sometimes all of these, despite their straightforward rendition.

With the occasional exception of an intentional satiric gibe, the objective stance of the good reporter is held. The irony and absurdity are inherent in the material itself, and in the author’s skillful use of it. Never do we catch Adler stretching her notes, straining for an effect. The individual incidents are often ludicrous, but always believable—even those that are hard to fit into any general context. The same original, skillful tone that Adler has used to make her report seem both personal and omniscient has also enabled her to write a novel that seems realistic in each of its short sections, and yet, in final effect, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. Perhaps Bruce Jay Friedman was right in answering critics who attempted to categorize him as a black humorist or writer of the absurd by claiming that he was no such thing. Friedman’s contention was that he writes realism, and that if it comes out absurd it is because the times and society in which he lives are often more than a little crazy. Adler confirms Friedman’s point in Speedboat.

Here are some of the other things that we learn about Jen Fain: she was educated at a progressive private school and an Eastern woman’s college, going on to graduate studies in Paris and England, taking special courses in clinical psychology and anthropology in order to understand better the origins and nature of the society in which she lives. She has slept, or is sleeping—as the book flits about among the past two decades with no consistency in time progression—with at least four men: Adam, a graduate student of political science; Aldo, a writer with whom she has been having an off-and-on affair as far back as her graduate school days in England; Will, a lawyer for the foundation for which she writes requests for grants; and, most recently, Jim, the campaign director for the politician for whom she has been writing speeches.

These men are shadowy figures. No sustained attempt is made to give them any presence or personality. They exist only as names, and, as is the case with most of the remaining cast of even less-mentioned minor characters, only as first names. We learn of Jen’s relationships with these men in the usual indirect manner, as she makes notes or records anecdotes about school days, the foundation job, the political campaign. There is no fashionable, explicit sex in the book, just as the novel is not explicit about...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 determined to keep her narrative and her life as close to the surface as possible, where friction can be minimized.

Each of these inserted, largely self-contained...

(The entire section is 669 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 with and is indebted to certain male literary models, especially the French New Novel, and it even comprises an odd updating of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”

Speedboat, however, is more than a novel in a contemporary mode and idiom. It is also and more specifically about the life of a contemporary woman of a certain background and situation: educated, intelligent, professional. As such, it strikes a responsive chord in much the same way that, as Jen Fain describes, a woman in the audience responds to the “maniac laughter” with which the singer used to end “Je ne suis pas folle” with some maniac laughter of her own. Were she a little more prolific, a little less postmodern, a bit more polemical and politically correct, or perhaps a bit less intent on telling all the truth but telling it “slant” (like Emily Dickinson), Adler might have received the kind of critical and especially feminist attention that her complex and uncompromising work deserves.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 Brilliance of Renata Adler.” New York 16 (December 12, 1983): 34-40. Although occasioned by the publication of Pitch Dark, Kornbluth’s profile offers valuable insights into Adler’s life, about whom very little is known outside New York’s cultural circle.

Saltzman, Arthur M. The Novel in the Balance. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Although he faults the novel for coming down “to a series of elliptical allegories of authorial fecklessness,” Saltzman praises Speedboat for the way it balances “maximalist evidentiary procedures and minimalist concentration.”

Todd, Richard. Review of Speedboat. Atlantic Monthly 238 (October, 1976): 112-114. Argues that the atmosphere of Speedboat is existential but that its sensibility is not—is, in fact, free from stock response of any kind. Adler “is a spare, self-possessed writer who can do more in an aphoristic aside than many writers can do with a chapter.”

Towers, Robert. Review of Speedboat. The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1976, 6-7. Towers finds the absence of plot a problem, but he claims that the novel is redeemed by the narrator’s reports of and reflections on the contemporary phenomena immediately around her. Unlike the French New Novels, Speedboat “is neither boring nor dehumanized.”