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Speedboat: Jen Fain Is the Written Thing

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , ,

I read Renata Adler's 1976 novel Speedboat last week. I found it a fascinating testament to...

...and right about there is where my difficulties began.

I had originally wanted to write that the book, while brilliant, is not a novel, at least not a novel with recognizable characters embroiled in a plot that's resolved in some fashion, but after reading a bit of the critical commentary about it, I realized that this reaction is unoriginal and not so interesting. So what is there to say?

It's not that Speedboat is simply dated. It is dated, very dated, but the book is also good, an unmitigated pleasure to read. Lots of books are dated in much more ordinary ways that make them difficult to read or enjoy today. Speedboat isn't like that.

Perhaps this is the notion I'm groping for: A book like Speedboat couldn't be published today in this form, much less receive the rapturous critical reaction it seems to have received in 1976. To use a medical metaphor, Speedboat is a diagnosis of the '60s that cannot escape also being a symptom of the '60s.

I don't mean to offend. It's a nifty book; it's rare that one can say one has read a novel in which there is a pleasure to be found on virtually every page. But the techniques involved are so out of fashion that I'm not sure an editor would let it pass his or her desk in its published form. A novel consisting of a series of penetrating and thinly connected observations in which no plot point can be said to occur? It sounds like a hard sell, today.

Maybe we're the poorer for it. Maybe their fashions were better than our fashions. Maybe I'm a terrible conservative when it comes to plot.

{ornamental dingbat}

OK, that's the meat of my reaction. A few odds and ends about the paperback edition I was reading, pictured below, found at the $0.48 bin at the Strand.

On the back is a picture of Adler by Richard Avedon, and underneath it says, in big red letters (hilariously, in my view): "JEN FAIN IS THE REAL THING." Then underneath, in regular type, there are the words, "She is beautiful, hip, brilliant. She had been everywhere, done everything, known everyone." And so on from there. It's not that any of that is inaccurate, exactly, but it does create expectations the book isn't designed to meet.

At the end of the book are a few pages of advertisement for other writers carried by the Popular Library imprint. One page touts Anne Tyler (spelled correctly), followed by a blurb from People: "To read a novel by Ann [sic] Tyler is to fall in love." (Who's that?) On the next page, we learn that a writer named Dorothy Dunnett "could teach Scheherazade a thing or two about suspense, pace, and invention." And the page after that it says that "no other modern writer is more gifted a storyteller than Helen Van Slyke."

Why is dated hype is so much funnier than other kinds?


Yay! Wonderful to see Speedboat called out like this. A friend of mine introduced me to it in college, and I loved it, but I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head when it comes to the book’s shortcomings. I guess I’d sum it up by saying it’s more quotable than readable … but perhaps I need to re-read it myself to see if that’s really fair. I do love how authors sometimes insist that their collections of stories are really novelsl, simply because the stories are thematically linked, or share a central character; I don’t buy it.

Speedboat does end with my favorite line of all time: “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.” Adler misquoted it, ruining its exquisite rhythm, when she published her memoir about The New Yorker — I wrote her to ask her about it, but she never replied. She probably thought it was a snotty letter, but I genuinely could not understand why she’d retouch that sentence, especially without saying so.

But as to Dorothy Dunnett: oh boy, Martin, do you have a treat in store.

Oh good! I remember your puzzlement over that line now; I hadn’t realized it was Speedboat. Your comparison about the collection of stories —> novels is very apropos. It’s like saying that because you have a couple of rooms to let, you have a “hotel.” A hotel may be a collection of rooms to let, but that doesn’t mean that every collection of rooms to let really adds up to an actual hotel. That said, it really may be true that when our current commercio-literary complex excludes “novels” like Speedboat, it is our loss.

What I love is Pitch Dark. I remember being violently affected by it—it’s satisfyingly melancholy, although, or as a result, I would have to overcome some resistance to read it again now. I think of it as the perfect expression of lonely travels in relentless landscapes, and the strange allure of unrequited longing. She does sadness really well, and although her writing isn’t at all like Lorrie Moore’s, there’s something similarly witty in the sadness, too. Maybe more like Jeanette Winterson or Harold Brodkey, who are, like Adler, writers I associate with a certain time in the ’90s in which I was always looking for fiction about disastrous emotions.

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