Book Review: Speedboat by Renata Adler
“I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”
I had the chance to talk to Renata Adler and ask her about the narrative structure of her novel, Speedboat, which is a piece of fiction that does not follow conventional narrative techniques. Those who have read Speedboat or at least know what’s inside her novel will testify that it has no plot and instead it follows a vignette-like structure, one in which normal plotting does not take place. Of course I am getting ahead of myself. Here is what I asked Renata Adler:
Forgive my nervous voice. One tends to adopt weird affectations when putting a question to a giant of literature. Anyway, I found it interesting that she framed her process of writing Speedboat as not a deliberate decision but as a shortcoming in her sense of plot. She said that she does not have a knack for writing stories with plot. Anyway, if it is true that Adler does not know how to write a novel with a plot, I feel that we’re all the better for it because Speedboat is the result.
Speedboat is the story of Jen Fain, a journalist and professor living in New York and that is the extent of the summary which I feel I can provide at this point because, from page one, the novel goes into multiple directions picking-up and abandoning story lines whenever it wants. At one point Adler takes you to the halls of her university and the politics between departments that happens within then she swiftly abandons the setting in favor of an intimate look into the lives of American expatriates partying on an island in the Caribbean. At the center of it all is Miss Fain who happens to be as bamboozled as the reader is when it comes to the situations she finds herself in.
Here is why I admire Renata Adler’s writing in Speedboat: Adler is writing about a woman struggling in New York during the 70s and that is something that a person like me, a Filipino male who was born in the 90s, cannot easily relate to. Yet, through the various tricks up Adler’s sleeve, I am somehow transported through the gritty streets of 70s New York experiencing all of Jen Fain’s experiences in my mind’s eye with unbelievable clarity. However, this clear and refined ability to transport readers is only half of what made Speedboat such a magnificent read for me. The other part of her equation is the ability to elicit empathy from the reader, to make me feel the anxieties, hopes, fears, and dreams of Jen Fain as he navigates the maze that is New York. These two abilities matched with elegant prose is what makes Speedboat such a great book.
There is a scene at the beginning of the novel where the protagonist see two rats at two different points in the city at different times. She sees the first one crossing her path in one of the myriad streets of New York and then the other in a restaurant during a dinner date. She then wonders if the first and second rat is the same rat seen on two different times in two separate points of New York City. Then she wonders if the rat is following her. Here is how Adler wrote the scene:
“The second rat, of course, may have been the first rat farther uptown, in which case I am either being followed or the rat keeps the same rounds and hours I do. I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time. Two rats, then.”
This scene, about something so innocuous as a rat, reveals immediately, at the start of the novel, the mental state of the protagonist. It’s a small anecdote yet it shows how Jen Fain is teetering on the edge of sanity, that her mind can be made anxious by a pair of two rats who are, by all laws of logic, unrelated to each other. And then she chose to be sane about it, to be not bothered by these two rats. Yet, in choosing how she would react to it, reveals that this “profound moral option”, sanity, is something that is not involuntary to her. She has to choose to be sane instead of being sane by default.
Throughout its 170 pages, the book is like this. There are no grand expositions that goes on for pages and pages explaining piece-by-piece Fain’s motivation and development. Instead, we are given anecdotes that, most of the time, does not even fill a whole page. These anecdotes are our guides in revealing Fain’s character and forming our impression of her is like completing a jigsaw puzzle made of a thousand pieces. You get tiny bits of information and then you place them in relation to one another in order to get an idea on who Jen Fain really is and, even if you reach the end of the book, it could feel that you may never know her fully, that the puzzle will never be solved.
Reading Speedboat feels like living someone else’s dreams mainly because the writing is almost hallucinatory where the events in the novel feel like they are occurring in a plane of existence different from our own. After all, events in Speedboat does not follow temporal and sometimes even spatial logic. Such a structure, I must admit, was an impediment at times and the novel did test my patience for a bit when I started to read it. This is my 2nd attempt to read Speedboat with the first resulting in my surrender because I wasn’t patient with it and I didn’t read it with the thoroughness that it required of me. I can imagine why some people won’t like it and I’m not saying that they are wrong. What I’m saying is that this novel worked for me because at some point in my reading of the novel, everything fell into place and clicked for me.
Of course, a book structured like this is an arrogant piece of work. It says to potential readers: “I am unconventional and I have no plot. Bah! I don’t care whether or not you will like me.” Which makes it not a mystery that it has its detractors and their opinions are no more valid than mine. My final word on this is this: Rarely will you find a book like this in the “canon”. The only book that comes close is Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and these similarities are but tiny slivers which is a different and more convoluted way of saying that Speedboat is unique. Here I am rambling. What I should be saying is this: Read it! Read!