Matthew Specktor

A Steeplechase Composed Entirely of Hurdles

In Praise of the Uncommon Wit of Renata Adler

Discussed: The Ghost of a Narrative, Something Aesthetically Disgusting, Men with Drinks in Both Hands, Author Photos by Richard Avedon, Watergate as a Cover-Up, Dreamy Weirdness, Scouring Power,Sharp Descriptions of Muppets, Manhatten [sic]

The opening was dazzling. The middle was dazzling. The ending was dazzling. It was like a steeplechase composed entirely of hurdles.”

The opening sentences of Renata Adler’s second novel, Pitch Dark, could almost be taken to describe her first. Speedboat is dazzling—in the sense, among others, that it’s disorienting, opaque—and if it’s “like” anything at all, a steeplechase of hurdles could be it. Then again, it might not be. You could say Speedboat is like a party line, like a still-wet painting stared at from too close, like an overheard conversation dominated by twenty-six people, like a radio with a restless operator twiddling the dial, like a game of chess (its first chapter is called Castling, and there’s something of the rook’s lateral and protective motion to how it unfolds): but, insofar as it resists most of fiction’s conventional organizing principles, the novel is a problem unto itself.

The book’s gnomic, jagged, centrifugal style is incredibly hard to account for, and to describe. Adler’s book has been championed—by David Shields and David Foster Wallace, among others—as a kind of anti-novel, a collage, or an assemblage: it’s said to have no plot to speak of, and while this description is almost true (there’s the ghost of a narrative, at least, a dramatic dilemma that surfaces and recedes over the course of 178 pages), it doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding what Speedboat is. It defines the novel in terms of what it lacks, which is always a bit of a dodge, and a disservice.

So Speedboat is an anti-novel, which is to say, an atypical novel. But the book isn’t particularly interesting just for failing to deliver the standard-issue dramatic goods, a failure it shares with hundreds of other experimental fictions of its era. (As Adler herself put it in her review of Godard’s Weekend, “There are few things more disgusting aesthetically than an audience avant garde on principle.”) Despite its title, there isn’t really much propulsive motion in Speedboat at all (the narrator, a reporter named Jen Fain, writes alternately for a tabloid and in a more investigative context; eventually she gets pregnant), yet somehow this doesn’t render it static: line for line and sentence for sentence, it seems to me thrilling.

All the men in the room had drinks in both hands. They had tried to extricate themselves from conversations by saying, “I guess I’ll have another drink. May I get one for you?” The trouble with this method is that it takes people right back where they came from; it is impossible to approach with one lady’s gin and tonic another lady who may be drinking Scotch. Escape procedures, however, were in full force. Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment—the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company at that very instant.

This passage is typical of Adler—it’s observant, funny, urbane—but, in context, it doesn’t particularly stand out. I plucked it from Speedboat practically at random, and even so it shows a goodly portion of what Adler gets up to. And, perhaps, what the author herself got up to in real life. In Adler’s author photo, taken by Richard Avedon, she wears the look of someone familiar with parties, probably important ones. Her tanned and liquid-eyed face is half-obscured by her own hand and an enormous hat, her affect that of a celebrity seeking anonymity on a yacht off the coast of Capri. A 1983 New York magazine profile of Adler is littered with boldfaced names—Jacqueline Onassis, Avedon, and Brooke Astor are listed among her friends.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Matthew Specktor is the author of American Dream Machine, forthcoming from Tin House. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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