I love the laconic. Clearly, I am not of their number.

Speedboat, by Renata Adler

If I’d known better I would have left more time between reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Both feature fractured out-of-sequence narratives; each centered on a woman adrift in her life who writes for a living and whose sharp observations comprise the book.

Speedboat is probably the better of the two, but for me was lessened by being read after the Offill, with Speedboat seeming to adopt themes and techniques from the much later-published Speculation. That’s unfair, but at the same time given both novels’ approach to chronology it’s also oddly appropriate.


Jen Fain is a thirtysomething New York journalist and academic. The book is snapshots of past incidents and present situations, each interspersed with observations about her friends and colleagues and what she sees around her. As a reader you have to put it all together; you have to work to make sense of her life from the noise and absence of narrative.

Jen has the same problem as the reader. As a journalist it’s her job to create narrative – to carve it from the chaos of fact. Once she covered a story on the Biafran war. She could make no sense of it. She says “The truth, I would like to say here, is as follows. But I can’t.” She could be speaking of her life.

The tone is sharp and witty, yet melancholic. Jen is successful at work but drifts through a series of interchangeable relationships with interchangeable men, all the while coolly observing her own cultural context as if she were an anthropologist on assignment. In this way Speedboat is a particularly modern book, despite having been written nearly 40 years ago.

Weekends, I took trains. You never knew whom you might meet. There was a man who peddled cigars, cigarettes, and what he pronounced “magazynes” outside the Philadelphia station, and a dining-car waiter who offered you among other cheeses, “camemberry.” I never did meet anyone.

The quote above is fairly typical. The book’s littered with little asides, each perceptive and off-kilter, often raising questions but offering few answers. She talks in one section of the town she grew up in. It had suffered devastating industrial fires in the 1930s and Ren recalls hearing of one business owner who had lost everything and who walked on the railroad tracks hoping to be killed. Ren observes: “Railroad service has never been very good up there. No trains came. His children own the town these days, for what it’s worth.”

Years later the town gentrified and ultimately integrated. “The black section was torn up and seeded over in the town’s rezoning project. No one knows where the blacks live now.” That’s neatly written, though on reflection it occurred to me that presumably the blacks themselves know where they live. Ren’s viewpoint is both privileged and partial – ennui has always required an income.

Speedboat is often very funny, and for me never more so than when describing the life of the college where Jen teaches as part of the Drama and Cinema department. In this quote, Art want to do a course on Space on Film, encroaching dangerously on Drama and Cinema’s turf. The Dean of Cultural Affairs calls a meeting of the departments to discuss the issue:

Our branch of the university is accustomed anyway to jurisdictional disputes. Drama and Cinema grew out of a workshop that existed many years ago to remedy the accents of bright city girls, who could not afford college out of town. When such programs became unfashionable, the staff chose to become two faculties: Dramatistics, and Perspectives in Media. Within a year, the Media people chose to join the newer Department of Minority Groups and Social Change—which already offered History of Broadcasting 204, 301, and Seminar and whose course on Prostitution, Causes and Origins, was being televised. The Dramatistics people felt they could not attract students, or budget allocations, on their own. They added Film. Our department changed its name, and became what it now is. Our Drama people are trying to take over the English Department’s course Creative Writing 101; Playwriting A. The English Literature people are beleaguered on another side. For twenty years, they have had The Brothers Karamazov (translated, abridged). The Department of Russian Literature, which teaches all its courses in translation now, wants Dostoevski back.

The Drama people have designs in other fields: Ibsen and Strindberg, in particular—which seems reasonable enough, since all the texts are plays. Ibsen and Strindberg, however, belong, with Swinburne, to the Department of Germanistics and Philology. Between 1938 and 1949, all German courses were unpopular. The German Literature people simply seized Ibsen and Strindberg—and by some misunderstanding, which was noticed too late, got Swinburne as well. There were no Drama people, or any other sort of people, at that time, to compete. Chekhov, meanwhile, for reasons that, I am afraid, are clear, is taught in the Classics Department (Greek 209C). The operative principle appears to be that if any thing or person mentioned in another department could conceivably be mentioned in your own, you have at least an argument to seize the course. One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.

Adler knows what she’s doing and so Speedboat does come together, becoming more than just a series of amusing anecdotes, entertaining asides and occasional aphorisms. Instead it becomes a vision of a certain society at a certain place and time – 1970s New York intellectuals. America here seems jaded, unpopular abroad and mired in the Watergate scandal at home.

Intelligent people, caught at anything, denied it. Faced with evidence of having denied it falsely, people said they had not done it and had not lied about it, and didn’t remember it, but if they had done it or lied about it, they would have done it and misspoken themselves about it in an interest so much higher as to alter the nature of doing and lying altogether. It was in the interest of absolutely nobody to get to the bottom of anything whatever.

New York intellectuals are not a group who’ve struggled to get their voices heard over the years, and the Brooklyn novel (which this isn’t, but is perhaps a parent to) has become a genre that many readers now wearily recoil from. Adler can’t however be blamed for others having swam in her wake, and while her strengths are those you’d expect from reading those who followed her (Offill, Lerner) that doesn’t change the fact that this is a very well written book.

Speedboat is intelligent, perceptive and funny. Adler can stop a sentence on a dime, and the result is that the book remains always entertaining even when you’re not quite sure where it’s going. It’s a book that demands a certain trust and commitment from the reader, but for me at least it repaid both.

I’ll end on one  final quote, chosen because it near-perfectly illustrates the unusual combination of wit and insight that’s so typical here:

The judge had quite a number of generous impulses. He gave himself full credit for each of them. He did not carry any of them out. As a result, he was often puzzled and aggrieved by the demands the people closest to him seemed to make upon him. Though he would be the last man in the world to ask for thanks, he could not understand why they were, on the whole, so damned ungrateful.

Other reviews

Jacqui of JacquiWine’sJournal has written a stonkingly good piece here, which inspired me to put this on my #TBR20.  I also discovered online a typically incisive piece by Simon of Tredynas Days, here, which is slightly less positive than Jacqui’s. I’m sure I’ve read others, but couldn’t find them while putting this together so please do remind me in the comments.

On a final aside, I read this a little while after my return from my holiday in Gozo. In the book Jen remembers a holiday she had, also in Gozo. It made me rather wish I’d read it while there, what were the odds that I’d go to so obscure a location then only shortly after read a book with scenes set in the same place?


Filed under Adler, Renata

11 responses to “I love the laconic. Clearly, I am not of their number.

  1. Tredynas Days

    Thanks for the kind mention, Max, and an excellent review. I’ve revisited Speedboat a fair bit since my piece on it, & have come to value it much more highly, for the reasons you give so eloquently here. I particularly like your description of Jen carving narrative from ‘the chaos of fact’. Spot on.

  2. I didn’t rate Dept. of Speculation too highly – although it had some clever observations and was excellent in parts, it just didn’t quite come together for me. But it sounds like Renata Adler might have pulled it off – making it something greater than the sum of the fragmentary parts.

  3. Thanks Simon. I did have the definite advantage of already having read your piece before writing mine…

    Marina, nor did I to be honest. The Adler is the better book, it’s just that reading it soon after the Offill didn’t help the Adler. Space them out properly though so it has its own space and I think it’s one you could well find yourself rereading as Simon has.

  4. Col

    Years ago I shared a flat with a bloke who was an English teacher. Despairing of my reading material he lent me Speedboat – and I loved it! ( though I committed the cardinal sin of not giving him the book back!)

  5. I’ve looked at Speedboat a couple of times–mainly because it’s a NYRB title and passed it by because I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Now I think I might.
    You can’t read a book in isolation, can you? We’re inevitable influenced by what we’ve just finished.

  6. Terrific review, Max – and thanks for the link to my piece, very kind. Like Simon, I picked up on your description of Jen carving narrative from the chaos of fact – that’s a great way of expressing it! I loved the fluidity of this novel, the way it slipped from one fragment to the next. Everything felt so cool and effortless although I’m sure that wasn’t the case at all. A lot of work has gone into this and, as you point out, Adler knew full well what she was doing here. I really would like to reread it at some point, especially as your review has reminded me of so many of the fragments I had almost forgotten about (that section on the Drama and Cinema Department, for instance).

    As I think you know, I wasn’t crazy about the Offill, but it did succeed in building over time – a kind of cumulative effective if you like. Speedboat, on the other hand, I loved from the get-go as the quality of Adler’s writing just pulled me right in. I have another Adler (Pitch Dark) in my TBR – one to bump up the pile, I suspect.

  7. Col, I think when lending books it’s always best to work on the assumption one will never see it again. Even if it does come back, it often comes back beaten up and bashed in. Besides, you loved the book, what better result could a book-lender ask for than that?

    Guy, I needed tipping over myself. I looked at this several times in shops and read several reviews, but wasn’t certain. I think it was Jacqui that finally persuaded me to try it.

    And yes, every book is influenced by the circumstances in which we read it. I don’t think one can worry too much about that. Another order of reading or more time between might have been better, but we read as we read and if we waited for perfect conditions we’d never read anything.

    Jacqui, fluid is a great word here. It slips back and forth, and as you say has that appearance of effortlessness which one knows must be born of a huge amount of effort.

    The drama and cinema department quote didn’t really need to be in the review, and arguably was too long to make a good quote, but it was so funny I thought it worth including anyway. It’s easy to make books like this sound a bit offputting, but it’s not at all.

    The Offill seems well loved by those who’ve read it twice. It may be a slow burner, or it may be that having read it twice one has to justify the investment of time… I don’t know, but I plan to reread it at some stage to see what I think.

  8. This is an author who has received a fair amount of attention over the past year or so (especially in North America). The setting of her work has never appealed. But I am interested in what you say about narrative technique here. I will have to look at Jacqui and Simon’s reviews, and keep it in mind. But I do suspect this is not the time for me and this book. Thanks for such an intelligent review.

  9. I really liked this, it’s funny and playful (both in form and tone, as per the section you’ve extracted) and Adler is able to use the structure and voice to manufacture some arresting disjunctions, some switchbacks of incident or mood that strike quite powerfully.

    I read this and Ofill the “right” way round, and though I’m fonder of Dept of Speculation then you Max, I agree this is more ambitious, more affecting. Having said that both are books I plan to reread – it’ll be interesting to see if my view of either changes.

    Adler’s follow up (Pitch Dark) is similar but more of an oddity. It’s both more coherent, in terms of having a recognisable main theme or storyline, and also more fantastical, which possibly reflects on the mind of a more troubled protagonist. I wonder what you, Jacqui and others who’ve read Adler would make of it.

  10. It’s definitely the technique rather than the setting that interests. Another novel about the New York intelligentsia scene is pretty yawn-worthy, even a classic one like this. The structure of the book though, that’s interesting.

    Ian, playful in form and tone is a good way of putting it. And yes, Adler is very good at striking disjunctions.

    Speculation certainly isn’t bad, but I didn’t love it as I’d hoped and found it harder to remember a while after. I do wonder if in part structure can affect memorability. Classic narrative storytelling is powerful in part because it resonates with something fairly deep in us, it’s easy to recall a straightforward narrative. remembering a dislocated one may be inherently harder.

    I do plan to read Pitch Dark, but Jacqui I think will probably get there first.

  11. I really like the drama and cinema department quote, it reminds me of an early Woody Allen film.

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