You see things differently when you’re in love. Two outpatients from a methadone clinic slap each other on the corner. A goiter rides the crosstown bus. We attend a dinner party; none of the dogs have tails. Men in the map room of the New York Public Library surveil passing breasts. Nights slip by. I sit on the curb outside a magazine launch and watch a famous author pour cold water down a woman’s arm. “Don’t be jealous,” my companion says impatiently, cupping his own elbows. “He’s only applying a temporary tattoo.”
I was in love and then I wasn’t, and sometime during the drifting gray interim I was told by a bookseller friend to read Renata Adler’s 1976 debut, Speedboat, a novel that had long been out of print but was absolutely, he insisted, worth the trouble of the search. I did not know whether this recommendation was meant to be sympathetic or encouraging, but I found it on eBay in two minutes, for three dollars. My friend was correct, as booksellers usually are; it was as though the novel had outstretched arms and I fell in.
Speedboat has been described by many as a collage of vignettes and anecdotes, and this is accurate enough. There is no central plotline, not really, and those characters who do recur are rarely given the benefit of a 360-degree rendering. They appear in precise, sharply wrought scenes that arrive like a succession of swift punches to the gut. The novel may be a collage, yes, but the glue is flaking; the corners are coming up.
The first-person narrator of Speedboat is Jen Fain, a talented journalist in her thirties who drinks a lot (perhaps too much), entertains lovers who seem to bore her, and spends a significant amount of time in the company of others, alone. She is wry, intellectual, neurotic, feeling. She is paying a lot of attention. It’s quite likely that Jen is physically alluring, maybe a knockout. Given this complicated and potentially toxic combination, one gets the impression that she could break your heart a thousand times, if you dare allow her to know you. It bears mentioning that Jen Fain seems quite a bit like Renata Adler—the parallels have not escaped most reviewers—but this strikes me as more or less beside the point, though I throw it in here for those who appreciate the small shiver incurred when reality and fiction collapse.
Through Jen Fain’s eyes, reportage on a party can quickly become a subtle indictment of modern social behavior. The city and its inhabitants are brutal and absurd, comic and vulnerable, and Adler captures every nuance in short, bursting sections. She is gently mocking of urban depressives, but she is fluent in their language.
My friend across the hall, who owns the beagle, looked very sad all evening. He said, abruptly, that he was cracking up, and no one would believe him. There were sirens in the street. Inez said she knew exactly what he meant: she was cracking up also. Her escort, a pale Italian jeweler, said, “I too. I too have it….” Our sportswriter said he had recently met a girl whose problem was stealing all the suede garments of house guests, and another, in her thirties, who cried all the time because she had not been accepted at Smith. We heard many more sirens in the streets. We all went home.
To laugh knowingly, fondly, at this sort of gathering—what a familiar, normalizing comfort for a reader. (After all, how many urban depressives do we all know? Throw a party, take a head count.) Everyone is on edge, whatever gulf the edge may hang over. But as Jen returns from this incidental convocation of neurotics, a free-floating panic begins to swell. “When I wonder what it is that we are doing,” Jen thinks, “in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper—the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.”
Speedboat is, on top of everything else, a fantastic portrait of 1970s New York City; it is also an accurate a portrait of how we live now. People come and go. Moments of shock and ecstasy pass. Barriers collapse every day. At the birthday of an acquaintance a stranger asks to braid my hair and I find myself amenable; we stand in the center of the bedroom as his fingers lash three curls together. Nobody has touched me in this way since I was a small child, eating oatmeal before school as my mother tugged a comb through my hair—yet here we are, and we couldn’t be elsewhere. There is a constant thrum of affected intimacy in cities. We all see and reveal far too much, and then we’re gone. Life does not move along coherent and narrow vectors.
Adler’s ability to damningly articulate the human condition aside, I believe Speedboat also speaks to the way we read, perhaps now more than ever. We dip in and out. Novels, magazines, tablets, browsers. We move inelegantly from story to story, opening and closing and opening tabs. To take it all in is impossible, but we keep trying. Every time I bring a new book home from the store and add it to one of the piles, my own mortality seems to sharpen at the edges. But maybe it has always been this way.
I work in book publishing, and people in this industry talk about falling in love with books all the time. More often than not this phrase is evoked in the converse, emerging in the context of rejection. “I enjoyed this novel,” writes an editor to an agent, or an agent to an author, “but I just didn’t fall in love.” It might sound a little schmaltzy, I know, but the feeling is real. It’s a hinge. To fall in love with a book is to allow it to consume you, to configure it as the lens through which you experience the world.
To fall head over heels for Speedboat is a fitting reaction to this particular novel, I think. Language—not character, not culture, not love or money or society or truth or journalism or sex or politics or technology or connection, although all of these things are essential, are crucial satellites—pins the center of this book down. Language is the thing. Upon the first reading, during that gray and yawning time, I no longer wanted to see the world for another person; I wanted to see it refracted through Adler’s telling.
It’s quiet tonight; the air is cold and the streets are empty. Down the block a woman shouts, “You are nothing, nothing, nothing.” Dogs tap past in winter boots, staving off the sidewalk salt. An orgasm shudders up from the apartment below. Friends careen toward alcoholism, fame, domesticity, drudgery, everyone borne down by unstoppable trains. The heat turns on; the heat turns off. Doorbells ring, or a knock on the door. The books accumulate, as they always do, listing unevenly on shelves above us.
Anna Wiener lives in Brooklyn and works at Barer Literary.