By Renata Adler
Goodreads Rating: 3.8 out of 5
GL Rating: 5.5
I believe I heard about Speedboat in an article about famous writers’ favorite writers. Top 10 lists, etc. Speedboat made it onto Joan Didion’s list. I saw it on a table in a bookstore in Cold Spring a couple of weeks ago, and, turning to the proprietor, said, “I’ll have Speedboat please!”
I spent the first 60 pages in love with it, but then earlier this week, as I was tooling around in the East Village, attempting a dismounted flight from a malaise, I stumbled into an independent bookstore I’d not heard of before, Codex, on Bleecker Street. I saw Speedboat on display inside.
“I’m reading that!” I announced to the woman behind the counter. She had also read it, and when I asked her what she thought, I saw a hint of a cloud pass over her face.
“It’s a bit...”
In a flash, having thought of myself up to that point as a disciple of the book, I could see she was going to make unkind comments about it, and I attempted to anticipate her beef:
Kind of, was the employee’s response. She took offense to the way the book trashed hippies.
I don’t recall substantial hippy-trashing in Speedboat, you wouldn’t say it was a counter-hippy platform. However, after I realized and verbalized the idea that there was something bitchy or even a bit cruel in the book’s perspective, I subsequently found it difficult not to see the writing through that lens. Coupled with the fact that Speedboat is not really a novel (it was originally serialized in the New Yorker, and I wonder if it was originally intended to be a novel), I decided to put it down around page 80.
It’s easy to see how Speedboat came to enjoy the high regard its held in by writers and critics. The book brims with very funny, beautifully structured, and wonderfully nihilistic prose and observations. I flag good writing as I read books, and my copy of Speedboat is festooned with flags. I am very glad that I read the first half, and my gripes with it are subjective, maybe even transitory.
But now for more undermining.
The problem with the book, a sense that Adler spends 80% of it punching down, pointing out other peoples’ stupidity, could have been ameliorated by more insight from the narrator into her own interiority. Jen Fain, at least for the first 80 pages, is mostly a cypher. She spends her time observing and sneering at those in her orbit. At some point I started involuntarily attaching Anna Wintour’s persona to the Fain/Adler, and that may have been the coup de grace.
I mentioned that there’s no plot, right? There’s little to no plot.
There are a couple of tricks that Adler has up her sleeve as a writer, e.g. wildly eclectic biographical details for her characters, but she leans on it too much. Through repetition it began to feel less like a secret power and more like a crutch.
Final thoughts: I’d recommend the book, even though I didn’t finish it. The prose is that good, even if it’s fatally flawed as a novel.