Renata Adler's first novel, "Speedboat," published in 1976, is that kind of book. The kind you buy multiple copies of to push on friends, the kind you dog-ear and mark up until it could line a hamster cage. A talisman, a weapon, a touchstone. For me, this category includes V. S. Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas," Frederick Seidel's "Going Fast," Michael Herr's "Dispatches," Theodor Adorno's "Minima Moralia," John Crowley's "Little, Big." They don't always last — I don't press "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" or "Beyond Good and Evil" on people anymore. But that's the kind of book that kind of book is, burning in your thoughts, a grass fire, consuming the air.
Adler was a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, alternating for a time with Pauline Kael as the magazine's film critic (in 1980, in The New York Review of Books, Adler savaged Kael's collection "When the Lights Go Down" as "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless"). She wrote one perfect novel and one rumored to be perfect (I haven't yet read "Pitch Dark"), both newly reissued by NYRB Classics. Since then she has devoted herself entirely to journalism, publishing collections on politics and the media. Not many novelists have the guts (a hack reviewer's expression Adler deplores) to quit writing novels when they've said all they have to say.
"Speedboat" has no conventional plot or narrative. It has characters, sort of, and a semblance of continuity: It's the story of journalist Jen Fain, who drinks and goes to parties and falls out of relationships ("It is all weird. I am not always well"). But the novel is composed in brief fragments, without regard for chronological or thematic sequence, although patterns reveal themselves if you watch closely. It skips across the waves, gaining momentum, jarring the reader in his seat. David Shields, for whom it is definitely that kind of book, and for whom it serves as a model, describes it in "Reality Hunger":
"Speedboat" captivates by its jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone of voice. Adler confides, reflects, tells a story, aphorizes, undercuts the aphorism, then undercuts that. Ideas, experiences, and emotions are inseparable.
It's almost fair to say that the book is a collection of aphorisms rather than a novel, closer to Lichtenberg's "Waste Books" than to Bellow-Mailer-Pynchon-Vonnegut. The best way to review "Speedboat" would be to quote passages from it until I ran out of room. But they won't pay me for that, so I'll limit myself to a couple favorites:
I am not technically a Catholic. That is, I have not informed or asked the Church. I do not, certainly, believe in evolution. For example, fossils. I believe there are objects in nature — namely, fossils — which occur in layers, and which some half-rational fantasts insist derive from animals, the bottom ones more ancient than the top. The same, I think, with word derivations — arguments straining back to Sanskrit or Indo-European. I have never seen a word derive. It seems to me that there are given things, all strewn and simultaneous. Even footprints, except in detective stories, now leave me in some doubt that anyone passed by.
A "self-addressed envelope," if you are inclined to brood, raises deep questions of identity. Such an envelope, immutably itself, is always precisely where it belongs. "Self-pity" is just sadness, I think, in the pejorative. But "joking with nurses" fascinates me in the press. Whenever someone has been quite struck down, lost faculties, members of his family, he is said to have "joked with his his nurses" quite a lot. What a mine of humor every nurse's life must be.
"Undercutting" is, as Shields implies, Adler's métier. Note the way the introductory clause of this sentence undercuts itself: "In covering fires, murders, blasts, quotidian disasters, raffle winners, just walking through the streets, like everyone, I often meet a beggar." I suppose there are a few contemporary novelists who understand sentences well enough to construct a joke out of bare grammatical possibility like this, but Adler does it over and over: "Violent things are always happening to the very rich, and to the poor, of course."
Not all the set pieces work. Sometimes Adler's grotesques are too cartoonish (the panel with the Indo-Chinese lesbian restaurateur, "the Bulgarian movie personality from California" who's selling face cream, the organic-dog-food-pushing quarterback, the drunk Southern critic, the 9-year-old star of TV commercials, etc., would be plausible only in real life). But Adler risks such tonal lapses because she is determined to pop every last pretentiously swollen balloon in New York City — critics ("'Literally,' in every single case, meant figuratively"), analysts and analysands ("Therapists earned their living by saying, 'You're too hard on yourself'"), the radically chic ("Lots of cars had their headlights on. We weren't sure whether it was for or against peace, or just for highway safety"), academics and heads and politicians and committee chairs and bohemians and businessmen and Adler herself — I mean Jen Fain.
Fain is incapable of not turning everything she sees and hears and reads into a koan or quandary, recording the rituals and cant of upper-crust NYC in the '70s with an anthropologist's muddle of intimacy and distance (although she studied structural anthropology, "not field work"). "Speedboat" is as vital document of the last half of the American century as "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Right down to its final, just-right sentence, it's — well, it will literally knock your socks off. Read it.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By Renata Adler, NYRB Classics, 177 pages, $14