Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Renata Adler, _Speedboat_

ALTHOUGH IT WAS, indeed, the NYRB Classics reprint that inspired me to read this, it so happened I already owned a copy, picked up at a garage sale in the Chicago suburbs in the mid-1980s for, I think, a dollar.

It's a first edition, second printing, from 1976 or 1977, I suppose; to judge from the book's spine, its original purchaser never got past the first dozen pages. We've all been there, no? A book gets an avalanche of rave reviews or wins a prize, we buy a copy, congratulating ourselves for making the effort to keep up with cultural developments, find the opening pages tough sledding, give up without ever admitting to ourselves that we are giving up, and then some years later the book is in a box at a garage sale, along with Diet for a Small Planet and a Jane Fonda workout tape.

Which may go to explain why the book feels like a road not taken. In 1976, one could have read Speedboat thinking that in ten or twenty years time most novels would be like this--but no such luck. Is there, I wonder, an alternate universe a few clicks to one or the other side of ours where the author every American woman writer born after 1970 reveres is not Joan Didion, but Renata Adler? And is there, I wonder, a way to get there?

Like Didion (like Nora Ephron, for that matter), Adler did her apprentice work not in an MFA program but as a journalist, so like Didion's, her writing carries the feeling that she has been places and seen things and met people. Like The White Album, Speedboat is about the hangover that tightened like a C-clamp on the national temples after the intoxication of the 1960s (though we are on the East Coast in Adler, not the West). Adler's prose, like Didion's, is quick, graceful, knowing, edged. But there are also here a lot of qualities one doesn't often find in Didion--humor, audacity, self-awareness, sexiness--and that one wishes we had a little more of nowadays.  (Actually, maybe we do have enough self-awareness--hold that order.)

It could be a novel composed of short stories--one of its chapters won a short story prize--except that these chapters don't read like classic Munro-style short stories, but rather like short stories composed of short-short stories, or what might have been called "vignettes" once, arranged in discontinuous, disjunctive collage fashion. You have to be very alert to catch the narrator's name--it's Jen Fain, apparently--and there are only a handful of names that recur at all (Aldo, Jim). Each chapter has a kind of center of gravity (a setting, a time period) but no story line, per se, nor is there a lot in the way of obvious development from chapter to chapter, or from beginning to end. But every sentence counts, every episode lands somewhere new. It's a really, really good book.

It's a novel that may be a lightly disguised memoir, one suspects, its journalist/teacher narrator a doppelgänger of Adler herself, its characters quickly recognizable to anyone who happened to share her milieu. In that alternate universe, no doubt there is a richly annotated critical edition for classroom use, identifying who the model of each character was.  If I ever acquire a copy, the first thing I'm checking is whether Manley DuBois is Truman Capote.

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