“Speedboat” and “Pitch Dark”, by Renata Adler

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I have, I admit, no idea what Renata Adler’s Speedboat is about. Really, not the foggiest. But this is a very special sort of mystification, an unqualified – maybe even a purer – kind of no idea than my usual ‘what-the-fuck-is-going-on?’ kind of no idea. I have no idea what Speedboat is about not in the way I have no idea what Infinite Jest is about, or anything David Lynch’s done, that Holy Motors movie, or, let’s see, what else – Paradise Lost, Naked Lunch, most French films, Gaddis, Kakfa, McCarthy, Perec, everything I read as a college sophomore, and loads of other books/movies/poems I’m embarrassed to mention. In contrast, the not-knowing-ness of Speedboat is built-in and by design: I (hope I) am not missing any higher plane of meaning or fumbling the symbolism; there aren’t dozens of intricate, overlapping storylines that have me instantly and irretrievably lost.

What it is is this: I have no idea what Speedboat is about because Speedboat isn’t about anything, at least not in the sense of quick-pitch, ready-for-back-cover exposition. And this, weird as it seems, is a big part of, or at least inseparable from, the immense, startling pleasure this book offers.

But to say that Speedboat has nothing going on, plot-wise, isn’t quite right. There is in fact a great deal of goings-on; it’s just that none of it is organized/structured via any of the more “standard” literary methods and schemata. The book has no narrative arc, no traditional storyline, no build-up or denouement or climax, no obvious character development or big-C Conflict. Speedboat is, rather, a series of… something I don’t quite know the word for, but whatever it is, it encompasses observations, anecdotes, pensees, diatribes, jokes, tragedies, mini set pieces, monologues, and etc. I am, both for convenience’s sake and in homage, going to call these units ‘renatas.’

Most renatas are only a few paragraphs long; plenty of them are a single sentence. Though some are snapshots of a larger setting/scene (the pathetic, hilarious politics/machinations at a small university for one), most are connected to each other only in the sense that they’re told from the perspective of an ultra-neurotic female journalist (whom I suppose we can call the protagonist); or they occur in her stunningly, meticulously observed universe; or, at the very, very least, are relayed in her splendid, brilliant, weirdly reportorial, off-in-the-best-possible-way voice.

Such is Speedboat’s astonishing consistency that literally any renata could demonstrate what I’m talking about; I’ll pick one short enough to quote in its entirety:

In the bar of his father’s hotel, with the leather chairs that give one the feeling of sitting in a wallet, Dommy has introduced a new drink, Last Mango in Paris. A steep decline.

If Dommy, Dommy’s father, Last Mango in Paris, the bar or its chairs are mentioned anywhere else in the book, I missed it.

Renata Adler

Renata Adler

There isn’t any apparent map here. To illustrate, I’ll open the book to random pages and briefly describe what’s there. Here we go: a bit about the portentous Christmas rituals of some German family; a boy who can’t afford to pay his barber; a stirring salute to the laconic; a writer named Manley Dubois whom women can’t help but confess to; a school principal admonishing his students for mispronouncing “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on. It seems weird and off-putting, I know, but each renata is sublime, and the aggregate is magical, something that should, according to our standard model of literary physics be impossible–a book of perpetual surprise and delight. Yes, Speedboat may be confusing, but it’s confusing in a warm, comfortable, lovely way.

I know what you’re thinking, you lit mag-overloaded Lydia Davis-philes. So listen: This is not a book of stories. There’s a genius here not just to the content but also to the content’s orchestration, to the renatas’ calculated interplay and combined effect. The book is held together masterfully, and it’s held together by something much deeper, if sneakier, than plot.

Because Speedboat somehow does without plot all the stuff that is usually plot’s responsibility. Let’s talk about this for a second. Plot is, I think, a misunderstood device (and it most certainly is a device). There is a tendency – most sharply felt in, of course, writing workshops – to approach, measure, and criticize literature primarily via plot. But man, what a boring way to read (and what a superficial way to write). Literature, to get cute about it, isn’t about the story; it’s about the telling – the whole point of the fictive exercise is to impart feeling, not knowledge, or, because that really is too cute a sum-up, to effect some sort of emotional/spiritual response in the reader. It’s true that we’re hardwired in some infinitely mysterious way to tell, listen, and relate to stories, but at their core, stories are vehicles to smuggle the more real but less tangible stuff in – suspense, heartbreak, triumph, sympathy, beauty, sublimity, defeat, ennui, whatever it is that gets you off. (I think this is why your college buddy’s acid trips and your bedmate’s dreams are always horribly, suicidally boring to listen to – it’s all meaningless, consequence-less, arbitrary bullshit.) I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, this definition: Literature is that which cannot be summarized. All I’m saying is that literature isn’t as much about the story as it is about creating the space where the story happens. And Speedboat has, in the fullest, most praiseworthy sense, created a space, one dictated and propelled by an emotional, not a narrative, engine.

The pleasures and satisfactions of Speedboat don’t arrive as payoff; the book is a constant, sentence-to-sentence joy. Adler is a breathtakingly precise writer. She can do more with a bunch of commas than most can do with entire books: “Edith, from Kiev, twice divorced, and in New York, in her own words, a “terrapist,” was stealing a bonbon from one of the trays on the Steinway grand.”


Pitch DarkIf over these past few weeks you’ve somehow missed the publicity and hoopla and what seems like several thousand Renata Adler readings (you should really try and catch one, by the way – they’re fun and light in a way readings almost never are), Adler’s two books of fiction, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, have recently been republished by the New York Review of Books’s Classics imprint, which I guess sort of canonizes them, which is all kinds of wonderful: these are gorgeous books that deserve every ounce of their recent readership and respect.

When released (or rereleased) in bulk, an artist or author’s disparate works become, for better or worse, some sort of holistic corpus, and is critically approached as such. Sometimes the works will be seen to complement each other, to display a progression/regression, some sort thematic or stylistic continuity or break. But two books as similar on the surface as Pitch Dark and Speedboat are, inevitably, in competition.

Pitch Dark, published seven years after Speedboat, is great, and you should, of course, totally read it. Like Speedboat, it’s comprised of magnificently written renatas. Pitch Dark, though, does have a wisp of a plot, and it’s a relatively standard love-had/love-lost sort of thing – female journalist travels to Ireland in the name of an affair; things do not go well; she’s gotta hightail it out of there – but told in a hyper-fragmented style that scrambles up time, place, memory, anecdote. (Admission: I wasn’t 100% sure what the core story was until I read Muriel Spark’s characteristically spot-on afterword.) There are beautiful literary refrains, conversation-snippets and phrases that keep repeating and function as a sort of emotional echo that reverberates throughout the book. “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?”

Pitch Dark is flawed, but it’s interestingly flawed in the sense that its shortcomings highlight just how sparkling a masterpiece Speedboat is. (For what it’s worth, Adler herself, as I heard her report at a reading, is far fonder of Pitch Dark than she is of Speedboat. Which discourages me not one whit.) Pitch Dark is beautiful, but it’s also confusing in a less welcoming way than Speedboat is; the traces of plot make it, weirdly enough, less accessible. I suppose that’s forgivable – such is the price of extreme originality…? – but I was continually distracted by my non-knowledge. It’s also less playful than Speedboat: I found myself longing for Speedboat’s limitless creation, that constant delight and surprise.

I’ll put it like this: If there’s what’s going on, I want to know, and I will be annoyed when I don’t. And if there isn’t, well, then I will be ecstatically ignorant.

Menachem Kaiser is a writer living between Brooklyn, NY and various eastern European countries. His work has appeared in Slate, Vogue, The Atlantic, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a book about narrative and WW2. More from this author →