Speedboat by Renata Adler
I was introduced to Renata Adler because of Guy Fieri.
A few years back, I was blabbing loudly at a party about a famous takedown of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. Maybe you know this review. It’s written entirely in questions? Addressed to Mr. Fieri himself? Anyway, I was at a party spouting wrong and ridiculous hyperbole about this Guy Fieri take. I was probably calling it my favorite piece of writing of all time. I was quoting it (badly) from memory. Don’t all rush to invite me to your parties now.
Graciously, a near-stranger interjected to steer the conversation away from Guy Fieri. This person directed the group’s attention to another famous takedown, this one Renata Adler’s, “The Perils of Pauline.” The next week, I spotted Speedboat on a shelf at the library and, recognizing Adler’s name from that earlier conversation, I took the book home with me.
Speedboat is narrated by Liz Fain, a journalist living in New York City as the world winds toward the millennium. Though it was first published in the 1970s, Adler’s literary it-girl glamour has held up well over the last 40 years. In many ways, Speedboat sits comfortably alongside more contemporary examples of books by and about whip-smart writer types in the big city: How Should A Person Be by Sheila Heti, Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, and The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits are some 21st century analogs that come to mind. Authors in this canon are memoirists, critics, and women about town. They write autobiographically, or if they write fiction each protagonist bears a close likeness to the author herself. These are writers for whom the creative process seems to entail just about every activity besides sitting down in a quiet room with a pen and a pad of paper. They work day jobs and keep busy social calendars. In my mind’s eye, they are perpetually riding the subway in outfits both impeccable and understated. They explode the truism that “writers write.” What do writers do? As Liz Fain puts it in Speedboat, “Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep.” Writers do not simply write.
Despite the many similarities it shares with a handful of books on my shelf, Speedboat is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Adler’s narrator disappears and reappears from one paragraph to the next as her prose vacillates between a diarist’s first person and a reporter’s third. There is no discernible plot. Or rather, if ever I believe I have finally discerned a plot I am promptly punished for believing so. The thread I cling to disappears completely or resolves without fanfare. Mapping conflict and resolution in Speedboat is like trying to navigate a house of mirrors with a kaleidoscope held to each eye. At first I feel like I am being mocked; soon, I am transfixed. This book, in its subject and tone, may claim membership with the cool kids, but Adler’s taunts are way more kindly magician than Mean Girls.
In “The Perils of Pauline”—the piece of writing that led me, miraculously, from Guy Fieri to Liz Fain—Adler describes the hazards of criticism. Those critics who stay in the business for too long go “simultaneously shrill and stale.” They express themselves in superlatives and rely on hackneyed tricks. “The Perils of Pauline” is indeed a takedown review, but ironically the object of takedown here is the takedown review itself. Adler holds in her crosshairs the kind of writing that reduces ideas to blurbs and opinions to thumbs in one direction. Adler dons the role of the critic in “The Perils of Pauline” because she fears what will happen to writing in general if someone does not step in. She intervenes because the consequences of stale, shrill criticism exceed the purview of the critic. “What really is at stake,” she warns, “is prose and the relation between writers and readers.”
Disparaging remarks about the chicken tenders at Guy Fieri’s new restaurant might be good for a quick laugh or a talking point at a party, but for Adler they spell doom. And while criticism can hardly restore the quality of literary engagement that it erodes—as “The Perils of Pauline” suggests, any attempt to take down takedowns with a takedown quickly becomes absurd—fiction is a sanctuary in which readers and writers can make amends. In 2017, Speedboat reads like an encounter with a friend against a stark landscape of clickbait, content farms, and flashy takes. Adler never writes in the way I might expect; this is what it is to be in her company. –Louise McCune