Reading the recommendations of established authors lets you look into the mind of an artist in a unique way; you don’t just see how they love to create, but the creations of others that they admire.
by Renata Adler
Originally Published in 1976
[NYRB Classics; Reprint edition, 2013]
A while ago I stumbled across David Foster Wallace’s Literary Analysis class syllabi and decided I would read through it. I started at the top with Speedboat by Renata Adler and immediately realized that this is the book that I’ve always wanted to write, but never had the guts or the ingenuity to pull off.
As the first book on Wallace’s list, I had no idea what to expect. David Foster Wallace is such an odd character that I wasn’t sure what he would find significant when it came to contemporary novels, but I should have trusted that he might have sophisticated taste. I came, I saw, I assumed, and we all know where it got me.
I think most people would call this novel experimental fiction though it has nothing on the likes of works like Naked Lunch or The Collected Works of Billy the Kid when it comes to weirdness. Those novels played with some crazy content and structure, but Speedboat manages to rearrange both of these just enough, using vignettes about the details of the protagonist’s life to carry the story rather than a traditional, consecutive narrative arc.
Though the chapters progress in a somewhat linear fashion, each section is broken up into multiple smaller paragraphs that jump around in time, some which fill a few pages and others that last for only a few sentences at a time. Each of these chapters might concern itself with a certain period of Jen’s life or it might simply be tied together with a loose theme, and this varies throughout the work.
Each memory or story, each tiny paragraph, takes some ordinary happenstance and turns it into opportunities for sometimes humorous, but mostly painful, recognitions of our own humanity.
Narrowing her focus on Jen’s voice, experiences, memories, and observations doesn’t mean that the scope of the book is too limited to engage the reader in a broader way. This book is littered with tangential characters that either play repeated roles in Jen’s narrative because she’s in a relationship with them or singular roles that end after one paragraph; random and the significant people in her life play almost equally important roles in informing who the character is and what her viewpoints are.
I love that, because the idea of every individual as an entire unknowable universe unto themselves is preoccupying, and one that has become more a part of our cultural conversation, especially with the increased influence of social media on our perceptions of one another. Even if we shared every experience and secret with the people we loved, there will always be an element of impenetrableness to each of us because we can’t feel another’s joy or pain, and this novel tears it UP when it comes to conveying that very principle.
Adler manages to present this idea in a way that draws us close to Jen and away from her surroundings, highlighting the fact that she observes and participates in many story lines without being able to permanently connect her life or experiences to the people she meets or loves. Though she’s the primary witness to these people and their stories, she continues to feel separate from them and even compares relationships to taking hostages, hardly a reciprocal or symbiotic image. Toward the end of the book discusses a pregnancy in this way:
“The idea of hostages is very deep. Becoming pregnant is taking a hostage–as is running a pawnshop, being a bank, receiving a letter, taking a photograph, or listening to a confidence. Every love story, every commercial trade, every secret, every matter in which trust is involved, is a gentle transaction of hostages. Everything is, to a degree, in the custody of every other thing. Blackmail, kidnapping, then, are among the extreme violations of the deal. Anyway, I seem to be about to have Jim’s child; at least, I think I will, and the thing is I haven’t mentioned it to Jim.”
What makes this a modern novel is the sense of isolation and power struggle despite the fundamental interconnectedness of society and the subjectivity of meaning as drawn from individual experience. Each memory or story, each tiny paragraph, takes some ordinary happenstance and turns it into opportunities for sometimes humorous, but mostly painful, recognitions of our own humanity. These everyday occurrences are what we must draw some meaning and life from, even when the pattern isn’t immediately recognizable, and Adler maintains the novel’s structure to make that exact point.
Even with Jen’s intuitive journalistic eye, she still can’t articulate her own story in a way that doesn’t end up sounding like an evasion of what she sees in herself, and these dodges become as significant as the concrete action on the page. Toward the end of the book, there’s a chapter entitled The Agency which has a repeating paragraph that goes like this: “Don’t dwell on it,” the shuffling man is now saying to himself. “Don’t dwell on it.” I think this is just as much Adler’s expression of the voice of modernity as it is Jen’s own internal monologue.
Renata Adler uses this book to stack our own experiences and thought processes against us, hoping to reveal our own paths of truth making and self-discovery, for better or for worse. I can’t imagine that any following books on David Foster Wallace’s list can get me quite the way this one did, but this was an auspicious start.
If you’re looking for a book that reminds you of yourself and manages to explain your own identity to you, Adler pulls that off here magnificently well.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.