Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Renata Adler, SPEEDBOAT

Renata Adler, Speedboat
originally published 1976
republished by New York Review Books, 2013

By the time Speedboat was, at last, republished, at least a dozen people had ordered me to read it, including some of the very smartest people I know.  The book is a legend among writers of fiction, especially among those of us who aspire to fiction that is more open, more directly responsive to life and the present moment, and less tied to plot.  (I apologize for not being able to say it any better than that.)

I worry that I started imitating this book before I ever got the chance to read it.  Reading it and rereading it, I feel vindicated, helped and championed: yes, this is a thing which is possible, which I hoped would be possible, but didn’t quite know how, or didn’t have the nerve.  What a pleasure it is to experience Adler’s victory, a book which succeeds because it never lets up with brilliance, wit, and truth-telling till it stops on a dime.

The crisp, dead-pan voice of the narrator is made for satire.  Yet, when the book succeeds in this way, sending up life in the university or the newsroom, is also when the book risks ordinariness.  You’re at a cocktail party with a brilliant friend and she’s telling the deadly and hilarious truth -- it’s a thrill, but it’s a known thrill.  I like Speedboat better when it’s most fragmented (the last chapter) and best of all when it’s most strange.  For me, the best moment in the book, the point from which it commands my utter allegiance, is the chapter which begins:

“The camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great difficulty, through the eye of the needle.  The Apollo flight, the four-minute mile, Venus in Scorpio, human records on land and at sea -- these had been events of enormous importance.  But the camel, practicing in near obscurity for almost two thousand years, was passing through.  First the velvety nose, then the rest.  Not many were aware.  But if the lead camel and then perhaps the entire caravan could make it, the thread, the living thread of camels, would exist, could not be lost.  No one could lose the thread.”

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