Renata Adler, David Shields, and the Panic Tone

One of my frustrations with David ShieldsReality Hunger, which I’ve expressed once or twice, is that the book is better at railing against conventional novels than defending unconventional ones. Figuring I might understand Shields better if I read one of the novels that transformed his thinking, I found a used copy of Renata Adler‘s 1976 novel, Speedboat. (It’s out of print.)

Speedboat, Shields writes, “tantalizes by being simultaneously daring and elusive. The book builds: images recur, ideas are interwoven, names reappear. Paragraphs are miniature stories. She’s always present, teasing things apart, but not from a distance. There’s very little that’s abstract.” All true. The novel is brief, less than 200 pages, but it feels weighty, like a collection of a few hundred very brief short stories. In fact, it resembles the writing of Lydia Davis (who specializes in brief, aphoristic storytelling), both in its tone (knowing, sarcastic, melancholy) and its characters (intellectual, worldly). The narrator, Jen Fein, is a longtime journalist who has covered everything from apartment fires to war to the race relations; she lives in New York, where she teaches and occasionally assists on a political campaign. Men enter and exit her life. She goes to parties but doesn’t much enjoy them; she may be an alcoholic. The story shifts wildly from past and present, as she recalls her childhood, old news stories, past lovers, and lousy parties. It’s messy, but not deliberately confusing.

Still, Speedboat insists that it be read slowly; processing its jumbled narrative like you might any other brief novel would be like trying to gulp down Davis’ complete works in one sitting. But though the book requires a little work, Adler makes her protagonist’s motivations clear: She’s a woman who’s in the business of writing conventional narrative but has grown frustrated with its limitations. She complains about the unrealistic plots of the thrillers she reads, and mocks a woman at party who tries keep a conversation meaningful and linear, not “all private bon mots spliced together.” This fails, of course:

A McLuhanite apostle, revered as a physics genius in these circles, spoke. He was in his seventies, extremely hard of hearing. He spoke long and loudly. He continued speaking. “I’m sorry to have to interrupt,” the lady moderator said, after geologic time spans passed. He did not hear her. He went on.

“I’m very sorry to have to interrupt,” she said, more loudly. He heard nothing. He continued speaking. She kept trying.

Throughout the novel, Adler embeds reminders of Jen’s feelings about the absurdity of straight-ahead storytelling, culminating in a phone conversation between Jen and a friend that turns into a farcical party-line mess:

“Jim, I think we better…”

“Is this Washington 225-8462?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Could I speak with Ramon.”

“… but the highest respect for him close quote, paragraph.”

“Iss no here.”

“Jim, I’ll try…”

“… and costly litigation. Moreover, there is nothing…”

“…on hold for twenty-two minutes. I don’t call that stepped out. I call that…”

Those bits might give the impression that Speedboat is a cynical novel, but plenty of emotion thrums through the book. Jen, it becomes clear, is telling the story this way because she’s burying her anxieties, cloaking them them in aphorisms and party anecdotes. The tension in the novel stems from the question of how well she’s going to keep it together. And her anxiety isn’t just an abstracted feeling she gets from living in a world that has a “polo-playing Argentine existential psychiatrist” or hosts “the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena”; she’s stalked by feelings of violation, a worry about being attacked in her home (she buys a rifle), which may stem in part from her being raped by an ex-boyfriend. (He confesses to having sex with her while she was passed out, which he weirdly describes as “necrophilia.”) Adler makes no big noise about the event, pointing to it as a critical moment in her character’s life, the way another novelist might. The novel is not a story about violation and recovery; it’s a portrait of how one woman’s world reshuffles and upends when she loses a lot of her trust in it.

David Shields nicely summarized what’s going on in Speedboat not in Reality Hunger but in an essay for Salon ten years ago: “the panic tone is beautifully modulated, under complete control, even occasionally mocked.” As a strategy for Speedboat, evoking panic by tangling the narrative thread makes perfect sense, and I can meet Shields halfway and agree that Adler found a way into her story that’s both powerful and unconventional. Adler’s novel is impressive, beguiling, sad, funny, and, in its own peculiar way, coherent. But it’s not a novel that can serve as a model for any other kind of novel. Speedboat is simply the best Speedboat it can possibly be, and it accomplishes that by exemplifying an old-fashioned notion: form follows function.

6 thoughts on “Renata Adler, David Shields, and the Panic Tone

  1. thanks for this stunning review — I had never heard of the novel, but now I’m tempted to check it out. I’m always on the look out for deconstructed narratives that actually *work* as more than just thought experiments.

    1. Yeah, I had to order a used copy through B&N—looks like it’s been out of print since around the late 80s. Copies come cheap, though.

  2. I’ve got fond memories from reading the book when it first appeared. It was well-reviewed. I was going to add a snide: why don’t you check your library? Just checked mine, Vancouver Public Library. They’ve got five non-fiction titles. Not “Speedboat” though. I suppose this is why God gave us e-books and short-run printing. It’s time, Renata.

    My favorite Renata Adler quote: “Fear… is forward. No one is afraid of yesterday.”

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