NYRB Classics discussion

This topic is about Speedboat
note: This topic has been closed to new comments.
Archive > August 2013: Speedboat

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Hi All,

This is where we will be discussing Renata Adler's SPEEDBOAT, our book selection for August. Apologies for the late start: we had a busy week here at NYRB last week, and we wanted to give people time to get their copies if they didn't already have them, etc. If need be, we can certainly run this discussion a bit into October.

So, what does everyone think so far?


message 2: by Cynthia (last edited Aug 18, 2013 12:38PM) (new)

Cynthia Dunn | 71 comments I ordered mine from the library so I should get it this week. They had to buy new copies because so many people had put it on reserve.

Seana | 405 comments I'm reading, but got it late, so it will be a bit. I am liking it, and enjoying its little vignettes, but am also finding it a bit dated, for lack of a better term. I'm actually looking forward to getting a bit more context. I also am having a hard time reading it strictly in sequence, so hope that doesn't end up mattering so much. We shall see.

Ryan I finished the book earlier this month, and have some mixed feelings about it.

I really liked the style/prose, and how the "story" is presented in the little vignettes, like Seana said, but, like she said, it felt dated. I think, at least for me, that's because, while I liked the style in which it was written, I found it hard to really care about what it was that was being written. It was a kind of view into a life of a privileged group of people doing the types of things that privileged, well-connected people do, like travel and hang out with their friends who know other quasi-famous people. I just had a hard time buying that kind of disaffected voice when it was coming from someone who clearly didn't face any/much adversity or challenges in her life.

So, I was able to appreciate it for its style, but really didn't care much for it otherwise.

New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Thanks so much for jumping in, everyone.

I'm interested to hear some of you bring up the feeling that this book "dates"itself. Though I don't really see this as a strike against the book in terms of quality (I really, really enjoyed it), I did get the same impression at times. I'm intrigued by the idea that this has something to do with the privileged-people-doing-privileged-things theme. However, I'm wondering if there's something more to it. After all, isn't the aforementioned subject matter pretty timeless?

On a slight change of subject, I'm interested to hear more thoughts about the vignette style of the novel itself. I'm sort of a sucker for the 'snapshot' form and felt pretty swept away by Adler's dreamy way of hopping from one moment to the next with little to no concern for linearity. But how, I wonder still, does she keep it together? What is that thread? The character's quiet despair or, opposite that, her tenacity? I couldn't decide.

Just wondering: Seana, did you end up reading the vignettes in or out of sequence?

message 6: by Seana (last edited Aug 23, 2013 11:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seana | 405 comments I wonder if dated really was the word I was looking for, Abigail. I think I mean that its anxieties seem pre-millennium. It's almost as if we have now lived out its implications. It bears a resemblance to our era but is actually fairly different.I was struck by how early airport security was in place, for instance, even if not ramped up to its shoeless, body scanning state yet. But there is still a feeling of anticipating disaster, rather than having lived disaster in the post 9/11 world.

I am actually not done with it yet. The format lends itself to reading in small doses. And I'm continuing to read out of order for some reason.

Some people in the group may remember that we read Berlin Stories by Robert Walser here awhile ago, and it's interesting to compare his impressions of city living with Adler's. Oddly, his thoughts seemed a little more relevant to my daily lived experience than Adler's. And I think the test of her work here will be how much of these vignettes come back to us over time.

Kristin | 11 comments I read someone call the style of Speedboat "proto-blogging," which I like, but it does a disservice to what I do see as an intentional structure, looping back on itself and revisiting scenes and threads. The fact that so many of these passages end with what feel like straight-faced punchlines really drew me along.

If I had to pick a thread that continues throughout the book, Abigail, tenacity seems close, but that implies some kind of positive forward motion to me, even hope. Here, she keeps going because what else is she going to do? It strikes me as somewhere between the blankness and absurdity of earlier existentialist literature, and the neurosis and self-deprecation of the McSweeney's crowd at the turn of the millennium.

I was very conscious of the book being of another era, but it didn't feel dated as such. I've been hyper-aware recently of things in books from the '70s and '80s that are increasingly less common or relevant: phone calls, landlines, the idea of "the" phone as opposed to "my" phone, the importance of physical newspapers, watching TV for breaking news, relatively easy air travel. But that sense of anticipating disaster... I don't know. That still feels current to me. Having lived disaster with 9/11 doesn't diminish my own sense of anticipating disaster.

I have a hard time with the idea that characters/people who haven't experienced a sufficient amount of adversity don't have the right to feel disaffected. What amount is sufficient? Everyone has their problems and their anxieties, and I think Adler does a good job of communicating that without trying to evoke our pity. The narrator bumps up against and participates in the well-connected, well-traveled world, but I think she's very aware that she's not fully part of it—as if there's some stability in that world that she doesn't have access to.

I haven't read Berlin Stories but I'll have to put it on my short list. It does look like an interesting point of comparison.

Incidentally, I think I enjoyed Pitch Dark a little more than Speedboat, and it's stayed clearer in my mind in the 6 weeks or so since I read both. There's somewhat more of a clear plot there, and while the looming dread is there as well, it's less free-floating. There are scenarios that the narrator gets into that in another writer's hands would become Seinfeld skits, but with Adler it just piles on the tension.

Sorry for such a tl;dr post!

Seana | 405 comments No, don't apologize--there's a lot of great food for thought there.

I have to say that it didn't strike me at all as a proto blog. It seems much too controlled and precise for that form.

I read Pitch Dark a long time ago, probably close to when it came out. I don't remember all that much about it, though I did like it. But it was one of those books that everyone was telling me was the wrong one, and that I should have read Speedboat instead. I think this may have built Speedboat up in my mind too much. And I do think it would have seemed bolder back then than it does now.

You're right of course that the world is not noticeably a safer place and that we do still anticipate disaster. But I get the feeling that Adler was sensitive enough to feel the adumbrations of a collective shock that was coming and was finding ways to write about this. The tension you sense in her writing is I think that she is a human equivalent of a very sensitive seismograph.

Kristin | 11 comments "...she is a human equivalent of a very sensitive seismograph."

I like that!

message 10: by Ryan (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ryan Seana and Kristin, as two people who have read Pitch Dark, would you recommend it to someone who liked the form of Speedboat but disliked the content? Do the two books share similar themes?

Seana | 405 comments I would say that it would be more for someone who liked the content but disliked the form, Ryan. But it's been a long time. And even now, I can not help but think of Speedboat as Pitch Dark and Pitch Dark as Speedboat. It's weird. So I think I'll defer to Kristin on that one.

Kristin | 11 comments It depends. The form is similar—bite-sized, not linear—but I found it to be more connected as a story with suspense and resolutions. Unconventional, but not as unconventional as Speedboat. The language is just as tight and enjoyable.

The characters are similar as far as class, background, privilege, travel, etc. though, so if that bugged you in Speedboat, it may be a similar irritation here. Kate in Pitch Dark seems more anxious than disaffected—whatever her background or status, her worries are more clearly connected to specific people and events. But I suspect that Seana is right; I'd be more enthusiastic about recommending it if you did enjoy the content of Speedboat.

Abigail, have you read both? What's the water cooler talk around NYRBHQ regarding these books as a pair?

Danielle McClellan | 7 comments Kristin wrote: "The fact that so many of these passages end with what feel like straight-faced punchlines really drew me along."

I agree with you, Kristen. I was crazy about this book and found myself savoring Adler's humor and sense of the absurd. I felt that the looping structure kept the various disparate sections connected and relevant.

Seana | 405 comments Here's a Slate review I just found on Speedboat. It's a bit odd, because the author takes a somewhat condescending tone toward the book (I thought), but then in the end seems to have liked it.

Seana | 405 comments And one from Bookforum by Gary Indiana.

Danielle McClellan | 7 comments Thanks for both of those review links! I coincidentally happened to be reading another recently released NYRB classic this week We Have Only This Life to Live and came across this comment that Sartre made about Camus, which made me think of Speedboat: "Each sentence is a present moment. But it is not a vague present that smudges and runs into the following one. The sentence is sharp, crisp, self-contained; an entire void separates it from the next one, just as Descartes's moment is separated from the moment that follows....And we tumble from sentence to sentence, from void to void."

Seana | 405 comments Danielle, it's funny that I happen to have just read The Stranger, and then bumped into this New Yorker blog post about the first sentence.

Back on topic, there is a fairly recent interview with Renata Adler on her fiction at Bookslut.

message 18: by Kristin (last edited Sep 08, 2013 05:26PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kristin | 11 comments Thanks for the links, Seana. Roiphe's Slate review makes me interested to read Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight. Feels like it would be a good counterpoint not only to Speedboat but also to The Dud Avocado, which I finally got around to reading this summer.

Bookslut is one of my favorites. Their recommendations rarely steer me wrong.

Seana | 405 comments You know for some reason, I have only known them by reputation, but haven't actually visited the site before. I'll be changing that.

I have heard great things about The Dud Avocado, and I know it comes up as a possibility in this group every once in awhile.

Not to toot my own horn, but I have just started reviewing books for a website called Escape Into Life, and Speedboat was my first review. I'll link to it here for anyone who is interested in where I ended up on this book. At least for now.

message 20: by Danielle (last edited Sep 10, 2013 10:14AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Danielle McClellan | 7 comments Curses to Katie Roiphe for the reductionist, dismissive "woman adrift" category. Her review recently caused my fairly highbrow book group to reject Speedboat for its list. However, truth be told, what Roiphe might call the "woman adrift" novel has become one of my favorite NYRB sub-categories. I loved, loved, loved the subversive After Claude by Iris Owens with its complicated, emotionally paralyzed narrator who causes havoc wherever she goes. (The ending completely lost me, though.) Another favorite is the heartbreaking black comedy Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer with its lovely, disconnected narrator, her nameless brood of children, and her successful, difficult husband. These novels and Speedboat all share sharp, funny authors and smart, complicated main characters. But, honestly, given the period in terms of gender politics that these novels were written, how would it have been possible to reject convention, as many of these authors do, and attempt to live authentically in a fundamentally absurd world, as many of these characters do, without being tagged "adrift."

Seana | 405 comments Danielle, did you read Pumpkin Eater with the group here awhile ago? I loved it, though I can't remember precisely what we all said about it at the time. Watched the movie too.

I am definitely going to have check out After Claude.

I did find Roiphe's review odd, with its dismissive tone and then thumbs up at the end.

Declan | 89 comments I first read this book a few years after it was first published, when I was in my teens. I was astonished by it at that time because I had never previously read a book so lacking in plot, linearity etc. I was very excited by the possibilities it opened me to, and it was one of the books that sent me in pursuit of unconventional novels. So, in coming back to the book now, I was interested to see if it would still seem as impressive as it did when I first read it, and it did. I still think it is a marvelous example of tangential story telling ("Tell all the truth but tell it slant" as Emily Dickinson wrote) where the implications of what we read have to be intuited and added to whatever else we have garnered to allow us to understand something about the narrator. "But how, I wonder still, does she keep it together?", Abigail asked above. That is the wonder of the book. Why do we keep reading?

Nicholas During | 7 comments Very interesting discussion so far. I read the book a while back and just picking it up at random (pages 97-98) was amazed by the discontinuity of the narrative and various angles of perception. I know this is hardly an original criticism, but I do think it is the reason why there was so much interest it in the re-publication of the book this year. Contemporary life, or so we like to think, is filled with so many media sources, so many competing opinions and views, and quicker, punchier explanations or descriptions, that I think a lot of people feel Speedboat was an early representation of these issues. Whether they are right or not is another story. But the style and narrative is unique from most fiction, and did make a strong impression on me.

And to take the other side on the class battle for a moment, while there is a fair amount of "name dropping" (without of course, mentioning names but we're meant to know that they are well known and successful) which I also find a bit irritating (much less of this in Pitch Dark btw, one of the reasons why I find it a better book), I do think that there is a open-mindedness to this book, a curiosity which is often lacking in other literary voices. Renata Adler is, firstly, a journalist, and though she hangs out with the rich and famous, I don't think she loses an instinct to question things, even if she no doubt enjoys being a part of their clique. And I don't think this open-mindedness should be discounted. Not everybody seems to have it.


Seana | 405 comments It's interesting, because I'm not sure I would have kept reading if it hadn't been on the agenda here. I don't mean I would have put it down in disgust, but I might have drifted off it.

Danielle McClellan | 7 comments Seana wrote: "Danielle, did you read Pumpkin Eater with the group here awhile ago?

Thanks, Seana! I only found this group recently, so missed the Pumpkin Eater topic. I just went back and read some of that discussion. I am going to try to track the movie down as well.

I recently picked up one of Mortimer's other novels My Friend Says It's Bullet-proof. Its first few chapters were not as compelling as PE and the book has somehow migrated back into the middle of my gravity-defying bedside reading tower. However, to tie it into our discussion at hand, it also features a darkly funny woman journalist who reminds me a bit of our Speedboat narrator.

New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
By the way, Kristin, I only just noticed a few days ago that you asked what people at NYRBHQ thought of Pitch Dark in relation to Speedboat and Nick, the NYRB staffer who commented above, partially addresses that. I haven't read Pitch Dark myself yet, but I'm interested in it because from what I've seen it seems much more "reigned in" in terms of organization than Speedboat, and I'd be intrigued to see what, if anything, carries over from the other novel when framed in a more "traditional" style.

There's a lot of discussion on here now of other Classics people are hoping to read, which reminds me that we should begin choosing a book for October. I'll start a new forum to chat specifically about this so we can keep this great thread going here. I assume I should add Dud Avocado, Pumpkin Eater, and After Claude as choices? Let's discuss...


Seana | 405 comments Abigail,Pumpkin Eater has already been done here, so I'd suggest not adding that again. Although it was a great read, and you never know who is just joining in.

New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Seana: Thank you, you are so right. I just found the old discussion thread for Pumpkin Eater. I'll make a note that we should perhaps scratch that from the list in our book-choosing forum.

I have actually read this one and it is, indeed, a great read in my opinion.

back to top
This topic has been frozen by the moderator. No new comments can be posted.