Read This '70s Cult Classic and Remember When We Loved Stylish, Damaged Women

A column about life, culture, and politics.
March 13 2013 7:30 AM

Speedboat Mania

Renata Adler’s '70s cult classic brings us the stylish, damaged woman.

Speedboat, by Renata Adler.

I was glad to see that Renata Adler’s cult classic Speedboat was being reissued in April, if only to have an excuse to read it again. (People who love Speedboat tend to read it many times. David Shields, in his new memoir, claims to have read it two dozen times, a level of Speedboat mania I admit I cannot rise to.) Speedboat belongs to a genre of '70s women’s fiction, in which a damaged, smart woman floats passively yet stylishly through the world, a genre which includes books like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. In all of these Smart Woman Adrift novels, there is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost. They center around an intelligent but emotionally fragile or keenly sensitive woman without a man, or moving from man to man, a woman, in short, without a stable or conventional family situation, in a state of heightened, nervous awareness.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

It will be interesting to see how Speedboat, which is so much a product of its time, does now. We have our own beloved nervous breakdown books, of course, but they tend to be straightforward commercial memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. They are less experimental, more narrowly autobiographical, and are less interested in reflecting on the culture at large.

Smart Woman Adrift fiction conveys very vividly a preoccupation of the era—the exhaustion of trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense. They are often channeling a cultural jitteriness or doom or disintegration, a specific 1970s sensation that things were falling apart. Unlike today’s memoirs, Smart Woman Adrift fiction takes a challenging or critical or hostile attitude toward story, in the conventional sense, as opposed to anecdote, which they raise to an almost impossibly high art. Adler writes, “When the nanny drowned in the swimming pool, the parents reacted sensibly. They had not been there for the event.” In each novel, the woman is lost, but the exact journey, the why or how, is less interesting to her than the pure sensual apprehension of lostness, than the witty, precise travelogue, the dwelling on it.

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These novels are in love with aphorism (Typical is a line from Sleepless Nights: “when you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.”). Elizabeth Hardwick detected in Speedboat “A precocious alertness to incongruity: this one would have to say is the odd, dominating trait of the character of the narrator.” And indeed one of the prevailing fascinations of Speedboat, and indeed the genre, is incongruity, the juxtaposition of surprising things.

Take the following passage about writing speeches for a politician: “I have now written ‘fairly and expeditiously’ and ‘thoroughly and fairly’ and ‘judiciously and seriously’ and ‘care and thoroughness and honor,’ and so on, so many times that it may have affected my mind. I eat breakfast fairly and expeditiously. Jim cuts his own hair thoroughly and fairly. It rains judiciously and seriously, with care, and honor and dignity, in full awareness of the public trust. Our politician, anyway, is a good and careful man—who sounds always a little pained, as though someone were standing on his foot.”

When Speedboat came out in 1976 to a great deal of critical excitement, Anatole Broyard wrote a cranky but compelling dissent: “The book struck me as little more than a series of witty jottings, a collection of small contemporary, curiosities … As far as I can see there is no progression, no gathering coherence, in these snippets.”

But of course the writing through disjunction, with isolated scenes strung together through a high strung, intelligent, anxious feminine sensibility, was not about coherence. The sense of drift is crucial; the novelists are writing or almost painting through mood. Story is suspect, interpretations unsubtle, and experience or messiness transcendent. The energy lies in the sheer, bold, highly controlled performance of personality.

Broyard’s rather clever refutation of Adler, and arguably Smart Woman Adrift fiction in general, is as follows: “Speedboat makes me wonder about irony. I have always regarded irony as the supreme condiment, the gourmet’s delight, of literature. But when a book is all irony it tends to cancel itself out, just as you cannot eat a dinner that is all condiments.”