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.

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.”

I find the image of sitting down to a dinner of mustard not totally unuseful in describing the experience of reading Speedboat: there is undeniably something sharp, unnourishing and disorienting about the experience, but also rare and provocative and spicy. Another way of thinking about this might be that if all the novels one read were like Speedboat, one would feel a little sick.

It might also be worth distinguishing for a moment Adler’s blend of irony from our currently debased, sloppy irony, the kind popular websites traffic in, and the default setting for certain kinds of public discourse. The irony Broyard is talking about in Speedboat is wittier, denser, more artful than what we are generally talking about when we talk about irony now. Another way to look at it is that Adler is interested in exposing ironies, or looking at them, she is not writing entirely or monotonously in an automatic, unthinking ironic register. There are things in Speedboat which are outside of irony, which are meant seriously:  “When I wonder what it is that we are doing—in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper—the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.”

There is a seductive aspect of nervous breakdown to Smart Woman Adrift books, but for the most part it is a very stylish and mild nervous breakdown. The flirtation with falling apart is yet another thing to examine and observe, almost a joke or a shrewd little piece of cultural analysis; the chic detachment and exquisite control of the voice prevent any real or disturbing collapse.

For the prototype of these novels one has to go back a little further to the wonderful moody novels of Jean Rhys, in which a character drifts through cafés, orders pernods, and sees and floats and observes. ( I love in particular Good Morning, Midnight, a book that like Speedboat explores a complicated pregnancy situation, but they are all quite beautiful.)

A passage of Rhys' sounds very much like Speedboat in all of its poses and attitudes: “My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be … dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on. However, being a bit tight, here I am on the wrong side of the street, in the hostile café.”

Rhys goes farther into true squalor, into the territory of terrifying and absolute loneliness that the Smart Woman Adrift novels skirt around more carefully. Rhys’ characters become desperate or abject in a way that Didion, Adler, and Hardwick would never allow; and the stylish or charismatic hints of dissolution in the other books blossom in Rhys’ novels into full scale alcoholic excess. Looking at herself in the mirror in a Paris restaurant, one of Rhys’ characters thinks, “It’s not as bad as it might be. This is just the interval when drink makes you look nice, before it makes you look awful.” (There is, it should be said, a scene in Speedboat where the heroine vomits in a pensione in Venice after drinking some mysterious liquor in a bar, and as she puts it, “six fat women of Venice I would never see again thought I was pregnant by a man who didn’t want to marry me,” and yet somehow this is not harrowing the way Rhys’ drunken scenes are harrowing.)

The Smart Woman Adrift novels are so much of their moment, that it is reasonable to ask if they are dated. Are they from a vanished time of early feminism, when the victimized or lost woman called out for brilliant narration? Has the ironic, fragmented mode now been incorporated so completely into our culture, our HBO shows, our lesser fiction, our bloggy sensibility, that it has become banal? Have ambition, and drive, and health and settledness and material success become so ascendant and romanticized that the lost woman is obscure or inscrutable or irrelevant? I don’t think so. I think Speedboat will find a new generation of dazzled readers, and Jean Rhys’ novels should, too.

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