Renata Adler’s Speedboat

Renata Adler’s Speedboat is a difficult book made out of many different fragments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a GREAT book, but it also asks a lot from the reader. Sometimes you’ve to connect snippets and at other times you’ve to let go and enjoy the small slices that are given, making this a truly unique read.

Renata Adler was a film critic and a journalist for many years until she decided to write a book, Speedboat, which was published in 1976 and has recently been republished. Because of her background in journalism, Adler has a lot (really a lot) of stories in her head.

Thus unsurprisingly, Speedboat is an episodic novel made out of fragments that the reader has to connect (or not connect). It is difficult to give a short summary because of the many, many snippets.

What I can say is this: The protagonist’s name is Jen Fain. She’s a journalist living in New York and we experience her urban life with her. That’s it! I cannot really say more about the book. What I can do is give an example of the snippets. This is one particular clear-cut insight:

“That ‘writers write’ is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.”

Isn’t this really clever and funny? Another fragment that made me laugh out loud was the following conversation (which Adler really overheard once and wanted to include in her book):

“Well, you know. His wife was chased by an elephant.”


“How extraordinary.”

“Yes. It was too awful. They were watching the elephants, when she simply fell down. The elephant ran over and knelt on her. She was in the hospital for months.”


“How extraordinary.”

“Quite different from anything she ever got from Roger, I expect.”

I know this is kind of a weird book review – it isn’t really a review at all – but Speedboat conveys more of a feeling rather than a story. For me, the fragments present a certain state of mind: it shows the urban experience, which is something that we still – if not more in recent times – need to think about. Because what does urban life do with our heads, with our experiences? Are we all made out of snippets? Just picking up random conversations about elephants when we wait for the underground?

This urban experience also reminded me of the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville (you can read this story for free here: For me, Bartleby cannot cope with the changes around him. That is to say, with his urban existence. Because of that Bartleby, isn’t able to do anything anymore. He can only say “I would prefer not to,” which raises questions about what he (and we) would prefer to do. Are we losing what we truly want in these big cities? Are we all becoming like Bartleby who couldn’t do anything anymore?

I hope not. I wouldn’t be able to read if we did!


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