Renata Adler’s Cosmic Probabilities
By David Byron Queen
Not long ago, I went down an internet rabbit hole looking at all sorts of random, chance-based statistics. First there was the chance of getting attacked by a shark (about 1 in 8,000,000). Then there was the chance of winning the Powerball Lottery (about 1 in 275,000,000). Finally, at some point, I ended up at an attempt to calculate the probability of the person coming across that very website—me—being alive today. The conclusion, which I’m simplifying, was essentially incalculable—something like the equivalent of the entire population of a major metropolitan city rolling a trillion-sided dice all at once, and all landing on the same number. In other words, not so likely.
Renata Adler’s 1976 trillion-sided-dice, Speedboat, seems to have been drawn from these cosmic probabilities (or lack thereof). It feels like a book that has somehow always existed, just as much as one that maybe never has. The feel of a total accident, and yet one that could only have happened in exactly the way it did. There is nothing of the things of a conventional novel in these pages—no plot, no character development, no climax, no resolution. Instead, we get fragmentary glimpses into an array of moments and lives, all loosely within the orbit of a journalist named Jen Fain.
In some ways, writing about Renata Adler’s Speedboat feels like missing the point. What else is there to say other than to appreciate its existence? The book is a kind of omnipotent artifact, a black box of late twentieth-century life, seemingly able to show us anything and everything about the culture, the zeitgeist. A record of any whim, interest, memory, or fancy of its guiding authorial voice—whether to make a point, or simply chase a punchline. It can appear absolutely deadly serious, and at the same time ironically blasé about its overall project. In some moments, it can feel like the ultimate shaggy dog story—endlessly circling and digressing, without ever pulling together. In other moments, it can feel like the most important book in the world.
Once again, I feel I’m missing the point. This isn’t a novel concerned with telling one unified story—that approach seems reductive of its accumulative power. It seems, instead, to come from an impulse to tell one small part of every story. Better yet, to see what happens when one story is juxtaposed against another. So much of the novel’s energy exists within these intersections—each disconnected moment, or memory, connected by proximity, rather than causality. The effect is hypnotic and addictive. When I was deep inside this book, lost in the richness of its wit and observation, I found myself questioning why anyone would ever bother to write in any other way.
This process of juxtaposition brought to mind, in a lot of ways, the techniques of film. Specifically film editing, drawing all the way back to early twentieth-century Soviet filmmakers Diziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, and their theories of montage, wherein a series of independent images shown in sequence were thought to allow room for the viewer to infer greater, abstract meaning. The Soviets used this as a means to intellectualize visual storytelling. Rather than being told a family is hungry, we are given the images needed to formulate this meaning in our minds. For instance, an image of a woman + a crying baby + an empty cupboard = hunger. The power of this theory lies in the assumption that the human brain is hardwired to search for meaning, patterns, or some other form of order, from infinite possibility. Whereas much of film history has applied this technique in an effort to limit the scope of potential meaning, Speedboat seems to take this theory to its maximalist conclusion, but in the other direction—an infinitely open door allowing for anything and everything to find its way in.
Speedboat does have order though. The book has a particular logic and organization “…in subtle and inevitable patterns…” writes Guy Trebay, in the afterword of NYRB’s 2013 reissue, if not in its overall structure, then certainly at the sentence level. The sentences are thrilling to the point of overload—delirious, worldly, probing, wry. And yet the book’s most arresting feat is its ability to inhabit a moment so clearly, so lucidly, that nothing outside of its momentary aperture seems of any importance.
The term “liminal” has become something of a punchline in recent years due to its overuse in academic settings, yet it seems to capture at least one aspect of Speedboat’s intermediary experience. “I have often been in hotels alone,” begins one section, about a third of the way into the book. “One sits in the lobby, the bar, or worst of all the restaurant, with a book, and pretends to be preoccupied.” Jen Fain—and perhaps Adler herself—seems to appear most present in these spaces of feigned (or should I say fained) preoccupation. The book often positions its subjects in flux, or motion. This might explain why Speedboat reads like sketches from a notebook, the reflexive outtakes of a journalist on the go, stimulated by the heightened sensory alertness required of travel. As its titular mode of transport suggests, the book is constantly moving, speeding, in and out of its liminal spaces: hotels, airports, hospitals, museums, bars, trains, schools, shuttles, always in some state of transition. This allows for the eavesdropped quality of its many episodes, anecdotes, and conversational snippets, which swirl in and around the text with little to no given context:
“Well, you know, you can’t win them all,” the old bartender said. “In fact, you can’t win any of them.”
“Don’t dwell on it,” the shuffling man is now saying to himself. “Don’t dwell on it.”
“Of course I haven’t confused you with somebody else. Either it was you, or I made it up.”
Moments like these feel born of an attempt to replicate the subconscious, and also capture the pure, tedious, mundanity of real-life—and yet to assign either (or any) definitive idea to anything in the book feels limiting. Often, Speedboat aims for something greater, something rarer, a desire to negate its own idiosyncratic creation. The book begins in negation: “Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages.” This pattern of negation continues over and over throughout. Like the space breaks used to separate each fragment, the book seems to want to define itself through what it is not. Our narrator knows what nobody is doing, saying, and seeing; and in doing so reveals what everybody is doing, saying, and seeing.
What are the chances a book like Speedboat could exist? I don’t know. But it does. ♦
David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, VICE, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in New York and runs the indie publishing company ‘word west.’ Find him on Twitter @byron_queen