May 2013 Features

Book Review: Sending Up an Era

Renata Adler ’59 skewers the 1970s in two acclaimed novellas.

By Juliana Rosati ’03


Richard Avedon, Renata Adler, April 1975, Patmos, Greece, © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

If literature has taught us anything—and as a graduate of the Bi-College comparative literature department, I tend to think it has—it is that people have always behaved absurdly at parties. From the Regency balls of Jane Austen to the Jazz Age soirées of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is clear that our ancestors inspired the great writers of their times with an embarrassing array of status-flaunting, alcohol-infused antics. In Speedboat, an award-winning 1976 novella by Renata Adler ’59, and her 1983 follow-up, Pitch Dark, the party is just as frivolous, but more unsettling. Both books were re-released this spring by the New York Review of Books. Voted by the National Book Critics Circle as “by far” the work of fiction they would most like to see republished, Speedboat earned Adler, for decades a New Yorker writer, the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel when it was originally released.

Throughout Speedboat’s fragmented narrative, the lofty aims of reporters, activists, academics, and politicians trying to better the world devolve into indifferent results while men wander in and out of the life of narrator Jen Fain, a journalist.

“Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together,” says Jen, deftly rendering one of the rapid-fire, tragicomic vignettes of New York and Washington society that compose the majority of the book. “Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment—the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction … an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company at that instant.”Adler_Speedboat

It is difficult not to admire Jen’s intellect and wit and with them the author’s formidable skill in crystallizing the Watergate era and the sexual revolution into one incident after another of human failings.

Although we learn about Speedboat’s protagonist mainly through her observations of other people, Pitch Dark offers a much more personal but still fragmented look at another journalist and narrator, Kate Ennis, as she decides whether or not to continue her relationship with a married man. The novellas so encapsulate their era that it is possible to think they provided inspiration for the experimental book written by beloved heroine Frederica Potter in the novel Babel Tower, A.S. Byatt’s masterful portrait of the late 1960s. Mawrters might be interested in the glimpses of an unnamed women’s college that Adler affords in both books.

Despite its years out of print, Adler’s fiction has maintained a cult following, and it is easy to see how the novellas connect to contemporary literature and even television comedy. In particular, Adler’s protagonists read as clear predecessors to the anxious, lonely, deadpan woman photographer who narrates Julie Hecht’s melancholy present-day tales.

In the cases of both Adler and Hecht, their characters’ pointed observations will strike you as either refreshingly, hilariously accurate, or consistently pessimistic—the verdict might depend on your disposition as much as your generation. Although Adler’s Jen and Kate seem to hold out little hope for humankind in the course of their musings, they end their stories with choices that could open new chapters in their lives. Perhaps, after all, each has laid out her worldview in the hope of transcending its constraints.

Comments on “Book Review: Sending Up an Era”

  1. Read a review in The Nation last week about these books and bought them on a whim. The first paragraph of Speedboat is incredible and made me want to continue on. Past participants in the Spring Geology Field Trip may want to read the last half of page 24 and the first half of page 25 in this version. I was on that bus in ’73, ’76 , and ’77, twice as a TA, and can assure you that Bootsy Garn was on the bus each year like some sort of Flying Dutchwoman doomed to annually sail the eastern Pennsylvania highways as penance for not having properly memorized the stratigraphic column back in 1959. Those of you who’ve taken the trip know who she was: she was in one of the back two rows regretting having had that last cup of coffee before the bus left for terrain bereft of restrooms for the balance of the day