Dis­jointed life in ur­ban Amer­ica

Speed­boat Pitch Dark

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Will Hey­ward Wil­liam Hey­ward

By Re­nata Adler NY Re­view Books, 200pp, $19.95 By Re­nata Adler NY Re­view Books, 192pp, $19.95

IN front of the noun ‘‘ novel’’, the ad­jec­tive ‘‘ ex­per­i­men­tal’’ is an apol­ogy. The sug­ges­tion is that, if the book in ques­tion fails in some way, le­niency should be granted to the author. I’m sorry if you found that bor­ing in parts, it says, but bound­aries were pushed, lim­its tested. Re­spect that.

So in its own way, ‘‘ ex­per­i­men­tal’’ is also a com­pli­ment, one paid to writ­ers who risk be­ing bor­ing. It’s not one I’m will­ing pay to ei­ther Speed­boat (1976) or Pitch Dark (1983), two re­cently re­pub­lished nov­els by Amer­i­can author Re­nata Adler. Be­cause in spite of ob­vi­ous bound­ary push­ing and limit test­ing, both were as en­joy­able as any­thing I’ve read for years.

Jen Fain, a jour­nal­ist liv­ing in 1970s New York, is the nar­ra­tor of Speed­boat. No, that’s mis­lead­ing. Jen is Speed­boat. She doesn’t tell a story; she em­bod­ies one. The book is a se­ries of episodes, anec­dotes, opin­ions, rev­e­la­tions and re­mem­brances, each of which doesn’t so much de­scribe as re­make the world. Her voice is metic­u­lous, but also hy­per­ac­tive, dis­tinctly re­al­is­tic, and some­how tee­ter­ing on the edge of farce, sur­re­al­ism and fan­tasy all at once. Here are the first lines of four se­quen­tial para­graphs from a ran­domly cho­sen mo­ment in the book:

‘‘ My cousin, who was born on Fe­bru­ary 29th, be­came a vet­eri­nar­ian.’’ ‘‘ The con­ver­sa­tion of The Magic Moun­tain and the un­re­quited love of six-year-olds oc­curred on Satur­day, at brunch.’’ ‘‘ ‘ All ba­bies are nat­u­ral swim­mers,’ John said, low­er­ing his two-year-old son gen­tly over the side of the row­boat, and smil­ing.’’ ‘‘ My late land­lord was from Scars­dale.’’ Con­text doesn’t make th­ese any less in­con­gru­ous, thank­fully.

Speed­boat is or­der dis­guised as chaos. It has no plot or even a sense of be­gin­ning and end. Jen’s quips about rats and Scrab­ble play­ers and psy­chi­a­trists cre­ate a hyp­notic mo­saic of city life and are told with an un­af­fected ec­cen­tric­ity and dead­pan cyn­i­cism. There’s a quirk­i­ness that never crosses over into pre­ten­sion be­cause Adler never gives a sign that life is any less than cos­mi­cally un­se­ri­ous.

Read­ing Speed­boat is like hav­ing been dealt a well-shuf­fled hand of cards face down, and turn­ing them over one at a time know­ing that some will be bet­ter than oth­ers, that there is no pat­tern, but that each one will carry the same rest­less prom­ise of joy.

Pitch Dark is more sober. Kate En­nis, the nar­ra­tor (and a sort of body dou­ble for the author), is also a jour­nal­ist. She’s bro­ken off a long af­fair with a mar­ried man and ac­cepts an of­fer to stay in a cas­tle in Ire­land.

The novel un­folds with the logic the diary but with­out ever mim­ick­ing the con­ven­tions of one. First-per­son de­scrip­tion is mixed with di­rect ad­dresses to the for­mer lover Jake (‘‘You are, you know, you were the near­est thing to a real story to hap­pen in my life,’’) who is a nec­es­sar­ily in­sub­stan­tial char­ac­ter. The prose-uni­verse of Pitch Dark re­volves around Kate; its laws are her whims.

The apho­ris­tic in­ter­jec­tions that in­ter­sperse the book give Kate’s char­ac­ter com­plex­ity. A para­graph de­tail­ing one of the many ter­ri­ble phone con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Jake and Kate is fol­lowed by a new one that be­gins, ‘‘ A mo­ment here. A mo­ment for a topic. Sen­ti­men­tal­ity in the work of Gertrude Stein.’’ On the next page, a hi­lar­i­ous di­gres­sion about football, af­ter which come re­flec­tions on the le­gal sys­tem: ‘‘ a le­gal job no sooner comes into ex­is­tence than it gen­er­ates, im­me­di­ately and out of ne­ces­sity, a job for a com­peti­tor’’.

Adler’s men­tal chan­nel surf­ing re­flects the truth that a per­son is never de­fined by what be­falls her. As Jen puts it in Speed­boat: ‘‘ ‘ Self­pity’ is just sad­ness, I think, in the pe­jo­ra­tive.’’

Adler’s nar­ra­tive voice which, a few small dif­fer­ences aside, Kate and Jen share, is an Amer­i­can metropoli­tan one. Pro­nounce­ments — such as, ‘‘ A ‘ self-ad­dressed en­ve­lope’, if you are in­clined to brood, raises deep ques­tions of iden­tity’’ — sug­gest that, like Jack Ni­chol­son or the nar­ra­tor of cer­tain JD Salinger sto­ries, the speaker is never sur­prised and al­ways amused. (Al­though the declar­a­tive tone once or twice goes be­yond its lim­its, be­com­ing lofty and cross­ing over into the voice of what Gertrude Stein, in ref­er­ence to Ezra Pound, called ‘‘ the vil­lage ex­plainer’’).

In the midst of the frag­men­ta­tion and dis­lo­ca­tion, Adler is striv­ing for an ideal way to show the in­ner and outer chaos Jen and Kate face, even if that means leav­ing cer­tain things un­ex­plained and un­told. In do­ing so, she risks alien­at­ing read­ers, and she knows it. In one of the free-float­ing sec­tions of dia­logue that punc­tu­ate Pitch Dark, a voice asks: ‘‘ But will they un­der­stand if I tell it this way?’’ The re­sponse: ‘‘ Yes, they will. They will surely un­der­stand it.’’ ‘‘ But will they care about it?’’ ‘‘ That I can­not guar­an­tee.’’ It’s one of the most self-co­con­scious mo­ments in ei­ther book, but it use­fully il­lus­trates not only the fact that most ex­per­i­men­tal nov­els fail be­cause read­ers are bored rather than per­plexed, but also that Adler makes her more rad­i­cal choices not out of van­ity but ne­ces­sity.

In the after­word to Pitch Dark, Muriel Spark writes: ‘‘ The big ques­tion a work like this im­poses on the reader is, What is a novel?’’ A com­pli­ment, but one that sells Adler short. So many less in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­men­tal nov­els im­pose that ques­tion, and hardly any have the raw en­ergy of Speed­boat or emo­tional con­fu­sion of Pitch Dark. Adler, now 74, doesn’t call nov­el­is­tic con­ven­tion in to ques­tion, she sim­ply ig­nores it. That’s why her writ­ing is ir­re­sistible. The ap­pa­ra­tuses of fic­tion — char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, plot­ting — are pushed to one side rather than dis­man­tled. Her writ­ing per­forms the ul­ti­mate fic­tional dou­ble act: with the one hand she holds the world at arm’s length so we might see it bet­ter, and with the other she beck­ons to us as if to say, let me show you who I am.

Speed­boat Pitch Dark

Re­nata Adler dis­cusses her re-re­leased nov­els and

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