Disjointed life in urban America
Speedboat Pitch Dark
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.
Renata Adler discusses her re-released novels and