(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The unconventional, oblique narrative method of Pitch Dark makes plot summary difficult and tentative, but the novel’s division into three sections—“Orcas Island,” “Pitch Dark,” and “Home”—provides a helpful structure.

Kate Ennis, the narrator, tells the first part of her story from Orcas Island, but the events described take place in New England. “Orcas Island,” like the other two sections, weaves together Kate’s painful musings on her recent affair with Jake, her married neighbor, with a skein of incidents featuring people from Kate’s past. Characters come onstage only to walk off forever, and promising themes sound once and fade away. Many of the quick shots of the past focus on college days (Harvard and Radcliffe, apparently, since one student is experimenting with psylocybin “under the guidance of [Timothy] Leary and [Richard] Alpert”), offering entertaining glimpses of teachers and fellow students.

The stream of Kate’s consciousness darts here and there. Some passages turn into minilectures on themes from Ludwig Wittgenstein and Vladimir Nabokov, for example, while one sparkling gloss on Homer reveals that Penelope “did not unweave by night, and therefore by implication hardly ever wove by day.” A puzzling reference on page eighteen to something called “London Exit” is amplified in a brief essay introduced fifteen pages later, but the “rich Italians” and the old people who “moved to the suburbs” are suspended in narrative limbo. Leander Dworkin, “the amplifying poet,” and Willie Stokes, “the poet of compression,” seem to have bright futures, but their complementary sensibilities wither away as they are buried in the narrator’s flow of reminiscence.

Never far from Kate’s mind is her recent break from her lover. Kate is apparently about forty, and in “Orcas Island” she has for some time improvised a home in a barn that is perhaps in rural Connecticut (it is a “long drive to the city”). Jake, a lawyer...

(The entire section is 824 words.)