Pitch Dark

“It makes no sense, of course, to pray,” comments the narrator of Renata Adler’s beautifully composed second novel, “if you alone exist, and there is no world outside your consciousness, unless you think of prayer as just a kind of song. A lonely song.” Lyrically confronting the reality of emotional isolation, Pitch Dark is both prayer and song, legal document and love letter; above all, it is an attempt to break through the imposed solipsism of an all-too-real world that discourages both transcendent value and human communication. Although its fragmented form and concern with solipsism suggest affinities with the postmodernist avant-garde, Adler’s sense of an underlying continuity of character, frequently expressed through an intensely personal pain, ties her closely to the “blues literature” described by Ralph Ellison in his comments on Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945): “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” As she nears her moment of transcendence, Adler’s narrator, who claims to “think in long, sad, singing lines,” refers to her words as a “torts song.” The image synthesizes the novel’s near-tragic confrontation with a culture based on a legal system that demands an essentially solipsistic choice between conflicting stories and its punning, near-comic commitment to a love, lost and perhaps regained, that transcends all such simplistic and evasive resolutions.

Although not precisely autobiographical in the same sense as Black Boy, Pitch Dark is an intensely personal, reflexive work. Adler’s protagonist, Kate Ennis, a middle-aged journalist of Jewish background, resembles her creator primarily in her professional involvement with writing, which makes Kate an appropriately self-conscious touchstone for Adler’s stylistic explorations. Tracing the turning point of recent American culture to the “introduction of the byline,” Kate comments on the public dimension of radically subjective philosophical perspectives: “From anonymous reporters, quoting, as a matter of the highest professionalism and with only the rarest exceptions, from named and specific sources, we moved gradually, then rapidly, to the reverse: named reporters, with famous bylines, quoting persons, sources, who remained anonymous.” Kate concludes that this reversal in the public sphere, which in some ways parallels the shift from realism to modernism in fiction, effectively obliterated the distinction between reportage and fiction, enabling the reporter with sufficient verbal power to become “the most powerful character, politically and otherwise, in his own story.” Ultimately, mere assertion replaces accountability to any externally verifiable experience, elevating solipsism to a central fact of public life. After considering three celebrated journalistic forgeries, Kate summarizes the profound impact of the byline: “What an odd notion it was that fiction was just a matter of getting facts completely, implausibly wrong.” In response to this cultural solipsism, based on the denial of the “world outside the consciousness,” Kate, trapped in a disintegrating love affair when the novel begins, attempts to keep the details of her actual experience alive in her “aching consciousness.” Significantly, she refuses to retreat to a solipsistic assertion of the power of her own story; rather, she struggles to reach an accord with the stories of others brutalized in both public and private spheres.

Throughout the novel, Kate remains aware that she shapes the response to her story through her stylistic choices. The first paragraph includes a question, with no obvious referent and addressed to no obvious listener, which reflects the underlying stylistic tension: “Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?” Obviously, Adler’s and Kate’s awareness of the implications of stylistic choice precludes belief in any simplistic possibility of telling it like it was; also, the very creation of Kate marks Adler’s departure from whatever autobiographical experiences lie behind Pitch Dark. Nevertheless, both narrator and author resist stylization at least inasmuch as the term implies distancing from the generative emotional experiences. In one of the novel’s most curious passages, Kate, attempting to leave Ireland under slightly ambiguous legal circumstances, decides to employ a false name. Her thoughts on the choice of name, however, disrupt the fictional conventions that Adler has previously established: “Traveling under a false name might be a crime of some sort. I should make the name as like my own as possible to account for the mistake. Alder, I thought. But then that does happen so often. I was afraid they might make the same mistake and be on the lookout for just such an Alder. So I thought, Hadley, since no one would look under H.” Alder, of course, sounds very little like Ennis but a great deal like Adler. This in turn suggests that Ennis is simply a pseudonym for Adler, approximately as closely allied to the original as Hadley. Just as “Kate” shows the agent a credit card with her “real” name on it, so Adler flashes her readers a brief glimpse of the presence behind the persona. This...

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Form and Content

Pitch Dark is an odd variant of a familiar literary type, the love story, told entirely from the woman’s point of view but in a decidedly postromantic, postmodern manner. The novel comprises three linked yet very nearly self-contained parts of approximately equal length that are comparable to Greek tragedies as Kate’s friend Diana defines the form. “What I understand about Greek tragedies is this: the Athenians went to three dramas a day, and at the end they were so exhausted, that was the catharsis. The exhaustion itself was the catharsis.” Clearly, if Pitch Dark is at all tragic, it is tragedy written in a contemporary mode, particularly in Adler’s use of a plot that is both minimal and disjointed.

“Orcas Island,” the first of the novel’s three parts, introduces the various themes upon which Pitch Dark plays its several variations. One is Kate’s breakup with her lover, Jake. Another, equally important, concerns Kate’s uncertainty regarding how to tell the story of that breakup. This uncertainty manifests itself quite early in a series of tentative beginnings: variants self-consciously tried and found wanting but never quite discarded. A third theme centers on a related aspect of Kate’s uncertainty—her indecisiveness about whether she should “stylize it” or “tell it as it was.” This, in turn, leads to the reader’s uncertainty about which of the novel’s parts (granting a certain suspension of disbelief) are fact and which are fiction, as well as to Kate’s doubts about whether her reader will understand and “care” about her narrative.

Although it is short on plot, Adler’s narrative is long on details, non sequiturs, repeated refrain-like passages, and tautologies, one of which, “I know I’ve lost him because I have,” reads like a postmodern version of the conventional wisdom concerning “woman’s intuition.” Above all, “Orcas Island” is full of inserted narratives that either echo the main story (as does the longest, a five-page account about an ailing raccoon that...

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Renata Adler writes what reviewers like to call “quintessentially New York” fiction, yet the author whose work most resembles her own is Joan Didion, who is generally thought of as a quintessentially California writer. Although they are intimately connected to quite different geographical myths and sensibilities, Adler and Didion are connected to each other by virtue of their parallel interests in fiction writing, journalism, and film, and more especially because they write novels that are at once so contemporary and so inextricably bound up with the experience of women in that world. Pitch Dark retells a conventional female subgenre, the love story, from the decidedly contemporary and unconventional perspective of an...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Adler, Renata. Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism. New York: Random House, 1970. The essays collected here and, more especially, Adler’s introduction provide useful background to understanding Adler’s politics and her and Kate’s generation.

Commonweal. CXI, June, 1984, p. 345.

Epstein, Joseph. “The Sunshine Girls.” Commentary 77 (June, 1984): 62-67. This review of Pitch Dark and Didion’s Democracy offers a critical overview of two writers whom Epstein faults for their fragmented narrative structure and their unearned pessimism.


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