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Renata Adler 1938–
American novelist, journalist, critic, and short story writer.
A journalist and critic whose articles have been collected in Toward a Radical Middle (1969) and A Year in the Dark (1970), Adler is also the author of two successful novels. Both Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) are composed of seemingly unconnected passages that challenge readers to find meaning. Like her nonfiction, Adler's novels examine the issues and mores of contemporary life.
Toward a Radical Middle includes essays on national and international social and political issues. Critics applauded the collection, noting that Adler had skillfully chosen details to provide insight into many of the troubling issues of the 1960s and that she had managed to offer meaningful social commentary without intruding on her subject. A Year in the Dark is a compendium of film reviews Adler wrote for The New York Times. Although some critics felt that Adler's lack of formal training in film studies diminished her criticism, it was generally recognized that she had expanded the role of a movie reviewer by writing a wide range of articles, from a report on the arts in Cuba to reviews of pornographic and foreign-language films.
Speedboat, Adler's first novel, met with generally favorable response, even though many critics found it difficult to classify the book. They hesitated to call it a novel because the work comprises short scenes that overlap and recall one another without forming a single narrative line. Other critics maintained that Speedboat was a unified work and praised its mixture of journalistic reportage and autobiography. The success of Speedboat led to great anticipation of Adler's next novel. Pitch Dark is the story of Kate Ennis and her attempt to end a nine-year romance with her married lover. Like Speedboat, Pitch Dark emphasizes particular and apparently disparate moments rather than a sequential narrative. Some critics found Pitch Dark solipsistic and charged that Adler did not finally draw the fragments of the novel into one continuously interesting work. Most, however, concluded that Adler was successful in making the pattern of moments both satisfying and effective.
(See also CLC, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5.)
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In excruciating conversations over drinks around the city, during the fourteen months that Renata Adler served as film critic for The New York Times, I often found myself serving, by a whoosh of role suction, as her apologist. When anyone else present seemed prepared to champion her critical honor, I'd find myself laying back. Even after a heavy artillery barrage, my reinforcements were timid and lackluster….
Now Random House has published all her Times stuff (January, 1968–February, 1969) virtually unreedited, in the precise order of its appearance—nearly two hundred complete pieces of writing: daily reviews, Sunday essays, movie-oriented reports from New York, Paris, Rome, Venice, Rochester and Havana—under the title A Year in the Dark.
Reading through her year in a couple of sittings, I became progressively more ashamed of (and bewildered by) my old soft shoe, since it could scarcely be more clear that Miss Adler was not just far and away the best daily movie reviewer we've ever had, but one of the best film critics as well.
She ideally combined the qualities of reviewer and critic. Once you'd got the hang of her, you could tell just how you'd take to a given movie, whatever liberties of association she'd taken….
Even at her shakiest—when she forced tone (over which she exerts exquisite control) to bear the major burden of her response—she had the most uncanny sense for which details were telling, and what story they told. She unraveled gestures and throwaways most critics never thought to mention. (p. 26)
The assembled pieces show us how movies are now connected up with everything that plays upon our imagination, with politics especially; how close they are, in form and reverberation, to imagination itself. An altogether special shot, montage, or mise-en-scène is never lost on her—but she won't celebrate it with any more brouhaha than one would a neatly turned phrase in fiction. She is mainly interested in the ideas behind films, and the atmosphere they create. (p. 28)
In many ways, her scant film experience turned out to be a blessing. With no reservoir of allusion to draw upon, she wasted no space belaboring us with credentials that might testify to the credibility of her judgments. She released us from both the floundering, adjective-strewn misapprehensions of the daily reviewers, from their silly gushing, and from the useless, pedantic effusions of the buffs, who taught us more about penguins than we cared to learn. Miss Adler, in her ignorance, managed to say more interesting things about movies in a year—which will stand forever, one guesses, as her whole career in the movie-critic business—than most critics would manage if they lasted twenty-seven years.
Toward the end of one of her reflective Sunday essays about writing about movies (she disclaimed this kind of "metawriting," but of course ended up doing it often), she said: "Failing everything else, one would like to have one thought, one sentence, one line, that shows a certain tension and effort, something worth reading after you have seen the film, or even if you haven't seen it and will never go." None of her columns is without such a line. Given the mind-mucking ferocity of her consumption and working schedule during that year, it strikes one as an unexpected, breathtaking, touching achievement. That the writing, the sensibility, held together through this grueling period, can only be credited to character: something rare and disciplined and proud that takes over the wheel after intellect, stamina, even motivation, have failed.
The thoughtful candor of her introduction succeeds in making this book the journal of a year rather like the years we have all been passing lately—freaky and overloaded, steeped in mediocrity and dangerous doubletalk; lit up by moments that make our hearts jump, recall to us that we are still a bit human. Here Miss Adler writes, "Reviewing movies seemed not at all like reviewing books, more like writing about events, about anything." And later, after enumerating a number of unsatisfying approaches, she adds, "The best criticism I read was still by writers who simply felt moved by film to say something about it—without reverent or consistent strategies, putting films idiosyncratically alongside things they cared about in other ways."
Insofar as the Jesuit rigors of her position allowed, Miss Adler operated that way, not as a film critic, really, but as a writer who allowed movies to comprise the whole of her new experience for a time; set them resonating against the whole of her old experience, and listened even to the faintest echoes. She wrote to different audiences at different moments—many of her pieces, in retrospect, obviously demanded more attention than the thin columns of newsprint, with their border distractions, would permit—but primarily to a literate, decent, vaguely nervous group of people like herself who, she may have imagined, would gather on some appointed corner if things got too bad and discuss what ought to be done….
I was incessantly amazed at how she managed to think through and articulate coherent attitudes toward films within several hours after having seen them….
I intend to stay out of any retrospective discussions of Miss Adler's critical prowess that may be occasioned by this collection, though I am most curious to hear how her nonfans will explain it. I'm not really interested in talking with them, I only want to eavesdrop. Because movies seem to be saying the most fundamental things for us now, even telling us how we should feel about where it's at, one often seems called upon to defend oneself in talking about a movie one likes. Attacking a movie someone else likes, one feels somehow engaged in an uncomfortably personal sort of attack. The additional remove in talking about movie critics tends to make the whole business impossibly elusive, and unpleasant. So out of tune are certain people with their own subjectivity that, in putting down someone else's response, they seem bent on extirpating a despised aspect of themselves. One can become embarrassed, in casual movie talk, to learn more about people than they wish to reveal. To hear good work deprecated at a time when so little of it is being done anywhere is also, for me, a source of perplexity and embitterment. (p. 34)
Jacob Brackman, in a review of "A Year in the Dark," in Esquire, Vol. LXXIII, No. 3, March, 1970, pp. 26, 28, 34.
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[In "Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism," a] collection of essays written originally for The New Yorker, [Adler] appears in several roles: reporter, critic, social philosopher. As a reporter, she occasionally suffers from too much courtesy: she hates to criticize her hosts, the people who let her run the tape recorder, and her point comes through rather too lightly. As a critic, she bites as hard as anyone, but always in the service of an idea, which saves her from bitchiness or any kind of nastiness high. As a social philosopher, she binds up her several selves and explains what they are all up to.
In her Introduction, which doubles as the best essay in the book, she explains herself in terms of her generation. If Norman Podhoretz did this, she would call it a dubious universalization of self; and sometimes it is. Since she thinks rather highly of her generation (and makes one feel mightily proud to belong to it), she is reluctant to admit that it is herself alone that she is talking about at least part of the time. (pp. 12, 14)
The model of what Miss Adler thinks we should be doing is conveyed in her long, harrowing account of the 1965 march on Selma: sober, specific action, absolutely free of bombast. What we shouldn't be doing comes up at the end, when she reports on the 1968 New Politics conference in Chicago, where all manner of Spocks and Coffins endorsed a Black Manifesto, every item of which must have made them wince, for the sake of a crazyquilt united front. The heartbreaking gains and losses of these years convince her that historical progress is made only by inches. But I think this overlooks the way those inches often come in violent spurts: some things must be done fast or not at all. (Not to argue with this book is to waste it.)
Much of her reporting and criticism elaborates on a single theme: her highly personal discovery and acceptance of America. She describes without smirking some of our most vulnerable aberrations: second-drawer hippies and preachers on the Sunset Strip, self-saturated group therapists in New York (a little smirking would have been O.K. here, I think). The rich unexpectedness of this country never ceases to dazzle her, and her observation is keen as a child's.
In criticism, she wheels on the literary anti-Americans, 1930's radicals who have transferred their permanent sneer from politics to culture, and their wise-guy juniors, braying unearned clichés about a society they haven't bothered to look into. At moments, one fears she is about to lapse into the soft-sell celebrations of the C.I.A. intellectuals. (Sure we have problems, but we're working on them every minute.) Yet her position is finally too independent for that. She is, to sum it up crudely, a dead serious radical, who believes that you can't do much for a populace you despise and can't do anything with a bag of cant tied round your neck.
Miss Adler's literary criticism is always at the service of her general ideas, which means that esthetic judgments tend to come in at a slightly irregular angle. So it is good to have the whole Adler in one book …, where we can keep an eye on her. And good of course to have such a gracefully phrased, ardently intelligent book from anyone. (p. 14)
Wilfrid Sheed, "Radical Middle," in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1970, pp. 12, 14.
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It was a big mistake for the New York Times to ask Renata Adler to replace Bosley Crowther as the paper's movie critic in 1967, and a small disaster for Miss Adler (or Renata, as she became known to the thousands who started following her daily mistakes, laxities of prose, insights and oversights, in a cliffhanging "Perils of Renata" that was usually resolved by Miss Adler's falling off her critical or rhetorical cliff) to have accepted. Somebody at the Times must have heard that movies were fashionable, and thought to bestow a little cultural respectability on a medium it had previously recognized mainly as an advertiser….
What nobody seemed to notice was that Renata didn't know much about movies, didn't care much about them, and didn't care to write much about them. At a time when there were far more interested, interesting film critics around (and the Times could have had any of them for the asking), the paper chose to use the movies as a guinea pig on which to experiment with someone who was less a New Journalist than a novice. Film 1968 went largely unappraised in the Times (except by second-stringer Vincent Canby) as Renata attempted on the job to develop a prose style and a film attitude. Gradually, an Adlerian style was discerned. First paragraph: summation. Second paragraph: list of good things in movie. Third paragraph: list of bad things in movie. Final paragraph: critical appraisal of theater décor or ethnological consideration of movie audience. Once in a while she seemed to get her lists mixed up—would you guess that "lyrics like 'Oh, what a lovely, lonely man' and 'There's magic in the wake of a fiasco' and lines like 'Zis is X speaking. X, as in X and pains'" is from a good list or a bad one?
For the answer to that, you'll have to buy Miss Adler's book A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic, 1968–1969. I can't think of another reason for anyone besides Miss Adler owning this book. While you could sympathize with Renata's dis-ease in a job she was bored with and ill-suited for, like an Imperial General forced to work as a café doorman, the only person you need to feel sorry for, once her ephemera was published between hard covers, is the typesetter … and maybe the reviewer. If Renata had as bad a time at the movies as she gives us in her book, perhaps she does deserve our sympathy. (p. 370)
Richard Corliss, "Perils of Renata, Pearls of Pauline," in National Review, Vol. XXII, No. 13, April 7, 1970, pp. 369-70.∗
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The last ten or fifteen years have been marked by two prominent notions among intellectuals. Many writers have felt that the essence of the period has been the eruption of hot issues through the fissures and seams of American political compromises. Current political language often sounds like a new geometry developed to measure gaps and distances between groups of people. Without a climate of compromise, politically conscious writers are more often than not compelled to take a position and hold ground as if under attack. Thus, Renata Adler entitled her book of reportage Toward a Radical Middle, which says very little about her work in the sixties but quite a bit about the need to locate on the generational battlefield. (p. 580)
The problem of assessing one's own past writings is often as difficult as the actual writing about one's experience. Renata Adler's fourteen pieces of reporting and criticism from 1963 to 1968, despite what she says in her introductory essay, do not amount to a defense of language and nuance, nor offer much proof that the "System" has accommodated anyone out of the ordinary in the past decade, nor that it is getting "better." In fact, Adler is a far better writer than she is a polemicist for the radical middle. Her essays simply do not add up to the position for which she claims to be a spokesman.
If anything, Adler's political position is slightly off center. At her best, as in "The March for Non-Violence from Selma," she has a marvelous eye and ear for detail and tone, and a sympathetic omnipresence recording bits of conversation, faces, movements. In the piece on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, and the very funny report on the Washington conference of the Independent Committee to End the War in Vietnam in 1965 she adopts a half-serious acceptance of what is happening and then slowly and deftly undercuts the pretense of a Los Angeles cultural happening and a dead serious political convention. Her half-mocking, ironic tone carries the reader to the inevitable absurd conclusion. (p. 581)
After a while, the method and point of view break down. The report on the Black Power march in Mississippi (after Selma) is a stereotyped, outsider's report dismissing white marchers as Drones, reporters as disrupters and "Black Power," as one of those at best, bad, at worst, worse, slogans. There are sympathetic sketches of Stokely Carmichael and, especially, Martin Luther King. But one has the feeling that Adler has tired of it all, sees the marches as boring and repetitive, and will not write about them anymore. This sense is even stronger in her report on the Palmer House meeting of Radical Blacks and whites in 1967, and the debacle of the New Politics Convention. Clearly, by then, she had had it (the no-longer-New-Left was a "vulgar joke," and able to contribute as much to discussion of problems as a "mean drunk to the workings of a fire brigade"). So much did she see this as the signal for the end of the Left, which she scores for polarizing American society, that in the end she doubts the future of New Politics at all. Of course, it was impossible then to predict the Convention of the summer of 1968, or the academic year of 1969 and 1970, and perhaps, also, to foresee that this incredibly absurd gathering would not be the last reunion of those who want to change American society radically. Adler makes much of the breakdown of language and sloganeering. This is a useful gauge for evaluating one level of political activity; but it is also the mark of most politics.
In the end, it is her sense of herself as a writer that Adler puts at the service of the "radical middle." With her stylistic weapons she draws up the defenses of her own generation. She writes herself stylistically and ideologically out of the corner of the Average American. She is closest to making sense out of the early sixties when she writes of Kennedy's politics of glamour, and farthest when she writes of World War II as the last just war of romantic possibility. Surely, from the other side, that is what the Chinese, Algerian, Cuban, Vietnamese wars have been all about. Still it is language that Adler feels she is defending. But when she has finished casting her proxy for clear thought and good style, she speaks of the historical necessity of American internal reconciliation, and to prove the immense possibilities for the future, she writes of the "three of us" who have just come back from the moon. Three men did come back from the moon, but courageous as that was, it has nothing to do with preserving the bonds of social unity in America, and less with language and clarity of thought. If anything, the whole moon extravaganza proved how far we will allow language to be debased in the service of technology, with programmed surprise, historic first words and gimmicky political exploitation.
In the end, one is inevitably convinced that Renata Adler is far different from the middle class she mistakes for a radical middle. She calls her values corny; but her strain of sophistication has no more place in an Iowa cornfield than the New Yorker, for which her essays were written, resembles the Prairie Farmer. At one point she remarks, "Lacking an idiom entirely our own, we cannot adopt any single voice without a note of irony." Perhaps we must read her the same way. (pp. 581-82)
James Gilbert, "American Dreams," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1970, pp. 580-85.∗
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[Speedboat, Renata Adler's first novel,] was a wonderfully fresh and thoughtful book, written as if the author neither knew nor cared how other people wrote; she would proceed in her own remarkable way.
Her second novel [Pitch Dark] necessarily lacks that element of surprise; we know her by now. But it conveys the same sense of freshness, or originality practiced not for its own sake but because the author is absolutely desperate to tell us how things are just as forthrightly and truthfully as possible. Or maybe it's not so much how things are as what is felt—what her heroine feels upon arriving at the frayed, sad, uncertain end of a love affair.
Even with her opening remarks, Kate—who is the narrator as well as the heroine—shows herself obsessed with getting this story across to us exactly right. Where to start? we hear her wondering, and she begins first one way and then another, discarding whole paragraphs as they prove unsatisfactory….
But she doesn't get them straight; that's not her style. Instead, she presents us with a scattering of fragments, stray bits and pieces that she trusts will come to have meaning for us. Some of the fragments float past over and over, at first unexplained—brief sentences like "Quanta, Amy said, on the train," and "Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret," and "What do you tell the Sanger people? Lily asked." Eventually these sentences are given a context; it's as if they had to ripen first. Other fragments work more as the refrain in a love song might: "Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?" and "How could I know that every time you had a choice you would choose the other thing?"
Like Speedboat, Pitch Dark gives the effect of an intelligent, wry, rather quirky woman lying awake in the small hours, staring at the ceiling and sorting over her life. There's the same reflectiveness, the same insomniac earnestness in her voice, the same eerie immediacy in the recollected voices of others. (p. 27)
At one point, Kate mentions a journal that she kept in her twenties. Her entries covered a Sunday to the Wednesday of the following week; after that she wrote no more. What stopped her, she says, was that when she read back over the journal, it struck her as incomprehensible. "There were no events, few names, no facts, no indication whatever of what happened, apart from this gloom, that cheering up, this gloom again." In a sense, Kate could be speaking of Pitch Dark. The book is not a narrative of events—although a few events do occur here—but a description of a certain weighted moment in a woman's life.
Can such a moment make for a satisfying novel? That's up to the individual reader, I suppose. If you read these fragments in hope of some forward motion—some conclusive final goal—you'll be disappointed. But if you simply allow them to settle in their own patterns, flashing light where they will, you'll find Pitch Dark a bright kaleidoscope of a book. (p. 28)
Anne Tyler, "End of a Love Affair," in The New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 23, December 5, 1983, pp. 27-8.
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"Pitch Dark" has its clever moments and, in its central section, something that resembles a story, but it's not the witty virtuoso performance that "Speedboat" was. The earlier book was put together like a collage of file cards on which Adler had scribbled whatever jokes, anecdotes and scraps of conversation she could use to define a contemporary sensibility. The architecture of this one is visibly more ambitious, more ambiguous. It is, I think, an anorectic novel: its class, its intelligence and the high seriousness of its intentions don't quite justify its lack of flesh.
Plot and character are for other people's novels; "Pitch Dark" presents a situation that Adler develops by theme and variations. The narrator, Kate Ennis, may be a newspaperwoman in her 40s, but the important thing about her is her tone of voice, her diffidence about telling her story ("I don't know where it begins. It is where I am"), her habit of interrupting herself to repeat obscure sentences as if they were refrains from some as yet unwritten dirge….
Adler's idea of how to build a novel is to make it as fragmented as the lives it reflects. I suspect the easiest way to like "Pitch Dark" is to examine its parts and not worry long about the overall design. Kate's protestations that she doesn't know how to begin her story don't excuse Adler's own early stumblings. Her numbing repetition of perhaps a dozen significant sentences quickly becomes irritating, as do her portentous promises of stories soon to be revealed (a few, in fact, never are). I'm convinced that one or two of these fragments can't be understood from the information provided. And yet most, taken in isolation, or even in an association less strict than their author intended, work very well indeed. Kate is so effective a foil for her author that in one muddled moment her last name appears to be not Ennis but Adler. Beyond the pleasure that these little essays afford—an argument that Penelope was unfaithful to Ulysses, for instance, or a speculation on how the center of a football team came to wear the towel with which the quarterback dries his hands—there's the pleasure of Adler's prose, as distinctive and controlled as any in American fiction today.
Peter S. Prescott, "Age of Angst and Anxiety," in Newsweek, Vol. 102, No. 25, December 19, 1983, p. 82.
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Plot and characterization are barely bothered with in Pitch Dark. The breakup is a foregone conclusion—no suspense there. Adler refuses to begin her novel in any conventional manner. "It's not what I know how to do," she has Kate tell us. She appears anxious to distinguish her writing from the kind of tale where, as Kate remarks with fine scorn, "somebody loves and somebody doesn't, or loves less, or loves someone else, or someone is a good soul and someone is a villain…." This dismissive attitude is problematic. No really great novel has been without these essential ingredients. Nor is Pitch Dark, which is not a great novel, free of them: Jack is a kind of villain, the book is filled with love and its diminishment, and Kate, despite her self-deprecation, is meant to seem, and regard herself (especially in comparison to others) as a good enough soul.
There is in Adler a recognizably American wish to write as if the desires of others, the very fact of others, were not constraining on the self and its experience. True, the disquisitions on modern life have a determined, almost dutiful, outward bearing and significance. But parts of the book give one the feeling that the wish to float free had compulsive force. Kate's flight across Ireland is an illustration: The reader can only believe in the symbolic resonances of the events, what they reveal about Kate's state of mind, not in the people she flees from or in her predicament. Indeed, the Irish section of the book has a Kafkaesque nightmare logic, except Kafka nightmares depart from a real world. At its heart, to borrow Kate's observation in a discourse on "the matter of solipsism and prayer," Pitch Dark is a "lonely song," and not simply because it is the plaint of a disappointed lover.
As for characterization, even Jake hardly emerges. It is his type that is revealed…. Most of the other characters, with their improbable names—Viola Teagarden (based, apparently, on Lillian Hellman), or Leander Dworkin—and their foolish or vicious ideas, are no more than foils for Adler/Ennis' deflating and ironic commentary.
The absence of plot and characterization notwithstanding, Adler clearly does not want her work mistaken for an avant-garde effort. Anyone who refers derisively to a "trendy French philosopher," or who ruminates on "sentimentality in the works of Gertrude Stein," is not marching in that particular formation. There is a story here—consisting of Kate's perceptions—and an old-fashioned ambition to be its teller. Moreover, the discontinuous, journal-like form of Pitch Dark—reading at times like a private diary, at times like the attempt of a private diarist to reach for the public concerns of, say Gide's Journals—is largely suited to Adler's purposes. Deficiencies in execution, however, heighten the sense of excessive self-consciousness: The voice often seems to be speaking, or muttering, only to itself. More serious, Adler is sometimes lazy; the phrase "the incredible unseen beauty of the Irish countryside," for example, strikes me as a guidebook-style evasion. The opposite problem, a piling on of unnecessary details, is particularly noticeable in the anecdotes of city life. They have the bemused, deliberately incurious (albeit highly detailed) style of an "impression" in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" column. (pp. 17-18)
Pitch Dark shows a mind far happier spinning forth fine threads of argument, exposition and analysis than dealing with the intensity of emotion. Adler is at her sharpest uncovering the irrational aspects of the way we now live: a friend's unthinking romanticization of the PLO, or the weird civility of a publisher's lunch with a convicted murderer. She is very good on what Denis Donoghue recently described, with his customary shrewdness, as the inordinate reliance on the vocabulary of guilt and innocence in the moral imagination of most Americans, especially Americans who think of themselves as intellectuals. "We have the sins of silence here," Adler writes with dismay. "Also the sins of loquacity and glibness … of ignorance, and being well-informed. Of carelessness, and of exactitude. Of leading, following, opposing, taking no part in. Very few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease."
Kate Ennis is not herself notably at ease. She has all the recognizable anxieties of the modern intellectual, and then some. Pitch Dark, if not ridden with angst, has its share of that omnipresent modern feeling. Still, Adler does seem to me to be unusually secure—even smug—precisely in her moral sense. In political terms, this complacency translates into predictably ungenerous portrayals of any of her characters who are even faintly Left-wing. They are represented as unthinkingly stylish, sentimental, or in love with violence. On the other hand, the two conservatives who figure briefly in the novel, Frank and Marilyn (note the good plain American names), are described as "kind, educated, tolerant, church-going people." These paragons oppose a local effort to reroute trucks that whiz dangerously by their neighborhood because "they so dislike the Sierra Club, Clamshell Alliance overtone."
Radicals have certainly been known to be sentimental, and to worship power and violence. There are decent and humane Right-wingers. It is both refreshing and salutary to find an American writer of stature willing to challenge facile Left pieties. Yet allowing for all this, I could not help feeling that Adler's antipathy to even her "vaguely Leftish" characters is unfair. (The expression "vaguely Leftish" is itself excessive rhetorical overkill.)
Pitch Dark will please those for whom Adler's sensibility is not only attractive but a sufficient guarantee of satisfying fiction, who won't care that this novel is, like the solipsist's prayer Kate speaks of, essentially a "lonely song." To such readers, the substitution of well-turned phrases and finely spun thoughts for emotional intensity or the presence of living, breathing human characters will in fact seem a considerable achievement. Others will admire Adler's evident talent, wit and intelligence, and hope for something more from her in the future. (p. 18)
Oliver Conant, "A Novelist's Lonely Song," in The New Leader, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, January 23, 1984, pp. 17-18.
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Nature abhors a vacuum—at least in the little nook of the universe we inhabit. According to continuities and correspondences we cannot easily explain, the descriptive power of that statement appears to extend to some areas of art….
[This is true of] some advanced areas of literature. For a number of years I have kept a list of devices and terms proposed from many sides to replace unity as the central organizing principle, particularly in the novel: digression, parody, marginal discourse, reflexivity, fragment, miscellany, theme and variations, écriture, palimpsest, and many more. The peculiar quality of Renata Adler's latest book, like the earlier Speedboat, is that, while adopting several of these devices, it insists on describing the vacuum itself. Pitch Dark injects into the seemingly vacant life of the author's surrogate narrator-protagonist enough dye to give the emptiness shape and visibility. The dye is compounded of short anecdotes, comic asides, deadpan refrains, and dissertations on far-fetched topics. It shows up the vacant space without filling it, and the resultant style veers rapidly between liveliness and diagnosis….
Pitch Dark is a Book of Questions, often without the usual punctuation, suggesting they seek no answer. Speculation is called for here more than interrogation or detection….
These questions and these brooding, intermittent memories create the effect of a constant hovering. Everything Adler writes in her "novels" hovers among genres, among generations, among farflung places, and among available moral attitudes…. Within this strain of hovering and inconclusiveness Adler has succeeded in establishing a magpie niche of her own.
Symmetrical as a triptych, Pitch Dark offers three fifty-page, loosely interlocking stories. Using half-page chunks—false starts, vignettes, insistent echoes—"Orcas Island" describes the never-quite-realized breakup of an affair between Kate Ennis, the narrator, and Jake, an older married man. He is vaguely understanding, preoccupied, and always offstage…. [Kate's] ruminations in this first section end characteristically with a question: "Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?" By now the reader understands that "the most important thing" can be stated in this frequently repeated form: "But you are, you know, you were, the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life."…
The second section, which gives its title to the book, relates with relatively few interruptions what I read as a diversionary and cautionary tale told from the middle outward. On the way to a friend's loaned estate in Ireland in search of quiet and rest, Kate has a minor car accident whose consequences infect her with a sense of disgust and guilt. She refers to herself as a "tortfeasor." These pages, whose mood of self-isolation may be taken to connect with the first section, held me more by the occasional clarity of detail than by any power in the events….
In "Home," the last section, the prolonged breakup with Jake is brought back into the foreground and compressed into an insistent telephone obbligato. Every third or fourth page one encounters a shred of despairing conversation overheard in London where Kate is working as a journalist. The rest of the time she is either shaping a fragile life in a small house with pond in a New England town within commuting distance of New York, or seeking refuge and solitude on Orcas Island off Seattle. Constant interruptions block any continuity that might be called a story line. The interruptions themselves, on the other hand, rough in a motif that concerns the betrayal of reality by inaccurate reporting….
Meanwhile Jake has a cautious reaction to reading "Orcas Island," the first part of this book you hold in your hand. Gradually it all circles back on itself in an accelerating swirl so that the last ten pages push nineteen distinct items of flotsam in front of the patient or distraught reader….
By dint of repetition, variations in phrasing and speech patterns, and frequent interventions, Adler has created in Pitch Dark a sense of form that could be called cubist. The three sections do not develop a careful self-portrait of the central character. Yet the impulse behind the book is autobiographical, even confessional, rather than novelistic—i.e., genuinely concerned with other people's lives. The reader has to assemble Kate as the sum of her scattered parts—shy-bold, cosmopolitan, idealist, nostalgic, farouche. It does not spin a tale in spite of one underlined reference to the Penelope story. Rather it depicts a mode of vision, a process of gathering odds and ends into a "piece" in both the fictional and the journalistic sense. Two hundred years ago Laurence Sterne had already mastered the art of self-interruption and elaborate detour. In reading Adler I began jotting in the margins "aecp" to designate the occasional voice of an alter-ego-critic-professor bringing things to a halt, shaking her finger, and breaking any illusion of narrative momentum…. The frequent gaps in the prose imply both a fainthearted hope of connection and the kind of total breakdown and fresh start that Sartre detected between every successive sentence of Camus's The Stranger. In this inwardly impassioned work by a writer who lived as student and journalist through the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, there seems to be no moral center beyond the end of an affair. Sputnik, the sit-ins, the assassinations, the moonshot, Vietnam, Watergate do not even ruffle the surface. How are we to take hold of this antinovel and its predecessor, Speedboat, to which it seems to be a close sequel?
I believe these astutely shuffled works take shape and have an effect in two related ways. Despite the lack of reference to major social and political events, the books convey the sense of an era that cohabits uncomfortably with its past. The antepenultimate sentence of Speedboat holds out a small key. "I think there's something to be said for assuring the next that the water's fine—quite warm, actually—once you get into it." Next generation she means. Even though both novels describe, primarily through fractured form and terse diction, a version of trauma, an ego detached like a retina, still the neurosis is bearable and has its small rewards.
Roger Shattuck, "Quanta," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, March 15, 1984, p. 3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2366
I do not have the attention span to sustain a lengthy depression, but I have of late been reading two novelists who do: Renata Adler and Joan Didion. I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining…. They seem, these two writers, not really happy unless they are sad. They keep, to alter the line from an old song, a frown on their page for the whole modern age. (p. 62)
Of the two, Renata Adler is the less practiced novelist. She has written, in fact, two novels but no narratives. Speedboat, her first novel, and Pitch Dark, her second, are both composed for the most part of short, journal-like entries, which, in the modernist spirit, a reader has rather to assemble on his own. Speedboat, published in 1976, was much praised; it won the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel of the year in which it was published. Reading it today, one notices certain affinities with the work of Ann Beattie: a flatness of expression meant to convey a deep spiritual fatigue. On the formal level, the novel seems Barthelmystically influenced, though without Barthelme's intellectual playfulness. (p. 63)
Miss Adler is not telling a story in Speedboat; instead she is trying to create a feeling through the thoughts, incidents, and odd happenings that occur to the presence at the center of her book, Jen Fain, who is a working journalist also teaching a film course at a school that resembles the City University of New York. The feeling she is trying to create is one of dislocation, disorientation, depression. "There doesn't seem to be a spirit of the times," Jen Fain remarks on the second page of the book. Miss Adler, though, will soon enough supply one. On that same page she has her character remark, "I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time." And at the bottom of the page, awaking at the apartment of one of her men friends, she is told, "Just stay here. Angst is common." We are, you might say, off and limping….
In Speedboat disconnection is a way of life. Rats roam the halls; a Doberman pinscher attacks an old woman. Jen Fain reports: "I knew a deliverer of flowers who, at Sixty-ninth and Lexington, was hit by a flying suicide. Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind." And: "There are some days when everyone I see is a lunatic." These passages pile up, and all are written, in the spiritual if not the grammatical sense, in the passive voice.
Having said all this, I must go on to say that I do not find Speedboat boring. It ought to be, but it isn't. Perhaps it isn't because, though the book offers none of the traditional pleasures of the novel, it does offer pleasures of a different kind. When it begins to hum, Miss Adler's is a lively mind, which throws off interesting insights. "Lonely people," she writes, "see double entendres everywhere." In a brilliant passage she talks about what she calls "the Angry Bravo," which is what goes on when, in her example, an audience cheers No, No, Nanette when in fact behind their cheers is rage at Hair or whatever the going triumph of the day is. She is also clever on the unseriousness of certain artists and intellectuals. (p. 63)
The world depicted in Speedboat is that of unattached youngish people for whom money is not a serious problem but finding a purpose in life is. They I won't say bound but at least crawl into one another's beds, less it seems out of passion than out of the need for comfort and solace against a cold world. They are distanced from life. Boredom is among their deadliest enemies. They have endless time to spend thinking about themselves. ("'Self-pity' is just sadness, I think, in the pejorative," says Miss Adler's Miss Fain.) Therapy is no help. "In every city, at the same time, therapists earned their living by saying, 'You're too hard on yourself.'" There is a slightly frenetic stylishness about their lives. "Elaine's was jammed"; a man invents a drink called "Last Mango in Paris." Nothing quite holds. Jen Fain avers: "The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the center holds." But of those who write or argue or say that the center will not hold, I always wonder how they know they are standing in the center—or anywhere near it.
It doesn't take long for Speedboat to run out of gas. The book provides no forward motion, nothing in the way of momentum. In a snippet of conversation reported in one of Miss Adler's paragraphs, a man says: "Janine, you know I'm very tired of your aperçus." So in time does one grow tired of Miss Adler's, which, in a book without any narrative force, could, any one of them, as easily appear on page 14 as on page 203. Cause and effect, narrative order, nothing seems to matter. "It all ends in disaster anyway." But then Miss Adler is forthright about not having a story to tell. Toward the close of Speedboat, she writes: "There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots."
Friend, here's the bad news: you want to call yourself a novelist, you're going to have to find a plot.
Pitch Dark, Renata Adler's recent novel, does appear to be setting out to tell a story: that of the break-up of an eight-year love affair between another journalist, Kate Ennis, and a married man referred to as Jake. But the story turns out not to be much of a story. As the dust-jacket copy has it, "… Pitch Dark moves into new realms of feeling." This book, too, peels off into aperçuistical paragraphs; it is interested in making disconnections. It is about, as the narrator of this non-narration says, "my state of mind." This second book of Miss Adler's is more modernist, more avant-garde, in intention than Speedboat. The practical consequence is that, within its pages, more puzzles are offered, more elaborate games are played.
Like all contemporary works of modernist intention, Pitch Dark is highly self-reflexive—that is, it often talks about itself. Thus, two-thirds through the book Miss Adler writes:
But will they understand it if I tell it this way?
Yes, they will. They will surely understand it.
But will they care about it?
That I cannot guarantee.
The way that Pitch Dark is told is aslant, through indirection. "Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?" Miss Adler stylizes it, in my view. At the forefront of her book is the affirmation that stories can no longer be told. "For a woman, it is always, don't you see, Scheherazade. For a man, it may be the Virginian. There he goes, then, striding through the dust of midday toward his confrontation. Here I am, of an evening, wondering whether I can hold his interest yet a while."
Throughout Pitch Dark lines repeat, meant to convey a refrain-like resonance. "But you are, you know, you were, the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life," is one such line; "Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?" is another. We cannot know for certain who is saying these lines, Kate or Jake. But the lines recur, as do, among others, these two: "The world is everything that is the case," which is from Wittgenstein, and "And in the second place because," which is the first line of a Nabokov story. Both these lines are there to establish the modernity of Miss Adler's narrator's mind as well as to establish the modernity of her own intention in this book. Of the Wittgenstein line, an epigrammatic couplet by the poet Donald Hall seems particularly pertinent here:
The world is everything that is the case.
Now stop your blubbering and wash your face.
For there is a certain high-tone blubbering going on in Pitch Dark. In its pages Miss Adler has the portentousness knob turned all the way up. (p. 64)
Miss Adler never does get around to telling the story of Kate Ennis's long love affair with Jake. Instead she shows the sad after-effects of its break-up. Accounts of events, she believes, are lies. What is important are moods, feelings, symbols. So we are given an account of a raccoon who slowly dies of distemper on the stove of Kate Ennis's country house. Is this meant to stand in for the symbolic death of her love affair? So we are given a lengthy, deliberately paranoid account of a trip through Ireland. Is this meant to stand in for Kate Ennis's feeling of utter disorientation after the prop of her love affair is pulled out from under her? So the same lines repeat and resound throughout the book. Miss Adler succeeds in giving her novel a highly claustral feeling. Reading it one feels rather as if one is being asked to play handball in an empty but very small closet.
Bleak, psychologically inconclusive, bereft of the normal pleasures of storytelling, Pitch Dark has nonetheless enjoyed a pretty good run in both the popular press and from critics. In part, I suspect, this derives from the autobiographical atmosphere of the novel. In the course of an adulatory piece about her in New York magazine Miss Adler implied—and perhaps more than implied—that the love affair that she has not really written about in Pitch Dark is one that she herself has gone through…. There is also the attraction of gossip. "One morning, in the early nineteen-eighties, Viola Teagarden field a suit in a New York state court against Claudia Denneny for libel. Also named as defendants were a public television station and a talkshow host." We all know who Viola and Claudia are, do we not? Withholding such obvious names is a fine advance on name-dropping.
As for the critical appreciation of Pitch Dark, here Miss Adler has what I think of as the moral minority on her side—that select group of critics who worry about not lending approval to avant-garde endeavor. Roger Shattuck, for example, writing in the New York Review of Books [see excerpt above], has remarked that "Adler has created in Pitch Dark a sense of form that could be called cubist." Professor Shattuck plays that old shell game of modern criticism, switching genres, in which the critic has to guess under which genre the work lies. "Adler, like many of her contemporaries, abjures fusion, practices simple removal," he writes. "The resulting minimalist genre should properly not be called a novel, for it answers radically different expectations, brings other rewards." Better yet, the book has allowed Professor Shattuck to erect what he calls "the innarratability principle," which has to do with the inability—or, more precisely, unwillingness—of certain modern writers to tell their story straight out.
But to return to the old, perhaps boring, narratability principle, would it be too rude to suggest that Miss Adler has let slip away an extremely interesting story? The story of being a married man's mistress, told from the point of view of the mistress, is after all neither a common nor an unpromising one. What is it about women who enter into lengthy affairs with married men? What do they have to gain? What is it they are afraid of? Why are they so ready to put themselves almost automatically in second place or below? But then this is a story Renata Adler, given her view that accounts of incidents are lies and that narrative contains the seeds of its own falsity, could never tell. She is among that band of contemporary writers who evidently do not agree with Oscar Wilde's statement: "It must be our faith that there is nothing that cannot be said with words." (pp. 64-5)
With its deconstructionists in literary criticism, its ordinary-language and other philosophers, and its novelists, our age may one day come to be known in intellectual history for its role in the advancement of techniques to prove that reality doesn't exist. Along with their natural gifts of dark temperament, our Sunshine Girls, Renata Adler and Joan Didion, are joined in this enterprise. It is more than a mite depressing.
In search of comic relief while reading the novels of Miss Adler and Miss Didion, I happened upon Nietzsche's little book Schopenhauer as Educator—one must take one's laughs where one can find them—where I came upon the following remarkable explanation of why such novels, and the general train of thought they represent, are so depressing:
Basically, you see, cheerfulness is only to be found where there is victory, and this applies to the works of all true thinkers as it does to every work of art. Even if the content is terrible and serious as the problem of existence itself, the work will have an oppressive and painful effect only in those cases where the half-thinker or half-artist has spread the haze of his inadequacy over it; whereas nothing better or more cheering can happen to a man than to be near those victorious persons who, because they have thought the deepest thoughts, must love what is most alive, and finally, like the wise men they are, turn to the Beautiful. They really talk, they don't stammer or gossip; they really live and move, unlike other human beings who lead such a strange mask-like existence. For this reason when we are near them we feel, for a change, human and natural and have an urge to shout out as Goethe: "How marvelous and precious is a living thing! how real and truly adapted to its condition!"
Recall that Nietzsche is here talking about Schopenhauer, the darkest of all modern philosophers. There is plain pessimism and there is heroic pessimism—and of plain pessimism, of the kind Renata Adler and Joan Didion dispense, we have had quite enough. Let, please, the sun shine in. (p. 65)
Joseph Epstein, "The Sunshine Girls," in Commentary, Vol. 77, No. 6, June, 1984, pp. 62-7.∗
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