on April 27, 2013
WELCOME BACK, RENATA ADLER
POSTED BY MEGHAN O'ROURKE---I thought this described (on the New Yorker blog ) the book beautifully
I first read Renata Adler's then out-of-print novel "Speedboat" in my mid-twenties, curled on an IKEA chair in my room in a shabby rental in Brooklyn, devouring the book's jagged, cool, aphoristic prose and its elliptical and mordant portrait of a certain kind of worldly adult life that I had just begun to live but hardly understood--certainly, not the way the narrator of the novel did.
What is amazing about Adler's novels is the way that they integrate cultural analysis with telling details of social nuance. "Speedboat," like "Pitch Dark," has just been republished by NYRB Classics, after years of being passed along to new readers like samizdat pamphlets. Both novels have more in common with the New Novel than with the thrillers that Adler has said she loves. Both are written in a "discontinuous first-person" (in Muriel Spark's phrase) that cumulatively conveys what it is like to be a female intellectual in the world of publishing in the nineteen-seventies. These are not works of realism--they have a dreamlike quality-- but they contain as much reality as a Balzac novel does. It's just that their reality is incantatory, sparse, periodically blazing, and not a little self-consciously neurotic.
In the rhythm of their sentences, in their singular tone, in their resonances, echoes, and repetitions, "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" convey something of what it is like to be alive in any time--but specifically, they convey the psychic climate of the seventies. These novels are records of a penetrating intelligence, a skeptical intelligence (but, thank God, not a reflexively skeptical intelligence). They are novels that persuade you of their claims to truth, and ones in which any literate young person in publishing in New York can see a bit of her or himself. But the novels don't let you get away with a narcissistic surface reading. As accurate as they may be about a narrow swath of professional upper-middle-class life, they are not so self-enamored as to merely mythologize it. These are fundamentally probing, even discomfiting, books. If all you get from "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" is a shudder of pleasure and self-recognition, you are probably not reading deeply enough.
"Speedboat" may be the more radical of the two (and I think I prefer it for that reason). It is ostensibly about Jen Fain, a journalist at the Standard Evening Sun, who chronicles her life in a fragmentary, knowing fashion, shifting back and forth in time, and drifting around in the way that writers do. She teaches at a city college; she works in Washington, D.C., she circulates among mineral-water tycoons and a wealthy paterfamilias who makes a toast to Dow Jones on his sixty-eighth birthday. "Speedboat" is very much a novel of the seventies, full of what Guy Trebay calls the era's "flares signaling general cultural distress," but its portrait of urban life among the chattering classes feels strangely contemporary, and, surely, this is part of the novel's enduring appeal. Jen is involved with a handful of men, including Aldo and Jim (a political consultant), who make brief appearances and never seem to be the center of the story. After all, this is not a novel of interiority. (Jen herself remains rather thinly sketched out.) It's a collage, populated by poignant and witty observations of the habits and delusions of a certain kind of urban professional. "Speedboat" is one of the more penetrating and oddly hypnotizing books I know; reading it is like being in a snowstorm. The world is transformed by the blanketing, stylized sensibility.
"Speedboat" sometimes strikes me as a kind of travel writing, the jotted observations of a literary anthropologist, rendering, with great precision, the woman who asks the Japanese sculptor next to her at dinner if Americans "smell badly to him," the luncheon with a man known to be a murderer (whom the reader presumes is Claus von Bülow). This anthropologist happens to be a woman, which is important, because part of the books' novelty is the way they unapologetically represent a woman's experience of both loneliness and attachment. The style is aphoristic and analytical: "Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all," Adler writes, and "There are times when every act, no matter how private and unconscious, becomes political." Elsewhere, she notes, "Like most lonely women, like most women of all kinds, Margaret Dagemen had an imaginary lover.... I used to think this sort of lover was specific to girls or women who were left out.... It is not so. Most women have had them, at some time in their lives, or all their lives." Adler told Trebay that while writing "Speedboat" she found she kept stopping before she got to the end of the anecdote she had in mind. "I was biting off the thread before the thing I was writing, the part of the story, the anecdote, was done." The brief vignettes have a stinging intensity: she notes, of two well-known sports journalists who never wrote books, that they had "just enough money and not enough time." Elsewhere, she diagnoses the existence of the "angry bravo," in which an audience at the theatre is not so much applauding "No, No, Nanette" as denouncing "Hair."
The stakes in "Pitch Dark" are similar. Kate Ennis is deciding whether to leave her lover, Jake, who is away celebrating his thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Jake is a figure of some renown, and their affair has gone on long enough that Kate thinks--being sensitive to nuances--that he wants her to leave. She travels to Ireland, to Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington, in pursuit of space that will bring her something like freedom. But she's less like someone seeking clarity than someone fleeing a murky place. Her lover, she muses, "is the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life." "Pitch Dark" is more narrative, a tad more fleshed out than "Speedboat," but we are talking degrees in kind: it, too, shifts in time, and makes use of haunting, inexplicable refrains to establish a sense of emotional progression. Both books share an associative logic, a reticent irony, in which the vignette is felt to do as much or more work as the narrative.
Reading these novels is inseparable from thinking about Adler as a cultural figure, with all of her intensities and fascinating contradictions. Adler was a reclusive type who was also friends with Brooke Astor and Oscar de la Renta, and on the scene: having drinks at Elaine's, lunching with the likes of von Bülow, and being photographed by Richard Avedon in the French West Indies, wearing her signature braid down her back. She worked as a film critic for the New York Times in the late nineteen-sixties, and a staff writer for this magazine in both the sixties and seventies, reporting on Vietnam, Biafra, and the civil-rights movement, among other things. She had studied literature at Harvard (under I. A. Richards) and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Hannah Arendt was one of her mentors. In her essays, Adler evinced a certain fatigue with the radical (and chic) left, instead espousing the idea of a "radical middle." ("The radical position in the moderate middle is the only place where the center holds.") In its reverent 1983 profile, New York called her "an outspoken defender of factual accuracy and intellectual rigor." She was never one to shy away from an attack--while she and Pauline Kael were colleagues, she wrote a fiercely critical review of Kael's collected pieces, and one of Adler's more recent books, "Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker," offers a rather scathing look at her time here.
Adler's heroines serve as a stand-in for the author herself; in her work, the line between fiction and non-fiction is a thin one. In "Pitch Dark," as Kate Ennis is trying to flee Ireland without being noticed, she thinks, "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." We never learn if this moment was a slip-up of the writer's--a momentary betrayal of the thin "fiction" here--or intentional, a kind of avant-garde reminder that these texts are hybrids, a mix of lyric essay, fiction, and memoir. Muriel Spark, in the afterward to this edition, suggests that this slip is a moment of "professional illogic," but I think that to the contemporary reader it hardly matters. It's actually one way the novel manifests the high shellac of its artifice. These books are fiction in the sense that their resolute shapeliness is a major aspect of how we experience them.
"Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" are in some ways sui generis. But they also fit into a brief nineteen-seventies efflorescence of elliptical, analytical, at times lyrical fiction by women who were also working as non-fiction writers: Joan Didion's "Play It as It Lays," Elizabeth Hardwick's "Sleepless Nights" (also recently republished by NYRB Classics), and even Susan Sontag's "Project for a Trip to China." For a generation of younger female readers like me, this writing provided a model that wasn't explicitly "female" in nature, but, by virtue of rendering a perceiving consciousness that was unmistakably a woman's, began to map a world that might be ours, a world that felt like ours. They are contemporary in a way that Mary McCarthy's "The Group" never could be. Their narrators, embodying a searching intelligence that isn't bound up in being married or having children, possess a questing quality I had previously associated, unconsciously, with the work of male novelists. It's great to have these novels back in print, at long last.
These days, you come across references everywhere to Renata Adler's brilliant novel of the nineteen-seventies, spurred no doubt by this beautiful NYRB edition, whose Abstract Expressionist cover is so much more enticing than the original grey on grey. Adler is brilliant, certainly, but whether she has really written a novel is a different matter altogether. I'd call it a glorious jumble, dispatches from the seventies gathered by the armful and crammed into seven chapters published separately in the New Yorker between 1971 and 1976. Five stars, certainly, but not as a novel.
The chapter titles: Castling, Quiet, Brownstone, Speedboat, Islands, What War, and The Agency. Few have any obvious relevance to their material. Take the first, "Castling," a word not even mentioned in the text. Is this the special move near the beginning of a game of chess, by which the king and rook jump over each other? Unique and unexpected, it is the prelude to going on the attack. Adler starts the book with a leap onto the board from nowhere remotely predictable: "Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written -- disrupting a cliché and, presumably, creating a genre." The four dozen sections that follow, a line to a page in length, are as contrasting and as seemingly arbitrary as the black and white squares on the chessboard. Rats in Manhattan. Bizarre fragments of overheard conversation. Memories of boarding school. The search for Jimmy Hoffa. And this para, in its entirety: "Another weekend. Any dreams. P.O. Box 1492."
Yes, there is a protagonist, Jen Fain, a reporter for a New York newspaper. You can put her life together from about 15 to 35, not in chronological order, but in anecdotes, references, and occasional confessions that eventually add up. Boarding-school education, good college, a year at the Sorbonne, junior reporter covering human-interest and background stories, increasing number of assignments abroad, part-time teaching job at a college, service as a consultant on a Washington committee, and so on. A lot of parties. First names of various men who seem to live with her for a while, move out, and move back again without much emotion. Perhaps there is one name that is mentioned with greater frequency as the book moves on, and she seems to be approaching a personal landmark in the last few pages. But you do not read this as a Bildungsroman or sustained character study, although Adler's pen is economical and precise in the numerous cameo portraits she draws of the walk-on roles, especially the eccentrics and pompous self-deluders.
Guy Trebay, in an excellent essay printed for once as an afterword rather than an introduction, calls the Seventies "America's hangover." Adler captures this perfectly, though the major traumas like Vietnam, Kent State, and Watergate are mentioned only in passing. But she is superb at skewering the laissez-faire misuse of language, the absurdities of campus politics, the combination of entitlement and disillusion, the general restlessness. The bright colors of that cover painting by Helen Frankenthaler are right, but Adler's writing really deserves something less abstract and serene, more jangly, more closely attuned to daily life; Larry Rivers, say.
I quoted the opening sentences; I will end with the closing few; in between is a collage of spot-on snapshots by one of the most acute observers of her generation. "I don't know what then. 'You can't miss it' always means you're never going to find it. The shortest distance between two points may well be the wrong way on a one way street. All the same, all the same, 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. You can't miss it. It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime."