Feb/Mar 2013

Cast in Doubt

Renata Adler's novels ruminate on the ephemera, awkward occurrences, and horrors of everyday life

Gary Indiana


RENATA ADLER’S NEWLY REISSUED NOVELS, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), consist of anecdotes, vignettes, jokes, aphorisms, epigrammatic asides, and longer passages of prose—eclectic inventories of consciousness. Their immediate effect is that of a flea market in Samarqand or Ouagadougou, where the items on display (vintage clothes, military decorations, photo albums, broken appliances) are fractionally different enough, in style and provenance, from their cousins at the local swap meet to look like artifacts of an alternate universe. Adler’s eye and ear for the peculiar are unmatched in American letters.

Adler herself is regarded as peculiar in literary circles; her reluctance to publish anything is almost as legendary as Fran Lebowitz’s writing block. At a more prolific time, Adler wrote often, mainly for the New Yorker, reporting with great perspicacity on civil rights marches in the South, the ’60s student movement, Biafra. For slightly over a year in the late ’60s, she was the daily film reviewer for the New York Times, a job no one else has filled quite as memorably since. (“Even if your idea of a good time,” began her first review, “is to watch a lot of middle-aged Germans, some of them very fat, all reddening, grimacing, perspiring, and falling over Elke Sommer, I think you ought to skip The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz.”) Since then, Adler’s work has appeared with diminishing frequency, though almost always with seismic reverberation.

Her 1980 review, in the New York Review of Books, of When the Lights Go Down, a collection of film reviews by Pauline Kael, is still being written about, albeit for the wrong reason—i.e., that it was “mean.” In the Kael review, as in, among other things, her pieces on Watergate, the Starr Report, Monica Lewinsky’s biography, and the “institutional carpet bombing” she received from the New York Times in reaction to four lines about Watergate judge John Sirica in Gone, her book about the New Yorker, Adler has diagnosed systemic maladies that the media hue and cry over transient symptoms—the Jayson Blair affair, for example—have effectively masked from public view. In Kael’s case, a debased use of language spreading into every area of public discourse. With respect to the Times, the abuse of institutional power to stifle dissent. In such matters, Adler has taken the high road, according to her lights, and suffered the opprobrium of doing so, at a time when the high road is scarcely visible to many people, in large part because of the problems Adler has written about.

Adler’s fiction has mostly received a less contentious reception than her essays, although an excerpt of Pitch Dark, deemed by a narrow band of cognoscenti to be “about” real people, prompted the gossip columnist Liz Smith to issue her only known work of literary criticism. The two novels range over many subjects treated in her nonfiction, but the difference, I think, is this: The equivocal, insecure, self-doubting cogitations of Adler’s first-person narrators are instantly disarming in ways that Adler, speaking with relentless logic as herself, in polemical mode, is not. No one else has a dog in a fight against yourself, and despite countless minor casualties in Adler’s two novels, the main event in both of them is “I” versus “I.”

The writer-narrator of Speedboat, Jen Fein, travels a lot, for work and fun. Sometimes she reports for a newspaper, or teaches at a city college. Her friends are lawyers, doctors, other writers, judges, politicians, socialites. She encounters many other sorts of people too. At least as often as she speaks of “I,” she relates stories about “we”—meaning her generation, the one that went to college during the second Eisenhower administration. How their childhoods were, what school was like, what they expected to happen next, and how they are faring so far: “Dispersed as we all are, though, what we seem to have entirely in common is a time, a quality of meaning no harm, and a sense that among highly urban and ambitious people we are trying to lead some semblance of decent lives.”

These stories convey a class solidarity that has less to do with money than with education and an interest in politics and culture, a fair degree of social polish (often observed in the breach), and ethical scruples that preclude certain forms of success and facilitate others—in the legal field, medicine, publishing, scholarship, science. Also a fair degree of patriotism, faith in incremental progress, and the durability of democratic institutions. Of this cohort’s influence on the state of things, Speedboat keeps a running score. “We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought.”

Various riffs present themselves as witty examples of Hobson’s choice, or coercive inanity, or misapplied wisdom. Often, Adler records nuances outside the perceptual range of any other recent American novelist:

We were talking about No, No, Nanette. I said I thought there was such a thing as an Angry Bravo—that those audiences who stand, and cheer, and roar, and seem altogether beside themselves at what they would instantly agree is at best an unimportant thing, are not really cheering No, No, Nanette. They are booing Hair. Or whatever else is on stage that they hate and that seems to triumph. So they stand and roar. Every bravo is not so much a Yes to the frail occasion they have come to make a stand at, as a No, goddam it to everything else, a bravo of rage. And with that, they become, for what it’s worth, a constituency that is political.

Jen Fein ruminates on everyday ephemera: allegedly bulletproof taxi partitions, for example, or the enigma of the “self-addressed envelope,” or bizarre form letters. In company, she is drawn as if by hypnosis to the flaw, and, implicitly, the void. Attuned to the wrong word, the malapropism, the gauche remark, the fatuous rejoinder, she finds something wildly skewed, insensible, ominous, untenable, intolerable, or at least a little off in nearly every situation. Hilarious in description, this something is essentially monstrous. Whether it is a symptom of a world gone mad, or evidence of herself cracking up, is another question she ponders in her spare time. Her tendency to paranoia and the giggles is extreme.

I don’t think much of writers in whom nothing is at risk. It is possible, though, to be too literal-minded about this question. In a magazine, under the heading “,000 for First-Person Articles,” for example: “An article for this series must be a true, hitherto unpublished narrative of an unusual personal experience. It may be dramatic, inspirational, or humorous, but it must have, in the opinion of the editors, a quality of narrative interest comparable to ‘How I Lost My Eye’ (June ’72) and ‘Attacked by a Killer Shark’ (April ’72). Contributions must be typewritten, preferably double-spaced . . .” I particularly like where the stress, the italics, goes.

Speedboat reveals at every turn bewildering forks in the route ahead, confusions between literal and figurative, a widespread misapprehension of scale and scope, a general loss of equilibrium; in the episodes of daily life, nothing presents itself in the form of a single entendre. Seduction and threat are indistinguishable; reciprocal incomprehension begins to look like the salient feature of social existence. A friend’s idea of a little surprise before dinner turns out to be five hours of Parsifal. The incipient horror of it all is diffused throughout by framing each occurrence as a funny thing that happened on the way to somewhere else—exactly where, though, is never indicated.

Jen shuffles life’s imponderables in a vain search for cause and effect, an elusive organizing principle that is surely somewhere, some secret raison d’Ítre, just really any kind of explanation. Reality’s failure to make sense promotes feelings of panic that oblige her to draw her own conclusions, invariably in the form of nervous jokes.

The second rat, of course, may have been the first rat farther uptown, in which case I am either being followed or the rat keeps the same rounds and hours I do. I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time. Two rats, then.

She writes directly to the reader, in sections of a single line, a paragraph, a page. The epigraph quotes Evelyn Waugh; many of this novel’s bit players would be at home in A Handful of Dust, or Scoop. Speedboat is very funny, in an archly reserved way. It is so diverted by eccentric data that Jen is scarcely more present as a character than the odd people she runs across, or the men she is involved with at different periods, who are practically spectral. She is there on the page; she tells us things about herself, about the world. Still, we wonder who she is, and so does she.

The staccato brevity of Adler’s contes keeps them at the constant temperature of a well-turned after-dinner recitative at a table in Elaine’s, with what that implies of a coterie sensibility, gamesmanship, and emotional cool. The conspicuous limitation of this novel is that it looks like something written for the New Yorker, by the New Yorker. But Adler accomplishes something reachier simply by adhering to the New Yorker’s notions of decorous writing with a kind of defeating fanaticism. From a certain abstracted angle, Speedboat evokes an antic American version of a Robbe-Grillet novel—not quite Le Voyeur as a musical, but still—its narrator a mental camera, incidents pared to the bone, sinews hidden in negative space.

The “missing page,” what we sense behind what’s shown, is a deferred awareness of death coming—not now, not yet, but sooner or later, none of this is going to last forever; not a shadow narrative, exactly, but a steady inference between the lines, in the white space where everything evaporates. I do not mean to suggest a prevailing spirit of morbidity, but rather a tropistic avoidance of it that becomes ominous. In the end, this assemblage of anecdotal evidence that appears to build a case, and regales us so implacably with sinister ironies, arrives at no conclusions, but opts for an agnostic optimism that could easily travel south.

PITCH DARK IS MURKY—not in a turgid sense, but clouded, rather, by troubled reflections, ambivalence, regrets. The weather of Pitch Dark is colder. Secondary figures are fraught with shadowed histories. Incidents and asides illustrate a hapless, estranging condition of things: a bitter libel case, a dying raccoon, solitary escape to charmless islands, The Blue Angel, “how I both was and failed to be a citizen of my time.” A central episode in Ireland resembles a parody of gothic horror. Kate Ennis is an older version of Jen Fein, acquainted with disappointment and less innervated by amusing minutiae. She too writes. And travels, though more to flee her life than for any sort of fun. She often addresses one particular reader, a man she has left, or is leaving, or who is leaving, or has left, her. Her stories are longish and less sanguine in contrast with the ones in Speedboat.

Comparing Gertrude Stein and Thomas Wolfe, she writes, “She went on and on, too, of course, but only in a state of tension: drawn to the sentimental rhythm and the sentimental substance, but mocking and concealing it, reining it back.” This could suitably describe the precarious balance Kate Ennis maintains between observant detachment and a nervous breakdown. The central matter obscured by Kate’s tales—of Penelope sleeping with all the suitors, of hate mail received since high school from Rosalie Kamarski; the story of the dragon of the passport office, the one about the Chinese hypnotist, and so on—the long love affair ending, ended, or maybe not, seeps into narrative cracks, sounds a medley of stuttering refrains. (“Look here, you know. I loved you.” “You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.”) The faits divers in Pitch Dark frequently end on these plangent, mournful notes of heartbreak. One wishes they were less plangent, and less frequent, since they don’t always work, though scenes depicting Kate and her lover, Jake—at night, for instance, after leaving a party, with Jake’s wife also in the car—are brilliant.

Late that night, on the road back, he said, “Honey, right there in that heavy snowstorm, I saw two deer.” There was a silence. I thought, he calls her honey. I could not imagine what his wife thought, or why she said nothing, or why the silence seemed so long and deep. His words were clearly not addressed to me. He had already told me about the deer. He has never called me anything but Kate. Then it dawned on me. He had told his wife, too, and forgotten that he’d told her. She must have thought he was telling me for the first time, and that, whatever honey has come to mean between them, he now calls me that. I could be wrong, of course. She may not even have been listening, or maybe she never answers at that hour. There we both were, though, together in our silence.

For Kate, everything has started to make too much sense, and to point all in one direction. The comparatively blithe era of Speedboat has segued into twilight time, decline and fall.

But from the highest public matters to the smallest private acts, the mugger, the embezzler, the burglar, the perjurer, tax chiseler, killer, gang enforcer, the plumber, party chairman, salesman, curator, car or TV repairman, officials of the union, officials of the corporation, the archbishop, the numbers runner, the delinquent, the police; from the alley to the statehouse, behind the darkened window or the desk; this is the age of crime. And recently, I think the truth is this, over a period of days and nights some weeks ago, I became part of it.

Adler’s novels employ time like a keyboard, playable in either direction, and proceed unfettered by plot, qualities they share with Robert Walser’s stories and feuilletons, Burroughs’s cut-ups, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. They follow associative patterns we’re not given a key to, conceivably akin to the synonymies expounded in Speedboat:

“So for these purposes, digitalis, adamantine, apple orchard, gonorrhea, labyrinthine, motherfucker, flights of fancy, Duffy’s Tavern, Halley’s Comet, birthday present, xenophobic are all synonyms,” the great professor said. “Synonyms in terms of meter, that is.”

“I see.”

“And words that rhyme,” he said, “are synonyms, in terms of rhyme, with all the words they rhyme with. Cat, gnat, flat. Fang, sang, sprang, you see.”

“Yes.”

“So that in the study of poetics, we have. Rhyme synonyms. And meter synonyms. I leave aside pure synonyms of meaning. There are not really very many. And there are other factors, of course.”

“Of course.”

Jen Fein and Kate Ennis are children of the kind of liberal Jewish family where the Dow Jones Averages are toasted on the father’s birthday. Products of genteel country life and first-rate universities, they entered adulthood expecting the world to be a certain way. Not necessarily their shucked oyster, but at times, at least, a place that would yield something to reason and recognize worthy behavior. Coming of age in the 1950s, setting out for the city in the ’60s, they encountered instead a culture of irony spreading everywhere like kudzu, choking off the oxygen supply, and epidemic dissonance dissolving every solid value. From Pitch Dark:

We watched The Newlywed Game. The moderator had just asked the contestant, a young wife from Virginia, What is your husband’s least favorite rodent? “His least favorite rodent,” she replied, drawling serenely and without hesitation. “Oh, I think that would have to be the saxophone.”

And from Speedboat:

They were saying “Make peace, not war,” and so, the Commander of the Ohio State National Guard testified in the course of the Kent State trials, he threw a rock at them.

A perception of important things becoming lost to history figures in the literature of every era. In Sentimental Education, Flaubert describes a moral and emotional aphasia produced by the Revolution of 1848; the First World War, in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, erases an entire code of sentiments particular to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Adler is a cartographer of surface disturbances d’avant-guerre, like Musil in The Man Without Qualities, observing the slow fade of values and ideals associated with liberal Republicanism. One tension in Adler’s novels arises from their narrators’ desire to stay engaged with the world as it worsens, and the evident futility of trying to do so with the tools at hand—training in logic, reflectiveness, criticality, kindness, good manners, and basic morals being clearly inadequate to a criminal era that begins with the Kennedy assassination and the Kitty Genovese story, and runs rampantly on to this day.

That the narrators of Adler’s novels are versions of Renata Adler by Renata Adler is hardly a question, and barely remarkable, except that Adler’s other writing, and what is publicly known about her, make these seem even less fictitious than most novels.

It should be added that even if she had named these women Renata Adler, the novels, and Renata Adler, would still be works of fiction; diverse works such as Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Aldo Busi’s Sodomies in Eleven Point, and Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, among many others in which the narrator or protagonist shares the name of the author, are salutary reminders of why we have fiction. The imagination needs a safe harbor, insured against any documentary form of reality; our lives consist of many things besides facts. In fiction I may incarnate, even in my own name, someone who is not me, a person I might be if I were not constrained by the exigencies of my existence, who has other qualities, different habits of thought, a different sexuality, less money, more money, someone else’s problems, a fondness for other things. Or, the fictional “I” can coincide with myself at every point, but live in a different country, behave differently toward other people, only know people I invent for him, etc.

No current literary label appealingly describes the kind of narratives Speedboat and Pitch Dark are. I doubt that any is needed. Their formal design, of self-contained pieces separated by a line space and periodic chapter breaks, is hardly sui generis, having been used in many different kinds of writing for over a hundred years, in collections of aphorisms, feuilletons, philosophical treatises, compendia like Humphrey Jennings’s Pandaemonium and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, as well as seed catalogues, political pamphlets, and cookbooks, and works of fiction as diverse as Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

The kind of thought debris you find on the Internet describes novels in this form as “experimental,” which is predictive of a certain off-putting difficulty and self-indulgent esoterica. Often, too, it is declared by a gatekeeping sort of criticism that anything that deviates far from a nineteenth-century template is “not a novel.” It seems late in the day for such parsing. But in fact, classifications that formerly reflected a delight in all literary forms and the intellectual pleasure of differentiating them—Mary McCarthy’s essays “Novel, Tale, Romance” and “The Fact in Fiction” come to mind—now serve as filtering screens for the literary market, which is currently dominated by aesthetic conservatism of a depressingly conformist ilk: middle-class marriage saved, or ruined, or attacked by vampires.

Adler’s novels concede the necessity of making fiction quicker, more terse, descriptively less elaborate than the traditional thing called a novel, not so much in deference to shrunken attention spans, but as the most plausible way of rendering the distracted, fragmentary quality of contemporary consciousness. Their reportorially even tone is quite distinct from the distorting lyricism found in most novels of sensibility; omitting much of what we expect in first-person narratives, Adler gets at the overfull yet depleted condition we find ourselves in now, peripatetic and restless, ever more deprived of the time and mental space to reflect on what we are really doing, or who we really are. They describe what it’s like to be living now, during this span of time, in our particular country and our particular world. This is what the best novels have always done, and with any luck will continue to do.

Gary Indiana is the author of seven novels and six books of nonfiction.

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