by Renata Adler
Published March, 2013
by Renata Adler
Published March, 2013
Were circumstance, or accident, contrive to have you flick through the 4 July 1964 issue of the New Yorker, there is a chance you might notice, sitting between the columns of text on page 71, what is, unmistakeably, a fly. This fly, drawn to scale, is neither cartoon nor advertisement; there is no accompanying caption to amuse or perplex, and a downrule partitions off photographs of the sweet sauces produced and sold by the Ferrara Pastry and Continental Coffee Shop in Little Italy (still in business today, 50 years on). Flies do this, of course: alight in places they shouldn’t. It is possible that Bob Geraghty, the New Yorker’s art editor during this period, was going for the fly as a trompe l’oeil. It is also possible that it’s a visual gag – remember there are all those jars full of liquid sugar running down the right-hand side of the page.
But maybe the fly sits there as a cryptic commentary on the text that is ever so slightly making way for it. That text (flicking backwards through the magazine now) turns out to be a twenty page disquisition on the state of contemporary book criticism called ‘Polemic and the New Reviewers’. Its author (flicking to the end) is Renata Adler, then a rookie staff writer at the New Yorker. 35 years later, she would publish a book called Gone (1999) proclaiming the death of that same magazine and allow herself to be described as an ‘intellectual gadfly’ on its back-flap.
The Egyptian Pharaohs used to award ‘Golden Fly’ amulets to their best soldiers for bravery in battle. In ‘Polemic and the New Reviewers’, we witness a 26-year-old woman in her first year or so of book reviewing storm the citadel of three mavens of post-war American literary criticism: Arthur Mizener, Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz. Mizener was Mellon Foundation Professor of English at Cornell University, a National Book Award finalist for his 1951 biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a regular reviewer for the New York Times; he is dismissed as a paraphraser and gusher whose ‘prose neatly strangles whatever his thought may have been’. Howe, contributor to the Partisan Review and founding editor of Dissent, is rebuked for forcing literature to speak to the socio-political situation, even when it clearly does not intend to do so. Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, is seen to occupy the ‘middle ground’ between Mizener’s banalities and Howe’s ideologism.
That Podhoretz exemplifies all that is wrong with the so-called ‘New Reviewers’ becomes clear around page 71, where that fly appears. This is when Adler’s analysis of Podhoretz’s criticism, already over three times the length of the Mizener and Howe sections, goes from thoroughgoing to relentless. Like a fly that will not be deterred by spraying or swatting, Adler keeps circling back to Podhoretz’s own words to unearth proof against him. It is an approach – we might call it, after Hamlet, the ‘hoist by his own petard’ method – that would become her signature; Adler would go on to use it throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s in her celebrated investigative journalism, which included focus-shifting essays on the Watergate trials and the Starr Report. By the end of ‘Polemic and the New Reviewers’, Podhoretz has been found guilty of, among other things, superciliousness, undue gloominess, slipshod thinking and a pervasive ‘look at me’ attitude.
But it is better if Adler delivers the verdict. Many of Mr Podhoretz’s essays, she writes,
have no interest except as examples of a school of critical writing. And the principles that unite the New Reviewing school are – if it is possible to call them ‘principles’ at all – an elaborate system of cross-references that amounts to mutual coattail-hanging; a stale liberalism gone reactionary in anti-Everyman snobbery and defeatist cliché; a false intellectualism that is astonishingly shabby in its arguments; a hostile imperiousness toward fiction that results in near megalomania on the part of expository writers; and a withering condescension towards authors and readers that finds expression in a strident tendency to shout the opposition down. The New Reviewing is, more generally, a pastiche of attitudes and techniques vying to divert the attention of the reader from the book ostensibly under review to the personality of the reviewer, striving intrusively and valiantly to hold the line against the arts.
Damning as her final judgement is, it is all the more extraordinary because it bites the hand that feeds. About a year earlier, Podhoretz had given Adler a boost by commissioning her to write on John Hersey’s essay collection Here to Stay (1962) for Commentary, and backed her by publishing, without quibbling, her unfavourable review.
Where exactly the negative review crosses the line between doing its duty and being unfair is something editors, critics, authors and readers continue to debate today. Many believed Adler’s review of Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down (1980) for the New York Review of Books supplied that line’s full set of coordinates. Adler had made enemies before. She was the New York Times’ chief film critic for only fourteen months, from January 1968 to March 1969, but in that time United Artists ran a full-page advertisement against her and Republican Senator Strom Thurgood denounced her on the floor of Congress for her review of the pro-Saigon Vietnam film The Green Berets (1968), which she pronounced ‘so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve … for the fantasy-making apparatus in this country’.
What was so perturbing for some people about the Kael review was that it seemed personal. It’s not. It is actually an apology on Kael’s behalf as much as a critique: an essay about the difficulties of being a staff, as opposed to an intermittent, reviewer and having to have an opinion on everything you see or read or hear, week in, week out.
But the misperception is due to the fact it focuses on the thing that comes closest to the personality or even the soul of a writer: style. Kael is hung, drawn and quartered for her ‘quirks [and] mannerisms’. These include an over-reliance on particular words, phrases and grammatical constructions, and a habit of ‘ad hominem brutality and intimidation’ through her compulsive use of the second person and ‘mock rhetorical questions and question marks’ – a punctuation mark Adler, conspicuously, almost never uses in the novel she was writing at that time, Pitch Dark. Examples are cited, and then some: to prove that Kael is disposed to ‘compulsive and joyless naughtiness’, Adler tables over twenty-five ‘visceral’ images of bodily functions and nearly twenty metaphors of ‘physical sadism’ from the collection. Taken together, Kael’s stylistic tics are seen to be the ‘most unmistakeable marks of a hack’. When the Lights Go Down is adjudged ‘jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless’. James Wolcott, then a television columnist for the Village Voice and a friend of Kael’s, described the review as ‘an autopsy report filed by the archangel of death whose pen was her scalpel’.
There are a vocal few – BuzzFeed’s new Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald, most recently – who deem negative reviews out of bounds entirely. But for those who think a critic strong-armed to be positive perpetually is a sad clown, and that negative appraisal should be, like curry powder to a cook, an occasional but essential ingredient in a critic’s spice rack, Adler’s criticism is restitutive. She has never had any truck with smarm or niceness or the ‘Bambi rule’. You don’t have to read between the lines to find out what she thinks. For Adler, to be mealy-mouthed or to partake in bootlicking or cronyism is to play for the wrong team. The critic must be on the side of good writing and posterity, and that means no pandering to anything or anybody in the present, including the reader, with whom she should be only one thing: honest.
Yet it would be wrong to think of Adler as an advocate of the hatchet job. In her reviews, there is too much scrupulous evidence-gathering for the kind of cheap shots that can only be made by going too far on too little. She believes the critic carries the burden of proof. Podhoretz and the New Reviewers receive their sentence after twenty pages of substantiation; the signs of Kael’s diminished powers are itemised. Also, her targets can take it. As she said in Gone, and repeated in a recent interview with the Believer: ‘it isn’t fair to write mean reviews about the frail or powerless, to level heavy guns at first novels by unknown writers or at the work of the poet in his garret.’
If we blanch reading Adler today, then it is possibly because we have been made feeble by our critics having so little space to air their grievances. At the start of the Kael review, Adler complains about what the review has become, which accurately describes what it tends to be like today. It is, she says, a nerveless
consumer service, which consists essentially of three parts: a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes or a no vote; and a somewhat judgemental, factual description or account, which is usually inferior by any journalistic standard to reporting in all other sections of the paper.
‘Polemic and the New Reviewers’ begins with the claim that the critic who writes negative reviews has nothing to gain:
If the work under attack is valuable, it survives adverse comment. If it is not, the polemic dies with its target. A critic is therefore measured not by the books he prosecutes but by the ones he praises.
Adler fails to mention a further cost if that critic also happens to be a novelist: exclusion. It is no exaggeration to say that she was rubbed out of the history of postmodern American fiction almost entirely – a history she was acknowledged as a part of by the likes of E. L. Doctorow when it was being made. This is due in no small part to her parallel career making herself disagreeable in non-fiction, but other explanations come to mind as well: the infrequency of the novels – there have been only Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983) to date – and an underlying suspicion that she is too fabulously well-connected (to Jackie Onassis, Amyn Aga Khan, Helen Frankenthaler, Hannah Arendt and Oscar de la Renta, among others) to be any good. Adler calls this, in another context, ‘guilt by non-obscurity’.
The blackballing of Adler illustrates why we need professional critics: the burrs of gripes and grudges find fewer places to adhere to those who do not write books themselves. But Adler came to believe that she needed to walk the talk, that writing novels was a test of character, or even a moral necessity. She explained her decision to turn to fiction in a New York magazine profile piece from December 1983:
I can’t be saying this, but in a way I think that if you’re going to write, after a certain point some of it better be fiction. Unless, as a critic, you’re going to be praising everything all the time, it’s only fair to take certain risks of your own.
The real risk, however, turned out not to be the novels themselves, but the genre-hopping. Adler has manoeuvred in and out of criticism, journalism, memoir and fiction, and her writing in one genre has impacted harmfully upon her reception in another. The upshot has been the ousting of her fiction from our bookshops, bookshelves and canons and a downsizing of her cultural influence in our collective memory.
Until now. How do we account for the eagerness, then the fervour, that met the re-release of Adler’s novels as NYRB Classics in the US last year? Perhaps it is because we love a comeback, especially one involving a 75-year-old woman still rocking a over-the-shoulder waist-length braid and looking every bit as groovy as she did when she was given a job as a 24-year-old by William Shawn. Perhaps it is because we love a lost book, especially one we discover by being led directly to it, one we are told other people failed to get, one we are promised won’t be a waste of our time by virtue of the word ‘classic’. Perhaps it is because we have been alerted to the absence of women writers from our reading piles and are primed to rediscover good ones. Perhaps it is because we are at a generation’s remove from Adler and therefore have nothing at stake in the battles she so uncompromisingly fought. Perhaps it is because the critic’s power is so diminished these days that we cannot fathom why anything Adler might have said back then could have dimmed or smeared her reputation, then or now. Perhaps it comes down to time’s passing and its mollifying, even amnesic, effects. As Pitch Dark’s protagonist Kate Ennis speculates towards the end of that novel, positive emotions such as curiosity and love ‘might be backward-formed’ but they are ‘forward-directed attitudes’ and ‘[n]o one is afraid of yesterday’.
Several prominent New York-based book bloggers have claimed that throughout the years of neglect they were never guilty of forgetting Adler. That copies of Speedboat were slipped between writer-friends, as Meghan O’Rourke claims, ‘like samizdat pamphlets’ in Brooklyn bars ten or even twenty years ago has hardened into a recurring conversion narrative in online reviews and blogs.
Be that as it may (or may not), Adler’s appeal among the young and bookish can be traced to two writer-teachers: David Foster Wallace and David Shields. Wallace taught Speedboat in his course ‘Eclectic / Obscure Fictions for Writers’, a senior undergraduate seminar he ran at Pomona College in the early-2000s – a course, tellingly, replete with texts by women writers, including Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970) and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940). We know he was recommending Adler as far back as 1997 because Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky was pointed in Speedboat’s direction when he spent five days on the road with Wallace promoting Infinite Jest (1996). We also know Wallace had read the book intently; his copy of Speedboat – a 1988 paperback, the last edition to be published before it went out of print for 26 years – can now be viewed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, and is heavily annotated in green ink. Even before his death in 2008, Wallace’s syllabi were cherished documents, more sacred scrolls than photocopied typescripts, held onto by students long after semester had ended, shared and discussed by online communities of fans. Today they are admired for their idiosyncrasies and candour, and are seen to be exemplars of this minor literary genre now nearly extinct thanks to university league tables and TESQA, which are, amongst other things, driving a move to standardisation of such teaching and learning documents. The pedagogical space Wallace occupies extends beyond the walls of the seminar rooms in which he once taught. Readers like to read the books their favourite writers think are good because it prolongs the pleasures of communion with them – it is as if their oeuvre has, miraculously, increased by a volume or two. This is one of the ways literary influence works.
Shields’ mash-up manifesto Reality Hunger (2010) celebrates Speedboat for being ‘daring and elusive’, for its ‘antilinearity’, for ‘the confusion of fiction and nonfiction’ and ‘its jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice’. He was spruiking Adler at least as far back as 2000, when he managed to squeeze a line or two of praise for Speedboat – which he calls ‘one of the most original and formally exciting American novels published in the past 25 years’ – into a short article about the controversial NCAA basketball coach Bob Knight in Salon magazine. As a Professor at Washington University in Seattle, he has taught the book for years.
The impetus for the NYRB Classics reissue was that in 2010 members of the National Book Critics Circle named Speedboat as the work they would most like to see republished. Many of these people pointed to Reality Hunger as the reason they had decided to read it in the first place. Academics in Literary Studies and Creative Writing are often maligned for not teaching the ‘right’ texts, but sometimes this is because they are busy with the bellows keeping alight our interest in other books – books that are unfashionable or out of print, books in danger of being forgotten.
Speedboat’s compositional unit is the paragraph – the 170 page novel is broken up into about 260 sections. Over 200 of them are no longer than a single paragraph. Many are given over to acute and witty noticing, as often via the ear as the eye, of the fads and peculiarities of the present:
‘I can’t believe it,’ people said, almost with passion. It was that year’s version of hello. ‘I can’t believe it,’ people said, on the beach, on the slopes, in hotel lobbies, in cells, at parties. Apparently incredulous, astounded, people met. Sometimes the rejoinder was ‘For God’s sake’, as in ‘Harry! Maude! I can’t believe it.’ ‘Marilyn! Well, for God’s sake.’ Sometimes people changed it slightly. When we had just come back to the office, a middle-aged couple, he with the heartiness of another era, she with a certain trembly superstition, met in the elevator only yesterday. ‘Well, as I live in breathe,’ he shouted. ‘Touch wood,’ she replied.
Language used, misused and abused is something Adler compulsively registers. This links her to the postmodernist project in American fiction. (It also makes Lorrie Moore less a maverick than she seems, and more of a literary goddaughter.) As Adler’s friend Donald Barthelme asserts in his essay ‘Not-Knowing’ (1985), the central concerns of that project are the problem of communication and the difficulties associated with having to manipulate language worn out by over-handling and contaminated by ideological and commercial use. Clichés and common terms are examined to the bone:
A ‘self-addressed envelope’, if you’re inclined to brood, raises deep questions of identity. Such an envelope, immutably itself, is always precisely where it belongs. ‘Self-pity’ is just sadness, I think, in the pejorative.
Whole paragraphs turn on a mishearing or mispronunciation. Edith from Kiev – who is never heard from again in the novel – identifies herself as a ‘terrapist’ in one paragraph; Boris the doctor – who isn’t either – utters the word ‘healer’ ‘with an “h” as though someone had thrown him a medicine ball’. Sometimes the effect is lightly satirical, as in case of the heavy-breather who negates the impact of his obscene phone call to a woman called Phoebe by calling her ‘Phobe’. At other times, the attentiveness to language makes us feel uneasy because it seems a perverse missing of the point:
It was midnight in our paper’s office building. There was a Pinkerton man in the elevator. ‘Something’s wrong?’ Jim asked. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘A girl on the fifth floor has been molestated.’
Most of the time, though, we are asked very gently to stop and behold these small-scale everyday wonders of often accidental ingenuity:
In a public school in a run-down section of Brooklyn, Mrs Cavell, under a grant for special projects, was conducting her kindergarten civics class. ‘What are you?’ she would say to her little people, right after the bell each weekday morning. ‘I’m free,’ they had learned to say, as one. On a particularly cold, bleak morning of midwinter, Mrs Cavell tried a variation. ‘Today, we are going to say it in our individual voices,’ she said. ‘When I call on you, I want you to stand and say it proudly. All right. Jefferson Adams, what are you?’ Jefferson Adams got it. ‘I’m free,’ he replied. ‘Right. What are you Franklin Atell?’ ‘I’m free,’ Franklin Atell said. Mary Lou Jones had to be asked to speak up, but then she said it firmly, ‘I’m free’. Up and down the rows of carved and gum-stuck desks in the pre-school classroom, the words rang out, but Mrs Cavell, a good soul, who had taught for thirty years in Brooklyn, saw a look of somehow disquieting resolution on Billy Martin’s face. ‘What are you, Billy Martin?’ Mrs Cavell asked. ‘I am four,’ he said.
While Speedboat has received undivided praise upon reissue, what it has been praised for has fallen into two opposing, even paradoxical, camps. For some critics, the novel charms because it is so completely of its time; for others, it wows because it feels so completely ahead of its time.
It is true that Speedboat chronicles its ‘now’, which is the 1970s. There are references to Richard Nixon, Vietnamese orphans, the Kent State civil trials, the television soap Medical Center, the installation of bulletproof partitions between driver and passenger in Manhattan’s yellow cabs. Speedboat’s ostensible narrator-protagonist, Jen Fain, has signed up to ‘receive communications almost every day from an institution called the Centre for Short-Lived Phenomena’. She is highly conscious of the role recent events and new things have in defining epochs and marking out generations:
The jet, the Xerox, the abortion law, and of course, of course, the tape recorder – these advances in terms of the reversible and the irreversible are one line, one still fuzzy line, between our set and the next.
Speedboat’s interest in the now is also evident in its keenness to capture New York City at that time: pre-zero tolerance, pre-gentrification. Close to the beginning of the book, Jen bundles us across the East River to Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction and beyond that to the black and Latino ghetto of Brownsville, a no-go area for hardened New Yorkers:
I don’t know how many people have even seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air. Not far away, there is that Brownsville section of crushed, hollowed houses, an immense metropolis in ruins, with an occasional junkie, corpse, demented soul intent upon an errand where no errand can exist. There can’t even be rats, unless they’re feeding on each other. Then, just on the edge of this deserted strangeness, there begins a little neighbourhood of sorts, with tenants, funeral homes, groceries, one or two policemen. Once, along the border street, I saw an endless line of Cadillacs, with men in suits and hats, with chauffeurs and manicures and somber faces. An owner of a liquor store had passed on to the funeral home. The Italians who run that community were paying their respects. The actual street neighbors seem divided between obligations to the dear departed and protocols toward the men in Cadillacs. Nothing for the foundation here. Nothing for the paper, either. No events.
Soon we are at the bar in a ‘jammed’ Elaine’s, which, until its closure in 2011, was one of the most famous celebrity nightspots in America. With Jen, we watch a room ‘full of young women looking tired and their escorts, ignoring them in droves, talking to each other, man to man’ and exhibiting ‘a general male reluctance to go to bed’ – or pay the cheque. Dinner involves sharing a table with a girl who confesses to having stolen two shirts from Bloomingdale’s that day, losing a whole zabaglione in a stranger’s handbag, and witnessing a writer create a disturbance and be forcibly ejected to the sound of approaching squad cars. Elsewhere in the novel, we visit Jen at her brownstone apartment, head to the Met for a five-hour performance of Parsifal and go to parties with ‘ambassadors, actresses, bishops, fashionable congressmen, writers, professors and civic-minded nuns’ where the ‘food and drink were of an awfulness, and also scarcity, that would embarrass New York dropouts in a loft’.
Adler’s descriptions might appeal to our sense of nostalgia, but there are parallels between that world and ours. The 1970s had stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, terrorist hijackings, the Arab-Israeli conflict; we have had the GFC, Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks, 9/11, the Arab-Israeli conflict. We share their fear of terrorism, uppermost in our minds on airplanes, which is one way to explain why Jen spends so much time aboard them, even learning to fly them. Readers will likely recognise Jen’s thought processes when, with all the other people on the shuttle from Washington to New York, she scrutinises ‘passengers of all sorts and all races … for evidences of fanaticism’ and feels ‘a ripple of apprehension’ when an elderly woman occupying a row of seats normally left vacant ‘for security reasons’ – ‘the world’s most improbable terrorist’ – reaches into her ‘enormous bag’.
It is strange for a novel called Speedboat to spend so much time on planes, but their effects on passengers are similar. Speedy transports annihilate space and time, create a dizzying effect. They bring scenes of difference side by side and imply a relation where none exists. Adler’s paragraphs simulate this effect: a paragraph about visiting the University of California in the early 1970s sits next to a paragraph about Paris during the Algerian crisis. These particular paragraphs have in common an interest in place, and both involve Jen, but there are many juxtaposed paragraphs that, it would seem, share nothing at all, content-wise. Many of these paragraphs are abstract or don’t appear to belong to Jen; they have a found quality about them. Speedboat can be understood as an assemblage of many different text types: aphorism, anecdote, argument, confession, joke, dialogue, diary entry, transcript, reportage. There is even a paragraph in the form of a personal advertisement with a P.O. Box address.
Juxtaposition operates at sentence level too. Paratactic statements and non sequiturs abound, particularly at the end of paragraphs when one expects some kind of summing up or the point to become clear. For example, a paragraph about tennis lessons with a man called Stewart – who, like Edith and Boris, never appears in the novel again – ends with the following three sentences:
Their tennis improved. I have been wrong about a lot of things. I still have his tie.
There has been no previous mention of being wrong, or the tie.
Adler’s juxtapositional technique seems to be making a couple of larger points. The first is that everyday life has been transformed, that it is now experienced in a radically new way. Incongruity is the new norm. As a consequence, the self, shaped as it is by its experiences, has been transformed. People no longer have temperaments or traits or cores. Incongruity’s effect on the psyche is impassivity or flatness. In the first few pages of Speedboat, Jen attempts to give a Dickensian account of herself and fails, divagating into trivial details and irrelevancies:
I work for a tabloid, the Standard Evening Sun. Since I got this job, I have gone out with four sons of famous fathers, two businessmen with unfinished novels, three writers with a habit of saying ‘May I use that’ when I said something that seemed to them in character, and a revolutionary editor who patted my hair and said ‘You’re very sweet’ whenever I asked him anything. I have sat, shivering on cold steps, with a band of fifteen radicals of whom ten were in analysis and wore contact lenses. Things have changed very much, several times, since I grew up, and, like everyone else in New York except the intellectuals, I have led several lives and I still lead them.
For a while I thought I had no real interests – no theatre, concerts, museums, stamp collections. Only ambitions and ties to people, of a certain intensity. Different sorts of people. I was becoming a ward heeler of the emotional life. Now the ambitions have drifted after the interests. I have lost my sense of the whole. I wait for events to take a form. I remember somebody saying, ‘You’ve got to steep yourself in things.’ So I steeped myself, in thrillers, commercials, news magazines. The same person used to write ‘tepid’ and ‘arguable’ all over the margins of what our obituary writers wrote. I now think ‘tepid’ and ‘arguable’ several times a day.
The second point Adler wants to make through juxtaposition is that coincidence, not causality, is the logic of the times – which is why it is the logic of the novel too. In Speedboat, the unlikely is always likely to occur. Says Jen:
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.
When a young woman from Malibu breaks her neck by bouncing in anticipation as the speedboat she is travelling in thuds against the peaks of successive waves, a man cries out ‘How too like life’. Pitch Dark shares this sense of things. When Kate, a reader of horoscopes and a believer in portents, loses her way trying to get from (fictional) Cihrbradàn to Dublin airport by car at 3 o’clock in the morning, she thinks to herself:
What were the odds … what were the odds that my mother’s daughter, the descendant of my ancestors, should be lost like this, late one night in Ireland, fearing what was after all the law, under this sickle moon? Well, I’d been with Yemenite servants and the wives of nuclear physicists in a bomb shelter in Rehovoth, with Ibo tribesmen at a military installation in a nameless town. As much as this is the age of crime, after all, this is the century of dislocation. Not just for journalists or refugees; for everyone.
Later in the novel, Kate disputes her dead father’s version of the way things are:
My father always said that it is a reasonable expectation of life that no one will go out of his way, against his own interest, to break his word or to hurt another person. And this turns out, not just in obvious cases, for example haters, pathological people and institutions, sadists, but in everyday life itself to be plain untrue. I wonder why. A reasonable expectation of life, I have found, is hardly ever quite borne out.
It should be stressed that Speedboat is a novel that is highly suspicious of point-making, of point-getting:
The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you will lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.
For many contemporary critics, Speedboat’s incongruities, along with its brevity, are what make it feel fresh, feel like now, feel new. They have likened the novel to a Twitter stream or the experience of scrolling through Facebook status updates. In the words of Kelsey Osgood, it is ‘a smart but depressive person’s Tumblr’. Certainly, many of Adler’s paragraphs could be appended with a hashtag:
We had been standing outside his tent for eleven hours. The crowd was large. When at last he came out, the guru stared, then threw an orange, savagely. He returned to his tent. That was all. #coolstorybro
But the correlation of Speedboat with social media doesn’t quite work because it implies Adler’s paragraphs are spontaneously produced and haphazardly arranged, which they are not. What is seldom remembered is that Speedboat is Adler’s remix of five shorter fictions she published in the New Yorker between 1971 and 1976. Five of Speedboat’s seven chapters share the titles of these fictions and the majority of the individual paragraphs remain unchanged, but they have not been linked together like carriages on a railway track. Instead, they have been unpicked and restitched as if they were fabric squares of a patchwork quilt, the individual paragraphs meeting in a new configuration.
Compare the novel’s beginning with the first story to be published, ‘Quiet’, which appeared in the 24 April 1971 issue of the New Yorker. The opening paragraphs are identical, but paragraphs three, four, five and six of the novel do not appear in the original story. It turns out they are paragraphs two, three, four and five of ‘Castling’, which was the second story to be published, over 20 months later. Paragraph two appears to be new material, not published in any of the five stories.
While discontinuity is the rule in Speedboat, the remixing effects its subtle patterning, thanks largely to repetition. Some of these repetitions are obvious: anaphora, for instance, is a strong feature of the novel. But some of them are aslant. Towards the end of Speedboat, Jen recalls a class she took at college in which her professor introduced the idea that synonymic relations need not be merely to do with meaning; they might also pertain to things like meter: ‘adamantine’ is a synonym of ‘stubborn’, but it is also metrically equivalent to ‘apple orchard, gonorrhoea, labyrinthine, motherfucker, flights of fancy, Duffy’s Tavern, Halley’s Comet, birthday present, xenophobic’. Speedboat does not work on the level of sequential, or even non-sequential, plotting. But it does invite us to read across its paragraphs through repeated syntactical structures, words, phrases, images and associations. This is a move typical of postmodernist texts – Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), for example. It suggests connections, synchronicities, tessellations, rather than forcing them. It is also typical to have the novel’s protagonist grope for meaning and at the same time give up on finding it, to find the act of drawing conclusions simultaneously urgent and meaningless, in much the same way that the reader is likely to be doing:
At 4 a.m., the phone rang about fifty times. I did not answer it. Aldo suggested that we remove it. I took three Valium. The whole night was sirens, then silence. The phone rang again. It is still ringing. The paper goes to press tomorrow. It is possible that I know who killed our landlord. So many things point in one direction. But too strong a case, I find, is often lost. It incurs doubt, suspicions. Perhaps I do not know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I think it does, though. When I wonder what it is we are doing – in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper – the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.
Repetition ramps up in Pitch Dark, which inches towards its story by constantly riffing on its multiple refrains:
To begin with, I almost went, alone, to Graham Island.
For a woman, it is always, don’t you see Scheherazade.
Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?
You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.
Quanta, Amy said, on the train, in that blizzard, in answer to my question, Quanta.
What did you tell the Sanger people? Lily asked.
This is an age of crime.
Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret.
Whose voice is this? Not mine. Not mine.
Most of these refrains are sustained over the entire length of the novel; others link a finite number of sections. All of them are question generators for the reader: Where is Graham Island? Who is Diana? Why does Lily care? Why is that voice not hers? What was thrown away? We are made curious. Every one of Adler’s refrains is a pull strand on a skein of story. With each repetition they either loosen or retract, revealing or withholding a little more information. They all promise a narrative that will signify something, and eventually they unravel, one by one and in no particular order, and clear up those initial mysteries. We are forced to wait but, if we are patient, we do get satisfaction.
It is tempting to compare Adler and Joan Didion, and people have. Joseph Epstein has said they are ‘slender women who write slender books heavy with gloom’ and gave them the ironic sobriquet ‘the Sunshine Girls’. James Wolcott, on a similar wavelength, called them ‘neurasthenic seismographs’.
There are, it is true, some parallels between them, professional and personal – ones infinitely more significant than the size of their bodies and their books. Both have been writing for over fifty years. They have published in some of the same places, moved from non-fiction to fiction and back again, taken more pains than most with the way they express themselves in journalism, and chronicled important political and social change. Adler has covered the Selma to Montgomery marches, Biafra and the Six-Day War; Didion has written about Haight-Ashbury, Second Wave Feminism and the Salvadoran Civil War. This interest in the world has also made them more willing and able than most writers to discern the zeitgeist or speak on behalf of their generation, and they have done that in both their fiction and non-fiction.
Epstein claims that Adler and Didion’s style and vision, too, are so alike as to be indistinguishable. He pretends to prove it by asking us to play a guessing game, handpicking some of their least characteristic and most hysterical sentences to engineer some homogeneity. He then asks us to do the impossible and say who wrote what. This is a stitch-up from the start, as defensible as asking a witness to identify a crime suspect from a line-up of thumbs.
The Adler sentence is, in fact, distinctive, chiefly in its liberal but exacting deployment of the comma. Consider this sentence from Pitch Dark:
When the clouds shift, for one moment, or for several moments, and there is a possibility for action with absolutely no ingredient of reluctance – any action, shopping, playing tennis, getting out of bed – when there is a sense of the capacity to act, without any equal and dialectical incapacity to act, or desire not to, when the urge to move is, for a moment, some moments, freed of the urge to move another way, or not to move at all, or the drag of a rock, a doubt, a paralysis; then it is as though clouds did part, briefly, in a place where the climate is always and always inimical.
While there are authors who have used the comma like this – Henry James, for example – it is almost impossible to think of any contemporary writers who do. They have been dissuaded from anything resembling stylistic eccentricity by Hemingway or Carver or their Creative Writing instructors. Back in 1986, in his syndicated column ‘The Writer’s Art’, the grammarian James J. Kilpatrick singled out Adler’s sentences for ridicule, judging them to be ‘the prose of the brier patch’:
A reader plunges into an Adler paragraph. He [sic] is snagged on a parenthetical phrase. He pushes on. He backs up, starts over, stumbles on, falls flat.
But to be snagged on Adler’s commas is entirely the point, especially in a sentence, and indeed a book, like this one, which is overtly about inertia, about choosing between alternatives that do not distinguish themselves as better or worse than each other, about the inordinate effort it takes to move even an inch without hesitations. Pitch Dark is a much more overtly metafictional novel than Speedboat – there is a scene in which Kate, searching for an alias ‘as like my own [name] as possible’ at an airline counter, comes up with ‘Alder’ – thus, seven pages later Adler informs us that there are, in fact, many different kinds of commas:
And in this matter of the commas … The true comma. The pause comma. The afterthought comma. The hesitation comma. The rhythm comma. The blues.
Paying attention to what the punctuation, as well as the words themselves, connotes and sounds like takes time and concentration. Adler’s novels might be composed of fragments, but that does not mean they are quick or easy to read. This is another refutation of the claim that Adler’s fiction resembles the status update or Tweet: it resists skim-reading; it demands the end, not the start, of distraction for engagement to begin.
It is evident in Pitch Dark, in particular, that Adler is fully cognisant of what it is to ask for this level of consideration from her readers:
You are very busy. I am very busy. We at this rest home, this switchboard, this courthouse, this race track, this theater, this nightclub, this classroom, this office, this lighthouse, this studio, are all extremely busy. So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say but to justify its claim upon our time … Mindful of these pressures, I ask you all the same to trust me, stay with me here a moment, I’m alone.
To know that we live in a fast world and write the way that Adler does is to be – as she was in her criticism – impervious to the need to please. In this respect, Adler’s fiction operates under the same assumption that she claims the New Yorker did in its heyday: it goes its own way, creating an audience rather than marketing itself to one – ‘as every truly creative exercise’ has, she claims in Gone. Her commas, along with her experiments in fragmentation and juxtaposition, link her to the modernist project of difficulty, of which the postmodernist novel is a mutation.
They also reveal the impact her literary schooling both inside and outside the university had on her writing. As an M.A. student at Harvard in 1962, Adler took a class called ‘Sound in Literature’ taught by Edmund Wilson, later her co-worker at the New Yorker, and very nearly her father-in-law, whose book Axel’s Castle (1931) did much to inaugurate our understanding of literary modernism. This sounds rather like that class on synonyms in Speedboat, and Kate takes a class with the same name in Pitch Dark. Adler later described the seminars with Wilson as ‘a revelation’. ‘We began to read,’ she writes in Gone, ‘not just for meaning, but for cadences’. And no punctuation mark, arguably, does more to convey cadence in prose than the comma. Adler’s commas are, moreover, an outward display of her New Yorker training. E. B. White, a long-time staff-writer and co-author of the famous Elements of Style (1918), once said in interview that the magazine was ‘a marvellous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention’. ‘Commas in the New Yorker,’ he declared, ‘fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.’ This is another reason why Adler’s novels steep us in nostalgia: each sentence is a period piece of correct yet baroque usage.
Another New Yorker edict that Adler took to heart was its prohibition against what she describes as ‘the self-referring piece by the resourceful, intrepid, self-referring writer’. The rule reflected the magazine’s ‘aversion to personal publicity for editors and writers’, and was tantamount to a ban on New Journalism, a movement on the rise in the 1970s and of which Didion was integrally a part. On a panel with Guy Talese and Tom Wolfe at the first A. J. Liebling Counter-Convention in 1972, Adler, with characteristic chutzpah, dismissed New Journalism as ‘zippy prose about inconsequential people’. (It was probably on the same occasion that, according to Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne, Adler ‘seriously considered pouring a can of soup over Wolfe’s head … but reticence prevailed over Dada intentions.’)
You do not see the perpendicular pronoun, much less Adler the person, popping up with the regularity it does in Didion’s non-fiction. Adler does not use people, places, animals or things to catapult her writing somewhere highly personal, or as a bottle-opener to her own memories or feelings. The exception to this is her memoir. Gone was criticised upon publication for its inclination to conjecture. Her negative verdicts on editor Robert Gottlieb and writer Adam Gopnik were labelled cruel, and a throwaway line or two accusing Watergate judge John J. Sirica of being ‘corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest’ led to what Adler later called the ‘institutional carpet bombing’ of her reputation by the New York Times. Adler would go on to publish a letter justifying her allegations against Sirica in Harper’s, but the episode demonstrates a general confusion about what kind of book a memoir is. If there is a place for impression, opinion, judgement and accusation of a personal, unsubstantiated, even slightly scandalous variety surely it is here; historically speaking, memoir has always skirted the edge of libel.
The chopping and changing from review to reportage to essay to short story to novel to memoir belies the fact that Adler has always upheld that genres, even within non-fiction, are distinct. This distinctness comes down to the types of truths they are each capable of telling. In an interview with Guy Cunningham last year, Adler was at pains to refute the claim that there is a fine line between fiction and non-fiction:
I would call that confusion. I don’t understand it. If [a novel] turns out to resemble fact, well, that’s not that the line is thin, is it? … Fiction is a different animal. That’s the thing. In a reporting piece you want to inform people of something, perhaps, ‘This is what happened, here’s how it was – these are facts.’ In an essay, you might want to persuade people of something, or get them interested in something. There are certain objects to an essay. But still – is it true, is it fair, what can be said on the other side, all that – all these considerations that do arise or do not arise. Some are irreducible … The minute you say, ‘This is fiction,’ that changes completely the rules. And in non-fiction, the rules are relatively clear to me. Not that I don’t work very hard at it and change a lot, but I would say to myself, ‘It’s very important that this be true, that this be fair.’ You can’t really say that in fiction. The logic of non-fiction is so different.
Adler has never conceded, as one is fairly certain Didion has, that there is no such thing as an objective fact, or at least none that lies within our power to access. Indeed, Adler has worked tenaciously to preserve our interest in and commitment to the facts in a world in which ‘the respect for “Answers” and “knowing things” has greatly diminished’. This is something she first discussed in a 1971 New Yorker TV column about the shift from ‘the conventional question-answer-money format’ to the ‘uninvestigable non-contests of non-cash cupidity for prizes that serve as unacknowledged ads’ in the American quiz show.
Adler has also played sentinel on the watch for fictions passed off as fact, especially when this is done by institutions that should be in the business of safeguarding and uncovering facts. Her long two-part essay ‘Annals of Law: Two Trials’, published in back-to-back issues of the New Yorker in June 1986 – it later became the book, Reckless Disregard (1986) – scrutinises two major libel suits: Westmoreland v. CBS and Sharon v. Time. It finds that both media outlets were guilty of not only knowingly disseminating falsehoods in the interests being first with the news, but of continuing to maintain the truth of those falsehoods in a court of law even when they knew otherwise. In one of Pitch Dark’s more pamphlet-like sections, Kate contends that the end of anonymous reporting has led to a rise of false information in the newspapers:
Sometime in the early sixties, the paper began to put bylines on nearly all stories, by everyone. No one could have predicted where this would take us. It seemed, at first, a step in the direction of truth, of frankness. Part of every story had always been, after all, says who? But the outcome, in retrospect, was this. 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. There were several results. The reporter himself, with his celebrity, his byline, became in many cases the most powerful character, politically and otherwise, in his own story. The ‘sources’ lapsed, became sometimes highly placed officials floating as facts rumors to which, like pollsters, they wanted to test a reaction, sometimes disenchanted employees or rivals, trying to exact a revenge, or undermine a policy, or gain an advantage, sometimes ‘composites’, a euphemism for a more or less fictional character introduced for some specific purpose of the reporter’s own; finally, perhaps inevitably, absolute fictions, inventions of the reporter’s to enhance his own byline, meet completely new journalistic pressures, advance his own career. Within a period of months, three of the most important newspapers in the country printed stories that were absolute fabrications.
If Adler appears to break her own rule and blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in her novels, that is because ’twas ever thus. As her mentor Mary McCarthy explains in ‘The Fact in Fiction’ (1960), the ‘quidditas or whatness’ of the novel – that which ‘distinguishes it from other species of prose fiction’ – is its ‘deep love of fact, of the empiric element in experience’. She goes on to say: ‘The staple ingredient present in all novels in various mixtures and proportions but always in fairly heavy dosage is fact.’
Fiction, in other words, was never about making everything up; it was always a matter of adjusting the proportions of the real. McCarthy notes the origin of the word ‘novel’ in the word ‘news’ and the preponderance of novelists who were also journalists. Adler needs to be inaugurated into this group too: ‘the great American novelist as newspaperman’ [sic]. But the word ‘novel’ is also derived from the word ‘new’. The novel came into being precisely to escape the conventions and constraints of the established genres of epic, drama, lyric and romance. For this reason, the novel has always been the kind of literary work that either explicitly or implicitly aims to shake off whatever limits have begun to set around it. At its purest reaches, then, the novel wants its readers to ask this question: Is this a novel?
Speedboat and Pitch Dark were sometimes not recognised as novels, or were seen to be new kinds of novels. Muriel Spark, reviewing Pitch Dark for the New York Times, went so far as to claim that its ‘discontinuous first-person narrative’ inaugurated ‘a genre unto itself’. This is a tremendous compliment, and confirmation of Adler’s deep understanding of genre. What looks like wilful experimentation in her novels is actually a profound commitment to the novel’s roots.
Adler is attached to the novel’s traditional formlessness, and she also is devoted to its traditional effects. Central to its fascination is its powerful yet mysterious emotional sway. We read words on a page and find ourselves, of all things, moved – ‘wanting something to happen or not happen, wishing somebody well’. Adler thinks these are effects that modernists and postmodernists were much too cavalier about, were misguided to be suspicious of, were wrong to wish to dispense with. Her stated aesthetic project after Speedboat is to find a way to pursue formal experimentation while still keeping them in play:
I think Pitch Dark either works emotionally or doesn’t work at all. If it is modernist in form, then I hope that form can accommodate a certain amount of feeling, because the relationship of modernism to feeling has been, at best, skittish. Modernism might be comic. It might be rueful. But it’s all astringent.
That the novel has been has able to keep us turning its pages and caring about its characters throughout its history has largely been a case of good plotting. This is something Speedboat is conscious of but, ultimately, does not emulate. In fact, it flaunts its failure to supply it. In Pitch Dark, conversely, Adler makes her first genuine attempt to bring a plot of convergence to an experimental fiction. Despite the claims of reviewers at the time, including Michiko Kakutani, who said the book merely ‘possesses the bare bones of a plot’, Pitch Dark has an extremely sophisticated storytelling architecture. But the plot only emerges once it is understood that the novel is jumping in and out of two streams of story, both concerning its narrator, Kate, without regard for beginnings, middles and ends.
The first story, which might be called the surface story, can be summed up by something Kate says towards the end of the novel: ‘Here’s another sort of thing that happens to and around me.’ This story is about the self in the teeming world. Quite a lot happens to and around Kate. Think Jen’s life in Speedboat, but add a whack of paranoia: there is travel to unfamiliar places – Orcas Island, Ireland, London – and encounters with strangers: ‘sheriffs, neighbors, lawyers, doctors, ambassadors, editors, senators … swarmis’ and (memorably) a raccoon. The middle third of the book – some 52 pages – are given over to a more or less sustained account of Kate’s nightmarish holiday in Ireland, which begins with a prang in a hire car and ends with her fleeing the country in the middle of the night because of fears that the police, not to mention every Irishman and -woman, are watching her.
But there is a second story, a deeper one, which is that Kate has decided to end her eight year relationship with her married, much older lover Jake. This is not proving easy for her to do. This story is as old as the hills, yet it is hard to recognise it at first because it is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead, it appears as ripples on the surface story. In fact, Kate explains that this story cannot be told directly, because what we are dealing with here is sentiments, the heart, the soul, whose workings do not map neatly onto our movements in the world. The jarring incongruities of the first story disguise from view but are also generated by the glacial shifts of the second story. Trips are taken and people are encountered in order to sever the link with Jake:
Look here, you know, look here. I am trying to leave. All the little steps and phases and maneuvers, stratagems, of trying to leave him now, without breaking my own heart, or maybe his, or scaring myself to death, or bounding back.
These manufactured diversions are ill-chosen, however: there are too many islands and too many couples to distract Kate from her newfound aloneness.
This, Adler is saying, is what life is like. There is a through-narrative that the emotional self experiences, while the rest of it comes to us, to borrow one of Jen’s coinages, ‘all strewn and simultaneous’. But Kate is also keen to emphasise that every iteration of the dissonance between these two stories – between the active self and the emotional self – is uniquely known and therefore cannot be identical to another person’s experience:
Is it always the same story, then? Somebody loves and somebody doesn’t, or loves less, or loves someone else. Or someone is a good soul and someone a villain. And there are just these episodes, anecdotes, places, pauses, hailings of cabs, overcomings of obstacles, or instances of being overcome by them, illnesses, accidents, recoveries, wars, desires, welcomings, rebuffs, baskings (rare, not so long), pinings (more frequent, perhaps, and longer), actions, failures to act, hesitations, proliferations, endings of the line until there is death. Well, no.
Slowly, slowly, a third stream emerges. It turns out there is a frame story: Kate is writing the book we are reading. She is addressing her reader as ‘you’, but there are times when that ‘you’ is somebody else inside the book. That person, it transpires, is Jake, who in the closing pages is, like us, reading Kate’s book. And now the refrain about Scheherazade starts to makes sense. Kate is telling these stories with a purpose, which is to save her life by, in her own words, retrieving that most important thing she threw, by accident, away. Like Scheherazade, Kate breaks off her stories before she finishes them to keep her auditor hanging on, in the hope that he will be brought to heel:
I look at you for signs of leaving me and find to my despair that one of us has already left. Maybe it’s me. But, if it’s me, I always do come back, or always have. Please don’t go. Writing is always, in part, bending somebody’s ear. As reading is.
Pitch Dark’s structure, then, is uroboric: Kate leaves Jake, largely unconsciously, to generate stories to tell that, when told, will lead to her return to him. This explains the paranoia that takes hold in the Ireland section of the novel: Kate knows on some level that she is lying to herself about her moves to end her relationship with Jake, so she invents reasons to feel pursued or guilty. By the end of the not quite 1001 sections of Pitch Dark, Kate, like Scheherazade, has her lover almost where she wants him:
Everything changed. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, things changed. Months and months later, he said, Kate, it’s time, I think I’d better read it. By then, we had long been to Orcas Island, New Orleans, God knows where. He took the story with him. Some time later, the phone rang. It wasn’t you. It rang again; it was you, saying, I haven’t finished, but, Kate, the raccoon.
Speedboat is dazzling novel, but it is Pitch Dark that is virtuosic: it is a hard business to create a sense of chaos yet make things cohere and also get the reader to feel things. Kate is right: hers was an age of crime – it is proven by the sad neglect of this novel. That Pitch Dark continues to play second fiddle to Speedboat even now suggests, if further convincing is needed, that our age is too. It is time to start slipping this novel to each other in inner-city bars. Some have been on the lookout for a bridge between the postmodernists and the so-called New Sincerity movement. That search can now be called off. Pitch Dark is a marvel of metafiction, but it also does what David Foster Wallace hoped a novel would be brave enough to do – it risks ‘the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the … accusations of sentimentality, melodrama’.
Pitch Dark ends with a six-page account of the limitations of the law, which Adler was at that time studying. The law, she explains, depends on narrative and requires that these narratives issue directly from the wounded party, but it cannot hear the complaints of the heart. The novel, however, can, and Pitch Dark asks us to cherish that.
Renata Adler, ‘Concentration, Squares, Jeopardy, and Bouillon Cubes,’ New Yorker (25 December 1971).
— Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
— ‘Polemic and the New Reviewers,’ New Yorker (4 July 1964).
— ‘The Perils of Pauline,’ New York Review of Books (14 August 1980).
Donald Barthelme, ‘Not-Knowing,’ Georgia Review, 39:3 (Fall 1985).
Guy Cunningham, ‘An Interview with Renata Adler,’ Bookslut (April 2013).
Joseph Epstein, ‘The Sunshine Girls,’ Commentary (1 June 1984).
Alice Gregory, ‘Renata Adler: Journalist and Critic,’ The Believer (March 2013).
James J. Kilpatrick, ‘Recasting for the Perfect Sentence,’ Rome News Tribune (17 August 1986).
Jesse Kornbluth, ‘The Quirky Brilliance of Renata Adler,’ New York (12 December 1983).
David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway Books, 2010).
Mary McCarthy, ‘The Fact in Fiction,’ Partisan Review (September 1960).
Kelsey Osgood, ‘New Old Works by Renata Adler,’ The American Reader (March 2013)
David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Hamish Hamilton, 2010).
Muriel Spark, ‘Breaking Up With Jake,’ New York Times Book Review (18 December 1983).