Renata Adler
Renata Adler; drawing by David Levine

Stories happen only to people who can tell them.

(attributed to Thucydides)

Nature abhors a vacuum—at least in the little nook of the universe we inhabit. According to continuities and correspondences we cannot easily explain, the descriptive power of that statement appears to extend to some areas of art. When Kandinsky during the first decades of the century began to empty his paintings of the representation of external reality, a surrounding pressure of motifs awaited the opportunity to enter the vacated space. Theosophy, Besant’s and Ledbetter’s Thought Forms, and the geometry of the spiritual filled his nonobjective works as fragmented trees and figures had filled his earlier visionary landscapes.

A comparable development has affected some advanced areas of literature. For a number of years I have kept a list of devices and terms proposed from many sides to replace unity as the central organizing principle, particularly in the novel: digression, parody, marginal discourse, reflexivity, fragment, miscellany, theme and variations, écriture, palimpsest, and many more. The peculiar quality of Renata Adler’s latest book, like the earlier Speedboat, is that, while adopting several of these devices, it insists on describing the vacuum itself. Pitch Dark injects into the seemingly vacant life of the author’s surrogate narrator-protagonist enough dye to give the emptiness shape and visibility. The dye is compounded of short anecdotes, comic asides, deadpan refrains, and dissertations on far-fetched topics. It shows up the vacant space without filling it, and the resultant style veers rapidly between liveliness and diagnosis.

What’s new? the biography of the opera star says she used to ask in every phone call, and What else? I’m not sure the biographer understood another thing about the opera star, but I do believe that What’s new. What else. They may be the first questions of the story, of the morning, of consciousness. What’s new. What else. What next. What’s happened here, says the inspector, or the family man looking at the rubble of his house. What’s it to you, says the street tough or the bystander. What’s it worth to you, says the paid informer or the extortionist. What is it now, says the executive or the husband, disturbed by the fifteenth knock at the door, or phone call, or sigh in the small hours of the night. What does it mean, says the cryptographer. What does it all mean, says the student or the philosopher on his barstool. What do I care. What’s the use. What’s the matter. Where’s the action. What kind of fun is that. Let me say that everyone’s story in the end is the old whore’s, or the Ancient Mariner’s: I was not always as you see me now. And the sentient man, the sentient person says in his heart, from time to time, What have I done.

Pitch Dark is a Book of Questions, often without the usual punctuation, suggesting…

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