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 they seek no answer. Speculation is called for here more than interrogation or detection. A few lines after the above passage an “anti-claque”—the voice of a persecuting conscience—murmurs to the narrator-protagonist, “…you remember everything, out of context, and then you brood.”

These questions and these brooding, intermittent memories create the effect of a constant hovering. Everything Adler writes in her “novels” hovers among genres, among generations, among farflung places, and among available moral attitudes. We would have to go at least as far back as Constant’s Adolphe to find a beginning for this tendency toward psychological inconclusiveness. Unamuno carried it to exasperating extremes in his coy masterpiece of 1914, Niebla. It flows powerfully about us now in the work of Cynthia Ozick, of Milan Kundera, and of Nathalie Sarraute, about whom Adler has written a perceptive essay. Within this strain of hovering and inconclusiveness Adler has succeeded in establishing a magpie niche of her own.

Symmetrical as a triptych, Pitch Dark offers three fifty-page, loosely interlocking stories. Using half-page chunks—false starts, vignettes, insistent echoes—“Orcas Island” describes the never-quite-realized breakup of an affair between Kate Ennis, the narrator, and Jake, an older married man. He is vaguely understanding, preoccupied, and always offstage. The most sustained passage works up a five-page parable about a sick raccoon who takes shelter beside Kate’s stove and will not leave. Not very subtly the parable suggests that Kate is caught between her desire to go away for just a week with Jake to New Orleans and her need to take refuge alone on an island. The ruminations in this first section end characteristically with a question: “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” By now the reader understands that “the most important thing” can be stated in this frequently repeated form: “But you are, you know, you were, the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.” (20, 32, 38)


The second section, which gives its title to the book, relates with relatively few interruptions what I read as a diversionary and cautionary tale told from the middle outward. On the way to a friend’s loaned estate in Ireland in search of quiet and rest, Kate has a minor car accident whose consequences infect her with a sense of disgust and guilt. She refers to herself as a “tortfeasor.” These pages, whose mood of self-isolation may be taken to connect with the first section, held me more by the occasional clarity of detail than by any power in the events. There are two exceptions. Driving late at night she reverts out of habit to the right lane in a left-handed country and just misses a head-on collision with an Irish priest. (In Speedboat, a head-on collision is successfully consummated in a Buñuel-like apotheosis of bodies tossed into telephone wires. Then they all sit down together undismayed. Later we learn that there are convergent and divergent plots.) The other incident coyly reveals the book’s umbilical cord to the outer world. Half-convinced at the airport that she should take a false name in order to escape undetected from Ireland, Kate Ennis writes: “I should make the name as like my own as possible to account for the mistake. Alder, I thought.” Kate gets out of Ireland in a confusion of names; on a similar basis Adler or Alder remains very much inside Pitch Dark. Cervantes would have shaken his head over these clumsy maneuvers.

In “Home,” the last section, the prolonged breakup with Jake is brought back into the foreground and compressed into an insistent telephone obbligato. Every third or fourth page one encounters a shred of despairing conversation overheard in London where Kate is working as a journalist. The rest of the time she is either shaping a fragile life in a small house with pond in a New England town within commuting distance of New York, or seeking refuge and solitude on Orcas Island off Seattle. Constant interruptions block any continuity that might be called a story line. The interruptions themselves, on the other hand, rough in a motif that concerns the betrayal of reality by inaccurate reporting. We follow an argument about alleged collaboration between the Nazis and the early Zionists, an outburst about the disastrous effects of anonymous sources and the advent of the byline on newspaper stories, and an essay on the abuse of the legal system.

Meanwhile Jake has a cautious reaction to reading “Orcas Island,” the first part of this book you hold in your hand. Gradually it all circles back on itself in an accelerating swirl so that the last ten pages push nineteen distinct items of flotsam in front of the patient or distraught reader. Someone who cannot let go is drowning.

In the repetitions and formulas, the courts sometimes rise from their droning with a phrase so pure, deep, and mighty that it stays. It remains forever just the way to say that thing. More probably than not. Utterly without fault. Not my act. Beyond a reasonable doubt. Last intervening wrongdoer. Cloud on title. An ordinary man. A prudent man. A reasonable man. A man of ordinary intelligence and understanding. Wait, wait. Whose voice is this? Not mine. Not mine. Not mine. Res ipsa loquitur. A man must act somehow.

. . . . .

Do you sometimes wish it was me?



It is you.

By dint of repetition, variations in phrasing and speech patterns, and frequent interventions, Adler has created in Pitch Dark a sense of form that could be called cubist. The three sections do not develop a careful self-portrait of the central character. Yet the impulse behind the book is autobiographical, even confessional, rather than novelistic—i.e., genuinely concerned with other people’s lives. The reader has to assemble Kate as the sum of her scattered parts—shybold, cosmopolitan, idealist, nostalgic, farouche. It does not spin a tale in spite of one underlined reference to the Penelope story. Rather it depicts a mode of vision, a process of gathering odds and ends into a “piece” in both the fictional and the journalistic sense. Two hundred years ago Laurence Sterne had already mastered the art of self-interruption and elaborate detour. In reading Adler I began jotting in the margins “aecp” to designate the occasional voice of an alter-ego-critic-professor bringing things to a halt, shaking her finger, and breaking any illusion of narrative momentum.

Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was? [p. 3]

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. [pp. 41-42]

And this matter of the commas. And this matter of the paragraphs. [p. 75]

Are we speaking of the anti-claque? No, not at all, of an actual person. [p. 119]

The frequent gaps in the prose imply both a fainthearted hope of connection and the kind of total breakdown and fresh start that Sartre detected between every successive sentence of Camus’s The Stranger. In this inwardly impassioned work by a writer who lived as student and journalist through the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, there seems to be no moral center beyond the end of an affair. Sputnik, the sit-ins, the assassinations, the moonshot, Vietnam, Watergate do not even ruffle the surface. How are we to take hold of this antinovel and its predecessor, Speedboat, to which it seems to be a close sequel?


I believe these astutely shuffled works take shape and have an effect in two related ways. Despite the lack of reference to major social and political events, the books convey the sense of an era that cohabits uncomfortably with its past. The antepenultimate sentence of Speedboat holds out a small key. “I think there’s something to be said for assuring the next that the water’s fine—quite warm, actually—once you get into it.” Next generation she means. Even though both novels describe, primarily through fractured form and terse diction, a version of trauma, an ego detached like a retina, still the neurosis is bearable and has its small rewards. I am reminded of how Henri Murger half-unwittingly caricatured his milieu in a little book of sketches called La Vie de Bohème (1849). In an era of revolutions and social upheaval he helped to create the myth of young provincial idealists surviving on love and art in their attic rooms in Paris.

We still haven’t rejected that myth. Adler’s reverse parable concerns an intelligent woman who has reached the top professionally and socially and finds herself unhappy in her accomplishments, forlorn among many importunings. She yearns for an attic, for an island. Her episodic musings will hardly make a successful leap to stage and opera the way Murger’s sketches did. Film? Who knows. The book is saturated with nostalgia—for the Fifties when the system still seemed to work, for la boue, which Kate contemplates and shies away from. The oblique portrait of an era also creates a mood of persevering, of not surrendering to despair.

The second accomplishment is a completely embedded contradiction. On the one hand every aspect of Pitch Dark, formal, stylistic, and thematic, affirms what I shall call the “innarratability principle.” You cannot tell your essential story straight out; Adler-Ennis quotes Emily Dickinson on telling it “slant.” As the symbolist poets hesitated to name anything for fear of destroying the fragile essence of the object so rudely named, Adler fears to narrate. She proceeds by indirection, gives us only glancing views of the breakup with Jake, of the major events of three decades. Since the narrative is always beside the point, one expects the repeated questions about what the point is. At this juncture my apocryphal epigraph becomes pertinent and obliges us to consider the innarratability principle—advanced writer’s block. Nothing has really happened until you have told it, and if you tell it you’ve transformed it, distorted it, ruined it. The only possible approach to an event operates through an awkward Medusa process with mirrors and utterly discreet reports. If I am not wrong, here lies the significance of the most common and puzzling refrain in the book. “Quanta,” says an unidentified Amy, on a train, in a blizzard, over and over again. It’s all bits and pieces. A book should confine itself to small discrete units of experience and not try to arrange them on levels and in sequence. It’s an art of juxtaposing quanta. To go further means to blow one’s cover.

On the other hand our fate, our very life, depends on stories. The first literary figure really invoked in Pitch Dark saved her skin by recounting fully worked-out tales of high adventure. “For a woman, it is always, don’t you see, Scheherazade.” The closing pages make a more elaborate and contemporary case for the story cure. “Under the American Constitution, in fact, everything is required to be, at heart, a story…and the only ones permitted to bring the story to the courts’ attention, the only storytellers, are the ones to whom the story happened, whom the facts befell.” Legal doctrine, the journalist’s dilemma, and the paradoxes of literature all flow together in this impasse: to tell or not to tell? More accurately: how to tell? This narrative dilemma over divulgence represents one of the principal characteristics of the intellectual world Adler is sketching.

Faced by the innarratability principle, how does the writer proceed who still believes in the saving virtue of stories? For many years there were two surgical procedures for treating a herniated spinal disk: fusion and removal. In fusion the disk is removed and the two adjacent vertebrae are united into a single rigid unit. In removal the disk is simply taken out and the surrounding areas are allowed to secrete substitute tissue to cushion and lubricate the joint. Adler, like many of her contemporaries, abjures fusion, practices simple removal. The resulting minimalist genre should properly not be called a novel, for it answers radically different expectations, brings other rewards. Personal memoir-essay? Future-perfect archaeological report on contemporary culture? Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions”? Enhanced realism of the schizoid? All apply. But the best term is Unamuno’s nivola, his genial, inside-out permutation in Niebla of novela.

A prior question probes deeper: in terms of what, in the name of what tentative hope, do we grope for the connective tissue among these fragments, these shards? Beyond his uneasy laughter Kundera looks us straight in the eye and tells us to remember the perilous history of freedom. García Márquez constructs so firm a sense of place and such strong ties by blood and marriage that he can permit himself virtually any extravagance of event and character, including miracles. All his cock-and-bull stories finally turn homeward.

But what will guide us through Adler’s labyrinth? Is anything at stake according to which we can begin to assemble the scattered pieces? No lasting sense of place, certainly, in this periplus, nor any stubborn faith in history holds it all together. Nor is there a single recognizable voice that encompasses the extremes. Adler practices a shrewd ventriloquism in the midst of her brooding solitude, and one of the languages she takes refuge in is that of the law.

…the great doctrines of finality and Stare Decisis, that somewhere a story must end and may not be reopened, and that this story is dispositive for all stories that cannot be proven to be unlike it, mean that no stories, no stories at all, can be of more immediate, and sometimes eternal, interest than these. But stories they are. And their own eloquence grows up around them.

A Book of Common Law, then, rather than a Book of Questions? Finally not, for what we find here are stories at their most atomized—quanta. Pitch Dark, and even more effectively and entertainingly Speedboat, can properly be called exemplary of our sprawling secular culture—exemplary in both senses, serving as model, serving as deterrent.

This Issue

March 15, 1984