Last year I saw Einstein on the Beach, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s unclassifiable Gesamtkunstwerk of an opera, which premiered in 1976 and hadn’t been produced in full since 1992. I was already familiar with photos of some of Wilson’s sets—a boy suspended on a platform high above an oncoming train, a grid of figures silhouetted against blazing cogs of light—and had listened to recordings of Glass’s music, but I didn’t know what to expect when the opera was restaged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In its absence, Einstein seemed to have become the stuff of myth for those who had seen it in its original incarnation. Like long-ago pilgrims who had glimpsed something holy in the cave at Lourdes, they insisted that it had exerted an indescribable power over them, and they feared that in the intervening decades that power might have waned.
In an interview given before the start of the tour, Philip Glass was asked how he thought an audience might react to Einstein on the Beach more than thirty-five years after its creation. “My experience is that each time we do Einstein with a new audience, they can’t believe it,” he said. “People today are growing up looking at work that is a strange imitation of things that were done twenty years before, and then when they see the real thing, the actual production that was done…they find it astonishing, absolutely astonishing.” A similar question about the 1970s avant-garde scene was put to the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, a sometime collaborator with Wilson and Glass: “How do you make today’s audiences feel the originality of that work decades later?” Answered Anderson, wisely: “It doesn’t really matter if it’s new; it matters if it’s good.”
In 2010, the National Book Critics Circle asked its members to name the work of fiction or nonfiction they would most like to see republished. The winner “by far” was Speedboat, the first novel by the writer Renata Adler. That any one book could emerge as a clear favorite in a survey of people who pride themselves on coming up with opinions for a living, in which no language or genre or range of decades was specified and no list of candidates designated, is remarkable, even uncanny, as if the members of the NBCC had for years been falling asleep to the same recurring dream.
Like Einstein on the Beach, Speedboat first appeared in 1976. Like the opera, it was praised for the originality of its structure, at once fractured and rigorously controlled; for the distinctive voice and wit of its creator; and also for a quality harder to pin down—a certain capturing of the zeitgeist, an ability to convey “the special oddities and new terrors of contemporary life,” as Donald Barthelme put it. Then, like Einstein, it disappeared in the early 1990s, when it went out of print. In the intervening decades, both Speedboat and Pitch Dark, Adler’s second and only other novel, originally published in 1983, have faded from view, though not without inspiring a cult following among the avid few.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are now with us again, and so is Renata Adler, summoned from what had come to look more and more like a permanent retirement to give interviews and join in publicized chats at bookstores and appear at literary cocktail parties with reporters in tow, her signature braid nearly white but still slung across her shoulder and down to her waist like a living length of fisherman’s rope. “This is slowly panic-making,” she told New York magazine, and it’s not hard to understand why. The last time Adler was the focus of this much attention was in 1999, when she published Gone, her scorched-earth memoir of her years at The New Yorker, a magazine that, she declared in the book’s opening salvo, had ceased to exist in any meaningful way after the era of William Shawn.