Adler’s Way

Adler’s Way

The slowly panic-making power of Renata Adler’s novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark.


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. 

Adler was born in Milan in 1938 to German Jews fleeing Hitler, raised in Connecticut, and educated at Bryn Mawr and the Sorbonne. Shawn hired her in 1963, while she was finishing her master’s in literature at Harvard, to read the slush pile for the fiction department. She went on to report for the magazine for more than twenty years, if hardly prolifically (notorious for her low output, she published only a handful of pieces after the early 1970s) then with supreme discernment, hitting on subjects that came to be seen as central to the culture and politics of the 1960s and ’70s, from the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the New Politics Convention at Chicago’s Palmer House to the war in Biafra and the advent of Sesame Street. (She took breaks from The New Yorker to spend a year writing terse, delightfully pugnacious reviews as The New York Times’s chief film critic, and to do stints at Yale Law School and as a speechwriter during the Watergate hearings for Peter Rodino, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.) Her last piece for the magazine, an account of the simultaneous libel trials of Gen. William Westmoreland against CBS and Ariel Sharon against Time, appeared in 1986, just before Shawn retired.

In Gone, Adler pledged the kind of allegiance to an institution and its leader more often associated with flag-waving nationalists determined to protect the motherland from mongrel hordes. She divvied up her colleagues into the loyal and the apostate, reconstructing personal conversations and rehashing private disputes, dropping names as one drops a ball before kicking it. It’s a furious book, but beneath the fury is a genuine grief at the loss of what clearly amounted, for Adler, to a professional and spiritual home. Did she fail to anticipate how ferociously and publicly those she accused of sabotaging The New Yorker would fight back? Or did she simply not care? Recriminations were exchanged, poison-pen reviews and op-eds published, and a sub-scandal was reaped from a passing remark Adler had tossed off, charging the late Watergate judge John Sirica with corruption.

None of this nastiness would really matter if it didn’t overshadow the rest of Adler’s work, but it did—a petty coda tacked onto a serious, once superlative career. Most of her targets kept writing while Adler retreated to her home in Newtown, Connecticut, a crank turned pariah. But, suddenly, here she is all over again, reintroduced to us as the writer of fiction, and it’s really very hard to care about the rest of it. At McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, I saw a sign stuck over the new editions that made me think of Philip Glass: “I’ve been loving pale imitations of this book my whole life.” But the words in my head are Laurie Anderson’s. Few writers get the chance at a second coming, fewer still in their own lifetime. By the rarest stroke of literary justice, Renata Adler’s novels are back.

* * *

Here’s how Speedboat begins: 

Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written—disrupting a cliché and, presumably, creating a genre. That was a dream, of course, but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep. Speech, tennis, music, skiing, manners, love—you try them waking and perhaps balk at the jump, and then you’re over. You’ve caught the rhythm of them once and for all, in your sleep at night. The city, of course, can wreck it. So much insomnia. So many rhythms collide. The salesgirl, the landlord, the guests, the bystanders, sixteen varieties of social circumstance in a day. Everyone has the power to call your whole life into question here. Too many people have access to your state of mind. Some people are indifferent to dislike, even relish it. Hardly anyone I know.

It wasn’t the best of times and it wasn’t the worst, although Dickens’s grand opposition of extremes echoes in the cadence of Adler’s opening (listen to where the stresses fall, how the syllables match up). The idealistic fervor of a revolutionary moment has been flattened into a blank, static, insistently neutral mood—“nobody,” “nobody,” “no”—the emphatic beat of a society determined to march in ideological lockstep dissolved in a skeptical, chaotic buzz. In his afterword to the new edition of Speedboat, Guy Trebay calls the 1970s the “hangover” of the ’60s. This is what that hangover sounds like, the previous decade’s tropes of love and unity so corroded that even the most casual social relationships have come to be tainted by the threat of surveillance and a bleary expectation of being watched. How is the reader, that most flagrant of bystanders, supposed to fit into this scheme of the observer and the observed? Is the narrator inviting our curiosity, or warning against pressing in too close? A break appears on the page, and the scene is replaced by two cool, controlled sentences with the speed of a slide being clicked neatly into place: “‘It is only stupid to put up the sails when the wind is against,’ the wife of the Italian mineral-water tycoon said, on the deck of their beautiful schooner, which had remained all the summer in port. ‘Because then you lose them.’”

The speaker of the first episode and the observer of the second is a woman called Jen Fain, although we don’t learn her name for more than seventy pages. When we do, it’s leaked in reverse, almost coyly, the surname dropped into the novel a page before the given, as if the narrator would prefer to delay the formality of an official introduction for as long as possible. That a character preoccupied with the profound disconnect between the social identity assumed by others to be cohesive and her own private “I” should be linked so closely to the word feign is the sort of detail Jen herself might point out in one of her poker-faced turns of phrase. “Like everyone in New York except the intellectuals, I have led several lives and I still lead some of them,” she confides in her habitual deadpan.

Gradually, doled out in bits and pieces of anecdotes and recollections, a portrait of these lives is assembled. Like Adler, Jen grew up in small-town New England. She, too, went to a women’s college and studied structural anthropology in Paris. She writes for The Standard Evening Sun, a New York tabloid, and along with the other members of her Manhattan caste, she has dinner at Elaine’s and, on the two nights a year that women are permitted inside its rarefied walls, at the Century Club. Lovers come and go, moving in and out of her apartment with a bohemian ease that Jen claims to accept as a standard consequence of intimacy. She vacations in the Caribbean, where an Englishman, “handsome in a way that was somehow flat and imbecilic,” pulls down his bathing suit and flashes the visiting queen, and then in Europe, on an island that is gradually being bought up and developed by rich foreigners (distinct in Jen’s mind from her own set of roving, occasional expats).

“I am normally the sort of reporter who hangs around, or rather, tags along,” Jen tells us. She means that she doesn’t like to conduct interviews; she prefers observing from a distance. There is an impulsiveness to her way of doing things, offset by a curious passivity at the moments that seem most clearly to call for action, and her wallflower-at-the-orgy detachment from the assignments she covers falls somewhere between the dispassionate and the jaded. She flies from Angola to Biafra on a charity plane sent to deliver fish, and wanders back to her bungalow after a night of drinking Scotch with other journalists as if she were making her way through an unfamiliar neighborhood rather than a war zone, capturing the whole nightmarish tint of her surroundings with the concision of a telegram: “We’re still here. Biafra’s not.” To Jen, an escape from Egypt just before the Six-Day War on a plane commandeered by an American Christian tour group is no more or less ludicrous than a trip she takes to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where the students are trying their best to put theoretical notions of collective action into practice:

The students who did not care to walk to class were conveyed by surreys with fringes. There was no real way to stage a student strike, since most things were permitted. Attendance in the classes was not taken. The only way to be on strike was to attend a class, and wear a black, identifiably striker’s armband. The students wanted to strike on behalf of the local people of Santa Cruz—who loathed them. The strike was a boycott of grapes. The students picketed the local stores that sold grapes. The locals bought up all the grapes and waved them in the students’ faces. There seemed to be no understanding among anybody. The troopers were there to protect students from club-bearing locals. The students thought the locals were oppressed by troopers. Education, perhaps, in its own way, suffered. “The only way you can get even a quorum of a class here,” a professor told me, “is with a class in Sensitivity Training or Transcendental Meditation.” I left soon. 

Freedom marches exchanged for surreys, sit-ins for Sensitivity Training: this is a devastating parody, the Santa Cruz students’ well-intentioned mimicry of a form of political participation that has no place in their charmed world rendered all the more grotesque by the deceptive matter-of-factness of Adler’s language. Her sentences fit together so cleanly that it’s easy to ignore their virtuosic construction, the impartial tone of the string of declarative statements tipped by a few barbed phrases—“club-bearing locals,” “Transcendental Meditation,” the smirk of that “perhaps”—into the absurd.

The Santa Cruz episode captures a certain aftermath of the 1960s. For those without much to fight for, activism is little more than a conveniently secular brand of Calvinism, a way to prove who is and isn’t among the generation’s elect. Jen isn’t fooled, of course: a mistrust of groups and a suspicion of the corrosive demands they make upon the individual runs through nearly every page of Speedboat. The same disinterestedness that Jen brings to her reporting assignments carries into her own social world; she can sharply size up the guests at a Manhattan cocktail party, the intellectual sharks distinct from the arrivistes, exempting herself from classification lest she be confused with her subjects in the field. A “we” does exist for Jen, a shadowy group of friends joined together by social class and a shared upbringing, even some evidence of affection, but that’s not unimpeachable, either. “There is a difference, of course, between real sentiment and the trash of shared experience,” Jen says, and you can almost see the cloud of cigarette smoke exhaled, with exquisite dismissiveness, through her nostrils. “It is best not to think, nostalgically, ‘Hell, we’ve been through a lot together,’ unless you are prepared to add, ‘You have caused, over the years, varieties of unhappiness for which I have not, perhaps, been sufficiently grateful.’”

* * *

By 1976, New York had barely escaped bankruptcy, and the immediate impression Speedboat gives is of an equally far-gone fragmentation: scenes set down one after another in defiance of apparent sequence or sense, a Humpty Dumpty of scattered, colliding observations and cryptic vignettes that no one, least of all the desultory Jen, could be expected to fit into some recognizable form. Yet Speedboat turns out to be fragmented not in the way of some turbulent night of insomnia, like the one at the book’s start, but rather as a year is broken into a series of days: some long, some short, some banal, some rich with unexpected significance, each given shape by its own particular set of occurrences and possibilities, the relationship between them clarified only with the progression of time.

“But will they understand it if I tell it this way?” asks Kate Ennis, the narrator of Pitch Dark. “It” is the story she’s writing about the end of her affair with Jake, her married lover, a story that becomes indistinguishable from Adler’s novel, Kate’s way of telling it indistinguishable from Adler’s way:

Yes, they will. They will surely understand it.
   But will they care about it?
   That I cannot guarantee. 

What’s surprising about Speedboat is not that it holds together but that, for all its angular evasiveness, it propels the reader through the umpteen micro-plots and incidents it charts with a supremely hypnotic force. This is in no small part because, at its best, Adler’s prose—lucid, exacting, wry, the sentences calibrated with a nearly musical sense of the rhythm in their rise and fall—is just exquisitely good. “So dry and flat, in its self-contained, almost impacted quality there is nonetheless a kind of rolling thunder. True, self-evident, beyond any doubt, it creates a terrible sense of what it is possible, what it might be worthwhile, to say at all. Language, thought, advancing like bulldozers.” This is Kate, thinking of Wittgenstein, though she might as well mean Adler.

Still, as Kate knows, there’s more to art than artistry. Nothing matters more to fiction than the question of caring, and nothing could be more elusive. Do we care about Jen Fain or Kate Ennis, who resemble each other in patterns of thought and expression closely enough to be a species of twins? And what does such “caring” about an invented person—the notion of a person, really—even mean? Certainly the past thirty-five years of fiction are teeming with characters who are far better “rounded” than Jen and Kate, characters who better meet the criteria of “changing” or “growing” or “evolving” over the course of a book, characters about whom we know and feel more, who are more clearly deserving of readers’ sympathy and better at eliciting it. But there are few characters I’ve come across who produce as intense a sensation of intimacy, as complete an elision between the real mind of the reader and the invented mind of the speaker. To follow Jen and Kate is to be entirely incorporated into their way of taking measure of the world, to become so guided by their consciousness that it comes to feel, strangely, inadvertently, without warning, nearly as familiar as your own. It can be unsettling, this degree of absorption, because it’s not contingent on empathy (imagine empathizing with Humbert Humbert, another character who insinuates himself into the farthest corners of the mind). But it’s why anyone bothers to read fiction at all: to be made to see differently; to find ourselves, if only for a moment, going through the world as someone else.

* * *

Adler has said that she wondered whether there might be a way to “get conventional feeling” into fiction that aims for “modernist effects,” and while Speedboat is scrubbed of anything that could be said to bear even a passing resemblance to sentimentality, vulnerability stains Pitch Dark. The novel has a sense of need and inconsolable loneliness absent from the earlier work. The sentences are loosened, lengthened, allowed to relax into themselves. “I wonder if you know at all what is happening in my heart, what a word,” Kate thinks, as Jen never would. Kate is also given to what she calls “little disquisitions”—on football, on Freudian analysis, on tort law, on swamis with Brooklyn accents, on Gertrude Stein and Homer—but they’re interruptions from the through-line of her own story, not the story itself, and she regards them with a dissociated horror, as if she were possessed by some demonic ventriloquist: “Whose voice is this? Not mine. Not mine. Not mine.”

After eight years with Jake, Kate has decided their relationship has to end. The problem isn’t love; Kate loves Jake intensely. “You were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life,” she thinks in one of a series of plaintive refrains that repeat throughout Pitch Dark. The problem is the disintegration of the self threatened by love, above all when that love proves unreliable. Jake is snug in his fourth decade of marriage, satisfied with the balance between wife and other woman that he’s set up to suit his own convenience. He visits Kate at the house she’s bought near his and sneaks time with her on business trips, always promising and always failing to deliver anything more. So natural does all this seem to him that he drives her home from a party with his wife in the front seat, the odd anxiety of the arrangement yielding a shard of comedy when Jake speaks to “Honey,” leaving Kate to wonder whom the word is meant for.

Her solution is to leave, symbolically enough, for islands: first Orcas Island, north of Washington’s Puget Sound, and later, in the rolling middle section of Pitch Dark, to a castle in Ireland lent to her by an ambassador friend. (That one might know an ambassador who can gladly spare a castle in a moment of distress is a standard assumption in the circles Adler’s heroines run in: “Talk to them…they are a friendly people” are the instructions Kate gets for handling his servants.) What follows is a quick descent into the surreal, a trip in which the smallest happenings take on ominous dimensions and the most incidental interactions are suffused with the foreboding and dread of a Kafka story. The teenage boy at the airport’s car rental station is a surly incompetent that Kate takes as a fair representative of his countrymen; the roads are narrow and unmarked; the servants at the castle are not friendly at all, but judgmental and sullenly menacing; the American couple who invite Kate to dinner are smug, leeching opportunists intent on suckering her into buying a strip of their property with the perversely Freudian name “Mummy’s Beach.” Things quickly go wrong when she scrapes her car against a truck and begins to imagine that she will be hunted down by the authorities of this country whose manners she finds incomprehensible and prosecuted for her minor infraction as a criminal. Her love gnaws away at her, the trip and its mishaps no distraction from what she stands to lose when she goes home.

“Is it always the same story, then?” Kate wonders. To Adler’s worldly heroines, in the habit of treating their own experience as so much analytical fodder, even the wildest happenings evoke a feeling of déjà vu—as if, at the very least, the possibility might have been anticipated:

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.

But Kate doesn’t give up just yet. In the middle of the night, she leaves the castle and begins driving to the Dublin airport, a self-styled fugitive in a daring escape of her own invention. Utterly alone, wary, exhausted but alert, she finds herself, without warning, opened through uncertainty to an exhilaration that looks  a lot like  joy: 

Then I drive straight, straight, and the rain stops, the sky is clear black, all the stars are there. I cannot see, on either side, the roadside, but I have the sense, always, of those long stone walls, meadows, sometimes the sea, the cows, the incredible unseen beauty of the Irish countryside. Only a car or two, at intervals of many minutes. On what errands can they be, on what errand am I, why are cars so few? And in the isolated houses, even in the towns, no lights in any windows, except, again many miles apart, one light, upstairs or down: a solitary insomniac, a worker on the night shift, a terrorist, a poet, who? But in the long spells of driving through the dark, there begins to arise in me an exaltation. I cannot see where this will end. I still have the sense, how to put this, that the land, even the sleeping country towns, know of me. That they are aware that I am passing, whether they follow or not: one car, torn fender, missing rental sticker, bound, they cannot yet know for where.

Racing along with Kate in her getaway car, the language is free, generous, advancing with fluidity and grace. No need to ask whose voice it is. It’s Adler’s. It couldn’t belong to anyone else.

In “Empty Rooms” (Jan. 31, 2011), Alexandra Schwartz wrote that Nichole Krauss’s Great House swings from the evocative to the overcharged.

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