Ratings: 9.5 for Speedboat, 8 for Pitch Dark
In the first half of Renata Adler’s four decades as a staff writer for The New Yorker, she published two novels. The books, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), sold well when they appeared. Their fragmented, mixed-genre narratives sparked a lot of chatter about what a novel could be. Speedboat in particular, with its fragmented, shuffled narrative and special blend of fiction, criticism, and autobiography, came as a revelation for readers and other writers looking to shape the truth of a shared moment with their own experience. Despite all this, the books went out of print for years, until New York Review Books swept in this spring with handsome new editions.
Even though Speedboat was unavailable for so long, it remained one of those novels, like Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, that people in literary circles ardently pressed on one another or for which they dropped substantial cash online to buy a frayed paperback.
The first few sentences suggest that we are about to be told the story of a close-knit group: “Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages.” But Adler deftly pulls away, withholding names of characters until we realize that the narrator, a reporter named Jen Fain, is the only character of real interest, aside from the city itself. Fain makes many classifying statements about New York that transform the city into a character of its own.
We can probably attribute the initial fever for Speedboat to Adler’s effort to shape a moment in place and time—New York, late ’60s, early ’70s. A book or film that explicitly speaks for others generally meets with a combination of celebration, acquiescence and repudiation, depending on how well the artist hits the mark. But as the work’s moment passes into history, it becomes a vehicle for people’s romance and/or nostalgia.
Speedboat does bring us back to a time we generally regard as more authentic and glamorous. Still, it’s actually more fun to apply Adler’s lens to the present. Fain makes a few dated remarks, though her observations are richly contextual, and she earns her snarky point of view in exacting sentences.
Elaine’s was jammed, full of young women looking tired and their escorts, ignoring them in droves, talking to each other, man to man…. The general male reluctance seemed to be to go to bed. There was also quite a thing about the check. Some regulars appeared to believe that the check did not exist…. The gentlemen at the place are flashes with that check. The others—perhaps only children?—always lose or look away.
As a reader who came to New York in the year of the smoking ban, I recognize little of Speedboat’s world aside from what I know from other books (Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, for example, inspired by Speedboat) and from movies. For example, the line, “… he said that only since his analysis had he come to realize how much he had to offer” makes me think of Woody Allen.
On the other hand, after Brooklyn’s partial gentrification—the end of its status as a kind of Siberia—I find this description of the borough’s elevated trains to be more familiar than many of Adler’s readers probably did at the time:
I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders…It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinance and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways.
After this comes a fanciful image of the surrounding neighborhoods, familiar for the shiver of fear and excitement we feel when faced with a glimmer of authenticity. Adler quickly quells it with cynicism: “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.”
Nothing wrong with this—Speedboat is a novel, and this New York is invented. Adler gradually lays out the city for us under Fain’s own terms. Some key elements, paraphrased:
• New York will ruin your dreams.
In the first paragraph, Fain dismantles the impulse to move to the city and accomplish something: “That was a dream, of course, but many of the important things…are the ones learned in your sleep.” In this New York, insomnia and constant collision with other people conspire to sabotage dreams.
• It is merciful to speak with directness.
At the end of a date with a 74-year-old film producer, Jen Fain lets him down with, “I guess I’m just neurotic.”
• Most writers do not write.
Fain wonders if the men who peer into trashcans on the sidewalks are actually writers. She claims to have met very few writers who do anything besides drink, rant, use the telephone and sleep.
• In society, people often speak nonsensically.
At a dinner party with foreign dignitaries and members of the cultural elite, a poet says, “I think in this country we need to disburden ourselves of our, our burden of rationality.”
• Members of academia develop their own word usage, and male professors feel pretty good about themselves.
In addition to her work as a journalist, Fain teaches at a public college where “‘Memoranda’ in all departments is singular.” She has “also heard phenomenums.” Later, a colleague who dates a student happily agrees that fellatio is a “metaphor for education.”
Most amusing is the playful tension Adler creates with the received notions of New York as a place of lewdness and danger. First a foot fetishist cons a woman on 42nd St into letting him lick her shoe. Then, on the same page, we jump to the story of a schoolteacher so spooked by a possible prowler in Central Park that she leaves a small child behind.
Even as she moves from the past-tense summations of the ’60s to the present time of her writing, Fain seems to be aware that the moment she wants to capture is always passing. Of course, we always face this problem, a truth that makes Adler’s observations so rich; we can see Speedboat’s New York as well as a bit of our own.
As you may have gathered, Adler feels less concern with developing peripheral characters—Fain’s colleagues, friends, lovers, and the myriad of unnamed people who show up for a scene and disappear within a paragraph break—than with telling a conventional story. Speedboat does not come with the promise of transformative, narrative-driven experience. Adler warns us near the end: “… there are only so many plots….shuffled and dealt…they do or they do not come out.” But a transformation does occur as Fain looks less on other people and more on herself, and Adler keeps up her momentum right up to the final…chilling…sentence.
Pitch Dark falls with the same shuffled form and seamless genre bending that makes up Speedboat, but it departs from the city. The narrator, Kate Ennis, also works as a reporter with an apartment in New York, but for most of the book we catch her elsewhere, camped out in a barn in the country or roving to other quiet places such as Orcas, Wash., where she engages with various moral questions.
Early in the book, Ennis must call a wildlife commissioner to deal with a sick raccoon that has crawled into her barn to die. Her concerns over how the creature will be dealt with quickly give way to larger issues of Western guilt. “We have the sins of depression and of being comforted,” she writes. She then employs an encapsulating, Speedboat-style pronouncement: “Very few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease.”
More than anything else, Ennis finds qualms in the act of writing. She points to a moment in the early ‘60s when her paper ran bylines for every writer. Now the writer shoulders in as the “most powerful character, politically and otherwise, in his own story.”
This almost reverses something the less-pensive Jen Fain says in Speedboat: “You cannot be forever watching … or you lose the simplest thing: being a character in your own life.” The intersection, perhaps, is with the reporter’s desire for a story and a person’s drive to shape oneself—the stories, as Joan Didion said, that we tell ourselves in order to live. In one thread of Pitch Dark, this intersection comes to life in the riveting terms of a thriller plot.
On a trip to Ireland, disoriented by the lack of road signs and a string of strange encounters, Ennis clips the bumper of a parked truck. The scene that unfolds, as the truck driver confers with a corrupt—or at least lazy—police officer, lies just beyond her comprehension. The truck driver wants the rental company’s money, not her own, but still she becomes convinced that the driver and the cops will collude to extort her for all she is worth. Ennis decides that she must leave the country, abandoning the car and escaping under a false name. We find great fun in seeing how much unnecessary trouble Ennis gets herself into, but the real excitement comes in how far Adler is prepared to go with Ennis’s preposterous self-made plot. I found Pitch Dark worth reading for this part alone.
Other sections? Considerably less taut. Throughout the book, details of a romantic estrangement unfold in loose, unattributed snippets of dialogue interlaced with longer prose sections. The reader must play detective to sort things out. We get glimmers of emotional poignancy, but the basic information seems to parse incompletely…not least because of repeated sentences from past sections that hold a particular thread in suspension without necessarily developing the story.
At times, Ennis’s act as a distant, curious anthropologist works perfectly. Witness an inquiry into a strange practice of professional football in which the quarterback wipes his hands on a towel that hangs from the center’s uniform over his behind. Elsewhere, her aloofness sounds affected, almost lazy…for example when she guesses the word for a staircase banister’s spindle to be a “tine.” But this is a minor, almost endearing, point after the onslaught of precision in both Speedboat and Pitch Dark. With each of these books, Speedboat in particular, Adler offers a writerly writer’s greatest gift: the invitation into another’s mind, along with a demonstration on how to shape one’s consciousness into a book.
David Varno received an M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University, and his writing has appeared in BOMBLog, the Brooklyn Rail, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Words Without Borders, and other publications.