Song of Myself: Renata Adler’s Star-Making Machinery (01/24/84)

In the literature of having your cake and eating it too, Renata Adler has no peers. In her work a woman puts herself forward to be admired, and then in the world of literary celebrity she is admired—and it is that world of literary celebrity that calls the work forth. Without a prefabricated, preselected audience, Adler’s fiction would have no point at all.

The dust jacket of Pitch Dark (Knopf, 144 pages, $12.95) does not carry one word of bio. Not even, “Why, she’s one of the most powerful women in New York!” (as a journalist replied when asked what exactly was the point of his recent profile of Adler). Not even “Miss Adler was born in Milan and now lives in New York.” Resting on the assumption that the details of the author’s celebrity will be common coin among readers worth reaching, the work is relentlessly, teasingly, obviously autobiographical—and at the same time so relentlessly, teasingly, and obviously contrived that reviewers will be forced both to celebrate the author/protagonist as a real person and to surrender to the elevated vocabulary of metafiction in order to celebrate the work. The game is wondrous: since most reviewers don’t know the vocabulary of metafiction, they will mumble, and the readers of their reviews will get the message that Adler is so advanced she’s capable of reducing reviewers to babble.

In these reviews, all questions posed to the author will be rhetorical, and they will all come down to the question “What is truth?” The author, if we are to trust her photo on the book jacket, will offer only another question: nimbus of blond hair with sturdy braid over the shoulder; mouth permanently open, questing, but neither smiling nor frowning; eyes slightly hooded; eyebrows hoisted by skyhooks. The look is quizzical, perhaps a bit condescending, but that unpleasantness is curbed by an irreducible sadness. What is truth? She does not know, but she knows she does not know. And this has not stopped her. We should all be so…

Pitch Dark is a brilliant performance, and what is most brilliant about it is that everything in it can be excused or celebrated as irony. Irony is the quality most celebrated in modern fiction, and the quality most absent in modern fiction worth reading. Functionally, it is the insistence on a gap between saying what you mean and saying what is acceptable. In Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint irony was the surface—Portnoy’s own patient-to-analyst protection against what he had to say; but it was patent, almost a character: the bad guy. The book’s success depended on Roth’s ability to burn the irony off, and he did it. (He did it as a novelist; despite the autobiographical reprise of the Zuckerman series, Roth was not Portnoy.) In Pitch Dark, as in Speedboat, Adler’s previous novel, there is no gap: the distance between the author and her material is set up, but that distance consists wholly of a single claim: “Within the terms of contemporary literary sensibility, I’m smart.” And you’re dumb—for who but fools would fall for a line like this:

Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?
To begin with, I almost went, alone, to Graham Island.
or (a page later, subtle change):
To begin with, I almost went,
instead, to Graham Island.

Did I throw the most important
thing perhaps, by accident, away?

Yet here I am, for the first time and
yet again, alone at last on Orcas

You’re meant to hover over such lines as if they were poetry, but Adler’s refusal of vulgarity (“can I tell it as it was,” when sentient English-speaking beings either say “tell it like it was” or, more likely, use another construction entirely) is itself vulgar. The placement of “then” in the first quote establishes the requisite ironic distance, but it’s a specious distance that only calls attention to the preciousness of the language. The three commas in the second and third lines quoted do the same job, and for a moment you might think that the excessive care with language, care taken to the point of making language ugly (which is to say unreal), had some fictive purpose (this book is about one Kate Ennis’s breakup with her longtime married lover “Jake”). But this following passage is something else altogether:

For some time, Leander had spoken, on the phone, of a woman, a painter, whom he had met, one afternoon, outside the gym, and whom he was trying to introduce, along with Simon, into his apartment and his life.

Even discounting the possible pause in the last phrase (between “his apartment” and “his life,” the omission of the comma presumably meant to provide the momentum of frisson), it is 40 words and ten commas—Guinness Book of World Records?

This is a writer in love with her style, trying much harder to communicate her style than her story. The sentence is typical of Adler’s prissiness (though there’s nothing so rank as a fuck scene in this book, there are passages meant to make it clear that she understands the profundity of sex), prissiness that makes both real speech (how people talk) and real invented speech (how in an individually created linguistic utopia people talk) completely inaccessible to her. It’s not just lines like “Clamped to the hoof of the Arabian horse of thought” (we’ll give that one to irony, fans). Far more awful is this:

And then, on that summer night almost twenty years ago, on account of his unwillingness to honor debts, his liking to be paid for, even his taste for threesomes, he found himself, after midnight, virtually running along a sidewalk on upper Broadway, pretending to ignore Simon, his principal lover, Simon whose feelings he had hurt even then by inviting Howard, whom he had met at the gym, to move into their apartment, Simon, to whom he owed debts of various kinds and who was now running into the dark beside him; screaming for all the world to hear, “Leander Dworkin, you owe me ten dollars! Ten dollars, Leander Dworkin! You owe them to me!”

Writing this bad is immune to criticism, but let us pause for a moment over the last lines: the fact is, in regard to questions of multiple dollars, no one in this great, green land says, “You owe them to me.” As transacted in the English language debts are singular. In fact, real talk is not even “You owe it to me!” or “You owe me that!” but “You owe me!” (not that Adler or Ennis would ever know anyone who spoke so crudely)—or something else entirely, such as, “Leander, I loaned you that money and now I fucking want it back.” Novels are supposed to make sense of the way we talk: to give our seemingly consciousless, random talk weight. But as a novelist Adler wants most of all to make it clear to her reader that she has a superior sense of language, and thus her use of “you owe them to me” (which, if language were mathematics would be okay) corrupts language.

The comment by one major-media reviewer that Adler’s numbing repetitions of such thudding sentences as “To begin with, I almost went, alone” are like “blues refrains” stands only if your acquaintance with blues is limited to a reading of Alice Adams’s Listening to Billie. Her repetition is a good deal more like an inescapably awful pop hook (the “Don’t dizgard me” in Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” say). But the language of blues itself trips Adler up. “They were shouting, Tell it, big momma, tell it.” Forget it. The blues “mama” takes an “a.” And “Big Mama” (as opposed to “mama” by itself) is a name: always capitalized. You can make a case for the irony of that locution if you like.

Which brings up the question of racism, and the cultural sneering in which Adler indulges throughout her book—to no point, ironic or otherwise, save to distinguish her heroine from the inferiors who dog her trail. Ennis’s background, we are told, is Jewish, but Jewish in such a way that as a child she did not even know she was Jewish, or what a Jew was. Any American Jew knows that this is (1) irony, (2) more-­German-than-thou (thou art Polish), or (3) beyond belief. Then, when Ennis is stranded in Ireland, which she discovers to be a real dump, with people who are no better, she takes down a volume of Pepys from a shelf in her rented room. “I have somehow never read him,” she muses—which reads, “One as well-read as I has read everything that matters”; the “somehow” is fatal (but remember irony). She goes on: “I find it rather nice.” Pepys rests easy.

But the Irish, if backward, are at least white. At one point Ennis visits a Caribbean island. She reports that on every beach there is a black person, immersed in the water and playing with himself (presumably he’s provided by the government). Moreover, in every lagoon there are to be seen native black persons splashing, laughing, rough-­housing, fooling—all to disguise the remarkable fact that they cannot swim. Imagine: they are so retarded that for centuries they have lived in a tropical paradise and they have never learned to swim!

From this, irony will not rescue Adler. Like Speedboat, Pitch Dark is littered with little meditations on things that irritate or pique her: mainly mindless verbal clichés in Speedboat (but let us not forget her brief against evolution), mainly cultural anomalies in Pitch Dark (her fantasy about the football center’s towel has actually brought forth praise from male reviewers, as if they’d never considered the question). Noisy multi-racial beaches clearly irritate Ennis/Adler—the blacks splashing in the lagoon are the niggers in her woodpile.

Irony remains a protection only so long as you buy the protection of irony. We’re supposed to be talking about one “Kate Ennis,” not Renata Adler—despite the incident in Pitch Dark in which Ennis, by name, turns into Adler. Could this be a comment on the very ambiguity of fiction itself? That’s how you’re supposed to take it—the real message is to alert you, if you’re not already in the know, that though one is to admire Adler the novelist, one is not to mistake the brave adventures of Ms. Ennis for mere invention: a real woman has experienced real suffering and deserves your approval.

Fiction has its privileges, but I have no compunction about calling Renata Adler a racist, or a class-bound twerp. In Pitch Dark the slide down the nose toward the Irish, American Southerners, “hard hats,” and the like never ceases—because the fictiveness, which is to say the effective realism, of Pitch Dark is a fraud and depends for its success on its fraudulence. Early on, we are offered a version of Lillian Hellman’s libel suit against Mary McCarthy (they are pointlessly and transparently disguised with other names); later we are treated to notice of Adler’s own, real-life law degree. The entire interest of the book rests on the kick the preselected reader (Adler refers often to an “anti-claque”—it’s like Stalin submitting his writings to the government printing office with a note “hoping this will meet with your approval”) can get from deciphering the book’s incidents as gossip about a famous literary person.

Pitch Dark has everything: the dying-animal trick (and after reading about Adler’s endless love for her doomed raccoon, I found the let’s-kill-the­-animals routines in Ron Loewinsohn’s recent Magnetic Field(s) exhilarating); the unfeeling-male-lover trick; the fiction-is-as-fiction-does trick; and, most important, the Lillian Hellman trick, self-depreciation as self-celebration. The reviews in Newsweek, Time, the New York Times Book Review, all full-featured leads, try not to give the game away (one reviewer wondered whether the confusion of names between “Adler” and “Ennis” wasn’t simply a mistake that had not been caught—the first time I’ve ever seen the center of a novel written off to bad proofreading). Their burden is “What does it mean to be a sensitive person in our age?” What they mean is “What does it mean to have connections?”

I confess I don’t know, or care. The question of how or why Renata Adler came to be “one of the most powerful women in New York” (if she is, and I doubt it, but who knows) is not a serious question. Throughout, Pitch Dark made me think of a useful cultural test: upon acquaintance, how long can one who has gone to Harvard or Radcliffe refrain from mentioning the fact. I have met people who have lasted several years, though several hours is generally considered laudatory. Adler (Harvard, MA, 1960) does not make it past her third page.

Boston Phoenix, January 24, 1984


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