Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

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 understand another thing about the opera star, but I do believe that What's new.  What else.  They may be the first question 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.  What'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.

I loved Renata Adler's Speedboat.  It seemed hardly like a novel; it was an effusion of anecdotes and impression that nevertheless told a story, because real stories--as they're lived--are like that.  They're not particularly linear, and they don't have the ancient unities of time and place.  Adler, a lifelong journalist, knew from observation the fitful and scattered nature of human life.

Pitch Dark, another of Adler's novels (the only other one?  I'm not sure) has much in common with Speedboat.  The frenetic pace and style is instantly recognizable; it cares no more about situating the reader in time, place, or narrative than that other novel.  Stories are told that seem to have little, perhaps nothing, to do with the main plot.  And it can, like Speedboat, be tremendously funny:

He mentioned the Ku Klux Klan.  He alluded to it several times, the Klan.  And each time, he referred to its membership, the members of the Klan, he called them.  Clamsmen.  No question about it, that's how he pronounced it.  Clamsmen.  It was no reflection on the Attorney General.  True, the judge's wife had never thought much of his diction.  True, in the court's most important decisions, he had been so often in dissent.  But the years had passed.  He had come to speak well and to do honor.  And this business of the Clamsmen, well, it may have had to do with molluscs, bivalves.  Even crustaceans.  I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her roommates as prawns of imperialism.

But at its heart, Pitch Dark is much more troubling, and troubled.  It simultaneously boasts a more coherent main narrative and is more disorienting.  It tells the story of Kate Ennis, a journalist who has ended a long-term affair with a married man.  And if you figured that out, good on you, because Adler is stingy with context.  In fact, the man's only presence is in a repeated motif of short dialogues and recurrent statements that are devoid of any context at all.  Adler repeats them, obsessively, many pages before she gives them context or explanation: "The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.""Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret, to her own daughter, who approached her crying, in front of all those people."  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"

All this contributes to an image of a woman who is not well; who has unraveled along with her love affair.  If Speedboat rejoices in the fragmentary and ad hoc nature of the world, Pitch Dark is a frightening warning about the dissolution of the mind and the soul.  The main narrative, such as it is, sees Kate taking up residence in a friend's Irish castle, where she suspects the staff and is tortured by the possibility that a local cop is planning to extort her after a fender bender.  She abandons her rental car, leaving it in Ireland in the dead of night--but the abandonment, in this book, comes far before the fender bender.  Kate's paranoia, we are meant to understand, is not exactly the consequence of the fender bender.

Living in a cabin, Kate feeds a raccoon who visits her daily:

He left through his crawl space as soon as he saw me.  But because, on every subsequent evening, he stayed longer and left less abruptly; because he returned most nights, and slouched, on the stove, leaning against the stove pipe, all night, until morning; because he sometimes touched, though rarely, the water I left in a dish beside the stove for him; because he was, after all, a wild thing, growing ever more docile; we arrived at our misunderstanding.  I thought he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying.  So are we all, of course.  But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.

Ultimately, that's what Pitch Dark is about: mistakes, and love, and abandonment, and whether one of the last two, or both, are the same as the first.  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"  It's a challenge where Speedboat is a delight, and sparing in its rewards, but intentionally so.

No comments: