Bad Connections: The Novels of Renata Adler
by Renata Adler
Review by Dan DeWeese
Juxtapositional tension is, it turns out, Speedboat’s main operating principle. Most novels feature jacket copy that describes the story, leaving readers and critics the task of discussing everything else. “A marriage goes sour” describes thousands of novels; it’s how this news is delivered, and by whom, that makes the difference between Anna Karenina and Revolutionary Road. Speedboat, however, inverts the system: the marketing copy is not about the story, but the form. “A brilliant series of glimpses into the special oddities and new terrors of contemporary life,” Donald Barthelme says. David Shields resorts to a list: “Adler confides, reflects, tells a story, aphorizes, undercuts the aphorism, then undercuts that. Ideas, experiences, and emotions are inseparable.” What these blurbs are getting at is that Speedboat is composed of vignettes rarely more than a page or two long, often less. These compositions do not follow one another in a standard narrative way. What Barthelme means by “glimpses” is primarily glimpses into a mind. Fain’s thoughts are sometimes addressed to a particular audience—not necessarily the reader—and at other times read like non sequiturs, items that have floated onto the page as the result of mental associations we can only guess at.
Slowly building a sense of who Jen Fain is and what her life is like is the reader’s project. We deduce she is a creature of refinement and faint disdain only because she often describes people who behave awkwardly at dinner parties, or relates anecdotes of other people’s solecisms. Fain tells us her friend named Phoebe, for instance, listed her full name in the phone book, and received a heavy-breather phone call from a man who called her “Phobe.” Phoebe is not a character in the novel. She is never again mentioned. Similarly, consider the full text of this artfully compressed item: “It was midnight in our paper’s office building. There was a Pinkerton man in the elevator. ‘Something wrong?’ Jim asked. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘A girl on the fifth floor has been molestated.’” The placement of this piece confirms for us that Fain still works for the newspaper; strengthens our belief that Jim is probably/still/perhaps always has been (we don’t know what month or year it is) a romantic partner; and confirms Fain’s continued fascination with other people’s mistakes. When male names drift past, it’s via the way in which the name appears that we decide whether this is a friend, a boyfriend, or something in between. At one level we read, at another, extrapolate. The most prominent name is that of the aforementioned Jim. “I have been writing speeches for a politician. Jim, who is a lawyer from Atlanta, has been running the campaign.” The voice is declarative; the relationships are undeclared. The text is both at once.
The novel operates so fully in interior terrain that when Fain starts a piece with “I love the laconic. Clearly, I am not of their number,” the declaration is surprising, because the voice we have been reading is in fact entirely laconic. It’s occasional moments like this that remind us we have very little evidence of how Fain actually interacts with other people, how others see her—what her social self is like. Many readers have praised Speedboat, appearing as it did in the era of Bellow, Updike, Roth, et al, as a kind of novel-as-response, in that Adler’s male characters exist as marginal sketches in much the way female characters were treated in many of the male writers’ novels. This may be true, though it is also true that in Speedboat, female characters exist faintly and on the margins, as well. In fact, the protagonist herself exists faintly; her own life seems relegated to the margins. Most novels are a series of carefully (or sloppily) crafted scenes. Speedboat is a series of finely wrought observations.
Adler presents Fain as a woman documenting, with an almost anthropological distance, the personalities and phenomena produced by a particular society. One senses she is gathering evidence. The case she is going to make with the evidence, though, is uncertain. She overhears a choice phrasing, notes a telling detail, composes sociological mini-essays. (Adler’s fellow New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow was certainly influenced by the voice and form of Speedboat when he wrote his similarly compelling book of vignettes a few years later, the essay/memoir Within the Context of No Context.) She says something to someone or, in many cases, addresses someone directly in the writing—often Jim, it seems. There are only a few instances of extended dialogue. When we get a prolonged interaction late in the book, it’s a telephone conversation on a party line—half of the dialogue we’re reading is the voices of strangers, confusing crosstalk. “This connection is really” is broken by a stranger’s random line before we get the thought’s completion: “awful.” Fain is the speaker there, but it’s true for everyone.
Because the particulars of Fain’s background and status—where she grew up, what her parents were like, how much time it takes to write that gossip column, how much she makes doing it, etc.—are not revealed, the author biography plays, by default, a prominent role in Speedboat. The NYRB Classics edition features that biography on the first page, and it’s a doozy:
Renata Adler was born in Milan and raised in Connecticut. She received a B.A. from Bryn Mawr, an M.A. from Harvard, a D.d.’E.S. from the Sorbonne, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and an LL.D. (honorary) from Georgetown. Adler became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1963 and, except for a year as the chief film critic at The New York Times, remained at The New Yorker for the next four decades. Her books include A Year in the Dark (1969); Toward a Radical Middle (1970); Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time (1986); Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001); Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (1999); Irreparable Harm: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Decision that Made George W. Bush President (2004); and the novels Speedboat (1976; winner of the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel) and Pitch Dark (1983).
Though the bio that ran with Speedboat in 1976 would have included fewer titles and one less (honorary) degree, I cannot recall an author biography more overtly designed to intimidate. And while most author photos have a credit, Adler’s, because the photo was taken by Richard Avedon, has a title: “Renata Adler, April, 1975, Patmos, Greece.” This aggressive authorial presence affects the fiction, though, because when Jen Fain feels alienated and tells us about the cross-language difficulties she is having while on vacation on a Greek Island with her friends, I found myself thinking that if I were going to feel distant and alienated from my significant other, it would sure be nice to do so on a Greek island (Patmos?) where I apparently don’t worry about money, and am content to make wry observations about the hired help and point out how many languages my sophisticated friends (Richard Avedon?) speak. Fain is a lens that pulls into focus a certain way of living; Speedboat, despite its overwhelming interiority, is a powerful social text, invested with all of Adler’s considerable skills of observation, description, and refined style. Are we meant to feel something for—or about—Jen Fain as a person, though? Fain says she doesn’t think much of writers in whom nothing is at risk. We never hear what she thinks of lives with the same quality.
Adler’s 1980 novel, Pitch Dark, seems at first to operate similarly. We are again negotiating a text of chunks, again with a smart, wry newspaper reporter in a less-than-satisfying relationship. Our character this time around is Kate Ennis, and the man in her life, with whom she has carried on a years-long relationship, is married to someone else. “Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident, away?” Ennis asks herself at multiple points.
And then, on a whim and an invitation from a diplomat she meets at a dinner, Ennis decides to travel alone to Ireland. What follows is a bravura piece of extended paranoia in which Adler abandons the fragmentary form of Speedboat and the first section of Pitch Dark and opts instead to follow Ennis’s moment-to-moment, event-upon-event descent into a hell of mistrust, petty fraud, and total social alienation. No interaction in Ireland is friendly or normal. Ennis believes she may be arrested at any moment for a minor traffic accident with her rental car. She trusts no one, suspects everyone. “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read, which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen, and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that,” Adler told an interviewer when discussing Speedboat, but it’s in this middle section of Pitch Dark that she realizes that desire, with an existential twist. Though Speedboat seems to be the officially-fetishized Adler novel these days, Pitch Dark has more depth, packs more of a punch.
Adler is such an accomplished journalist that it’s tempting to wonder—especially when she claims she wanted to write a thriller—if perhaps what we think of as the “form of fiction” just isn’t a form she can produce. We live and read in an era of maximalists, though, whose chatty voices aren’t necessarily a norm. Speedboat and Pitch Dark emerged from a decade in which fragmentation and cool intellectual analysis were intentional strategies. Trow’s already-mentioned Within the Context of No Context came at the end of a decade Joan Didion inaugurated with the extreme detachment of Play It As It Lays. Alan Pakula and Robert Altman were building movies out of fragments of speech and action that you had to watch and listen to closely—you watched the movie in order to try to figure out what the movie was. The voice controlling a narrative—whether the voice of an author or a president—was suspect, and truth could be found only through the erasure (or impeachment) of that voice.
The factual family, educational, and financial backgrounds that in a piece of journalism provide detail a reader is meant to believe reveal the “truth” of who a person really is have simply been erased from Adler’s novels. (In Pitch Dark, Adler teases us about backstory by having Ennis decide at one point that she should use a fake last name that “sounds like” her own: she suggests “Alder” or “Hadley.”) Rather than assuming an additive fiction process—take a blank page and start filling it with characters and events and information—it may be useful here to imagine something subtractive: what if the social details and contexts that lead us to believe we “know” a character are misleading, and are therefore the first things that should be stripped from a narrative? The stories of Jen Fain and Kate Ennis, because Jen Fain and Kate Ennis are made up names, and because we don’t know much about Jen Fain and Kate Ennis, don’t qualify as journalism. If Adler’s fiction is secretly something else, it’s not non-fiction. It may be “non-journalism”—which is, by the standards of journalism, fiction.
“Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident, away?” Kate Ennis asks again and again. If it’s possible to respond to a question in Renata Adler’s fiction with a question of one’s own, it might be: Are you sure it was by accident?
Dan DeWeese is the author of Disorder, a story collection, and You Don't Love This Man, a novel.