There is an interesting thing that begins to happen if one spends enough time working at a particular endeavor: an inability to see. The fresh eyes of the novice eventually give way to the jaded, if perspicacious, vision of the proficient. For the writer, especially the novelist, this phenomenon is both goal and curse. It is, of course, necessary for a young writer of fiction to develop her skills, her understanding of craft, theory, and form, and to be able to read more deeply, to then incorporate what she has learned into her own work. However, like all great gifts, there is a price that comes with this increase in knowledge: the price of astonishment. The wonder of fiction, that amazement that first lit the spark—once so powerful because it was inexplicable—becomes dulled with understanding and ability. Once one can perform the tricks themselves, the magic is no longer extraordinary.
It is perhaps because of this alchemy towards ordinary that the fiction of Renata Adler—her lauded debut Speedboat, in 1976, and her woefully overlooked follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark—commands such a strong following among writers. Reissued by the New York Review of Books in 2013, Adler’s novels, with their power and precision, their audacity and fearlessness, have the ability to inspire even seasoned students and practitioners of the craft. Her writing continues to stand in a class by itself some forty-odd years after their release; Speedboat and Pitch Dark are as innovative, singular, and inspiring as ever. Both together and individually, they represent something quite spectacular in the annals of fiction: a boundary line, a spot on the edge of the map, a place demarcating how far the novelistic form can reach in a certain direction before falling into the abyss of the absurd—for Adler, they represent the ability of language to serve as the central propellent in a complete, effective, and arresting work of fiction.
Speedboat is, among many other apt descriptors, a cult classic, a linguistic feast of the highest order, and something of a novelist’s novel. For myself, discovering Adler’s masterpiece was nothing short of a revelation. A few months removed from the completion of my MFA, and a month or two into a post-grad fellowship, I found Speedboat (in a manner which is, much to my chagrin, lost to memory), which was instrumental in furthering my long journey through the wilds of language-first writing, a brilliant and I-didn’t-know-that-was-allowed display of how prose, sheer language, can be harnessed and employed as the engine of a captivating novel.
The debut novel, on one level, is fairly straightforward: an ambitious and shrewd journalist, Jen Fain, narrates her stories as explorer-chronicler of the world in the tumultuous decade she inhabits. Such compendious a recap offers little in the way of explanation, of course. Speedboat’s weight and staying power come from the kaleidoscopic movement of its protagonist’s thoughts and observations, its usurpation of narrative and exploration of the type of random patterning found inexplicably in life, and, above all, its peerless language.
There was something of a shock in beginning Speedboat, a plunge into icy water one did not know was below. That dulled bone of amazement, necessarily whittled down by experience, is electrified by Adler’s command of language and her fearless commitment to building a book around it. The opening, offering no quarter for introductory remarks, is illustrative:
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.
There is something simmering in this opening passage: an energetic tension, a lingering-just-below-the-surface quality to the language that carries throughout the novel and across to her next. It is a crest that continually builds, inspiring one to keep reading—and, for some, to keep writing. I had, by the time I read Speedboat, long since felt the magic of fiction largely disappear under the waves of critical application and concepts of theory. Not that there was a reduction in my love of literature—in many ways the opposite—but, as I continued to study and refine my craft, I increasingly centered my reading experience around dissection and decryption, rather than immersion and enrapture. Adding to this were the frequent reviews I wrote, which inevitably commodified my relationship to books and writing. Speedboat, with its originality and skill, floods these levees of experience, returning to the veteran reader her earliest emotions of reading stunning fiction.
For as dexterous and awesome as it is, the source of power of Adler’s writing is difficult to locate. It does not, as with some of the great prose writers in fiction—Joyce or Nabokov, Austen or Woolf—stand out for its virtuosic energy or exuberance, deft mechanical stylings or technical innovations. Adler’s language is almost unremarkable, often simple, but somehow extraordinarily moving. It, quite simply, gets beneath the skin and embeds itself. During my fellowship I was at work on my own novel, with any luck slated to be my debut, and I was captivated by the sheer capacity of Adler’s language. I, too, saw myself as a language-first writer, priding myself on my prose and enlisting it as a key agent of movement and momentum in my novel. Speedboat displayed the possibilities of such an approach in inspiring vibrance:
At 4 a.m.. the phone rang about fifty times. I did not answer it. Aldo suggested that we remove it. I took three Valium. The whole night was sirens, then silence. The phone rang again. It is still ringing. The paper goes to press tomorrow. It is possible that I know who killed our landlord. So many things point in one direction. But too strong a case, I find, is often lost. It incurs doubts, suspicions. Perhaps I do not know. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I think it does, though. When I wonder what it is that we are doing—in this brownstone, on this block, with this paper—the truth is probably that we are fighting for our lives.
Looking past the radiance of this passage, one notices that there is nothing about the language, on the sentence level—the realm of technique and mechanics—that much explains its effectiveness. Adler writes in a conventional first-person (with allowances made towards semi-omniscient knowledge and an affinity for free-associative thought); when comparing her work to Rachel Cusk or David Foster Wallace—to take as example two of the very best first-person writers—one does not find the innovation in point-of-view of the former or the overwhelming diction and lexicon of the latter. Rather, there is an ephemeral and ghostly poignance in every line, an attention to the most arresting of quotidian events, magic made from the extraordinary description of the everyday. Despite a lack of traditional narrative construction, there is momentum on every page, a swift urgency that slices through story and reader alike. This movement is driven by a use of language so precise that Adler need not rely on challenging techniques, complex mechanics, or an ornate plot. It is thus a style that seems imitable, which is perhaps why it is so very inspiring.
But of course a great novel does not—indeed should not and almost never is—need be a paint-by-numbers guidebook to how to write in order to serve as motivation. I am drawn to Adler’s work because of her talent and energy, yes, but also because of her conviction and belief in her own style, that audacity that simmers over with self-assurance on every page. Even granting my own position as a language-first writer, there is an incredibly refreshing pulse underlying Speedboat, a proclamation that, should you ever find something in life in which you truly believe, pursue it all the way and let the critics be damned. (If Adler is any guide, they’ll eventually be writing hagiographies anyway.) That unfiltered and unapologetic approach to writing was and is, to me, the highest form of inspiration a novel could offer.
We were not exactly hated on the island—or, if we were, it was likely that everyone else was hated more. We were not exactly homeowners, not tourists, not celebrities, expatriates, or hippies, not exactly anything. We were not always there at the same time. None of us ever stayed long. We were not there out of boredom. We had all been coming there, from our separate directions, for so many years.
The risk-taking in Speedboat is found indeed on the sentence level, but not in mechanically perilous explorations into consciousness, or technically ambitious movement between perspective, but in the absolute faith and unsurpassed conviction Adler has in her prose, and in her relentless implementation of it as the book’s driving force. It is a conviction well-earned and well-rewarded, a conviction that I have kept with me since first coming across those opening lines.
It is very hard to do something that’s vary rarely before been done; it is even harder to then do it again. In her second—and, to the deep misfortune of us all, only other—novel, Adler carries over the stylistic approach and assurance from Speedboat while pushing herself to incorporate
elements, one might say, of conventional storytelling. In her novelistic trajectory, Adler shows an inverse evolution, beginning with the audacity of the “experimental” before moving to something more—if not approachable, then digestible. In this way, Pitch Dark takes nearly as many risks as Speedboat, albeit of a different kind. Adler, in full command of her signature style, presents herself a new challenge, to retrofit her revolution with a few choice accoutrements of tradition.
Pitch Dark is the story of Kate Ennis, a protagonist similar in makeup, if not activity, to her literary ancestor Jen Fain, and who finds herself at an impasse in her affair with a married man. As we learn of her history and entanglements, we see Kate attempt an escape to an ancient house in windswept Ireland, and much of the book relates a night she spends navigating Hibernian darkness and inner torment.
But in the long spells of driving though 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 . . . Straight on, exhilaration. Is it the hour? the passing over into crime? although I know in my legal heart I cannot yet have broken any law. What comes to me now, as I look up at Orion, and think of childhood knowledge of stars, myths, constellations, dinosaurs, is also the memory, the physical courage of that outlaw, that reckless vandal, fearless of death, that child.
I discovered Pitch Dark a few months after Speedboat, and I gave it the reader’s highest honor—immediate placement at the top of the TBR (to-be-read) pile. I had gone out to the Californian desert in midsummer to begin urging my furtive second manuscript out of the nest, and the contrast between my sunrise-soaked patio in the rising heat and Adler’s bracing, contemplative novel on the Irish coast was a stirring one. In this second novel, the result is more focused empathy, less asked of the reader and more space allowed for alignment and sympathizing with Kate, a heroine therefore more rounded than Jen.
Pitch Dark does not enjoy the same reputation as its predecessor; there is a degree of the raw power, the complete commitment to language above all else, that is lost with the infusion of that more cogent and linear storyline. But there are important elements here that Speedboat, by dint of almost completely foregoing a conventional “plot,” necessarily lacks. Kate’s story is an emotional one, filled with gravitas and pathos, and her more accessible account allows a bit more room for her reader to get to know her.
And this matter of the commas. And this matter of the paragraphs. The true comma. The pause comma. The afterthought comma. The hesitation comma. The rhythm comma. The blues. And in this matter of the tenses and the question marks. In this matter of the scandal at the tennis courts. Did he know so little, then, of love that he did not know that the experience he has put me through, all those times, in all those years, is the one I’ve adumbrated, for a few hours, from time to time, just now?
We can see how, amidst compelling playfulness, Adler is able to deftly incorporate a personal story of the straightforward manner not found in Speedboat. Kate’s story slips to and from the forefront, stitched like a garment with threads above and below, her story coming into focus only as one moves along. Reading Pitch Dark—especially after Speedboat—is an engrossing and indelible experience, with its ability to weave an ancient story of self-discovery through the wilds of the modern world, a display full of movement and introspection.
As I worked through that first draft of my second novel, I found Adler’s decision-making in Pitch Dark seeping into my own pages. Although like her I will always look to language first, I also attempted to take something from her deeper explorations into the narrative in the later work. While Speedboat will always be, in my view, more the raw and the flawless and the perfect of the two, there is much to be said for Pitch Dark’s balancing act, her second novel’s foregrounding of the human element in this mess of a world, and that there is room for such imperfect actors in art as well as life. Adler planted another flag in Pitch Dark, one just a few meters in from that borderland described by Speedboat, and the result is a slightly more traditional narrative engulfed by a world rendered in the same verisimilar chaos as before.
And indeed, that is the lasting legacy of Adler’s second novel: the accessible humanity that is given more light. Although Speedboat remains one of my four or five favorite books ever—there is something to be said for a perfectly executed vision, and whatever else it is; Speedboat surely is that—the experience of reading Pitch Dark, of discovering this remarkable sequel that manages to accomplish something new, stands out in my memory, and in my writing.
What I wish I had not lost is the photograph of him, the only nice one. What I wish I had not lost is the ticket for my raincoat at the shoe repair shop. What I wish I had not lost is the suitcase with the letters. What I wish I had not lost is the time, or the inventory of the lost things, or the consciousness of all the things that are not lost. But nothing I had, I think, is anything Jake’s wife wants or ever wanted. Nothing was lost, I think, by any of us there.
The novels of Renata Adler, individually but especially in tandem, are those rarest of achievements—overawing the cynical, impressing the experienced, offering something new and arresting to the expert. I was fortunate in my early discovery of her work; I believe the best time to discover a writer—who through her skills and talents inspires the anxious excitement that drives one to the desk—is in the early years of seriousness, possessed by both nascent philosophy and opportunity to develop one’s craft. Put another way, with Speedboat and Pitch Dark, Adler rewrote the definition of what fiction can be, centralized and revolutionized language in a way no other writer other has, and she set up camp far beyond the borderlands of the novel, waiting for the rest of us to hurry up and come along. For those of us who endeavor to get there, it is a journey far richer in rewards than it asks in fare.
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. A graduate of the M.F.A. creative writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University’s BookEnds Fellowship, he serves as founding editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and fiction editor of West Trade Review. His work appears in Florida Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer’s block.
Cara Bloomfield runs a pictorial diary on Instagram called The Be Nice Comic. It’s a catalog of the universal and oddly specific ways she is human, a (semi-recent) journal of a new mother, and an attempt at capturing saliency in single panels.