Renata Adler, Poet of a Chaotic Generation
Renata Adler only wrote two novels, but they establish her as the chronicler of an ossified generation unable to move forward. By Jen Vafidis.
Renata Adler is the sensible poet of uncertainty. Speedboat, described upon its release in 1976 as “the new fiction,” is a novel of fragments that tries to describe life that didn’t fit a novelistic form. Pitch Dark, released in 1983, is Speedboat’s romantic, dark cousin, with the upgrade of a discernible plot: a newspaper reporter is at a crossroads in her affair with a married man. Speedboat and Pitch Dark, with those cryptic titles of anxious escape, are novels afraid of being weighed down by the discontinuity of the present. Both have been out of print for some time; both have become a secret handshake among a certain type of literary nerd, the kind who is unsure of just how to go forward in life, like Adler’s fictional avatars, the journalist Jen Fein in Speedboat and the reporter Kate Ennis in Pitch Dark.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark have recently been reissued in handsome editions by the New York Review of Books. They’re both great, but she stopped after two. Instead, nonfiction spilled out of her. Born in Italy and raised in Connecticut, Adler fell in with the New York literary crowd in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She was mentored by Hannah Arendt and fought with Pauline Kael; she wrote for The New Yorker by 1963 and was reviewing films for The New York Times by 1968. She cultivated a knowing voice. Here she is being snarky on 2001: A Space Odyssey in a way even Kael could appreciate: “In their space uniforms, the voyagers look like Jiminy Crickets.” She was sure and sassy not only in matters of art, but in politics as well—here she is on Richard Nixon’s fall: “there are two explanations people like to give… that Nixon was insane; that it was not his nature, as revealed by the whole history of his life, to yield an inch in anything. One problem with these answers is that, even if true, there is really nothing they explain.”
Her voice represented what she constantly referred to as “a generation." She saw her peers as ossified, trumped, and overcome by messiness, with a sneaking suspicion that even the best and the brightest have no clue whatsoever. These were her people, and they had been let down. They were the ones she sought to understand and entertain. She summed them up almost lovingly in the prologue to her book Toward a Radical Middle: “We all seem to view the world still in words, as writers, arguers, archivists—even, perhaps even especially, those who do not write. In strange times, we have kept our language, energies and heads.… And we are here.” But Adler’s protagonists are less confident about the peculiarities that surround them.
Jen Fein is drifting from job to job. Elusive and “not always well,” she travels frequently, lives in a brownstone, goes to parties, and dates men who all seem the same. She confesses to feeling disconnected often. “It was awkward,” Jen says of a much older beau’s son, “for the son and me at Trader Vic’s, trying to be a generation.” The sharp specificity of Speedboat’s predominant setting (Trader Vic’s in that sentence, or the revered Elaine’s in several more later) brings us to a moment now memorialized by anniversary issues of New York magazine and prime Woody Allen. Here we are in 1970s New York City, with a certain kind of sophisticate; someone must be wearing checked pants. But unlike, say, Manhattan at its coldest, Adler’s version of the ‘70s keeps you from finding it too romantic. This novel, it’s been pointed out, does not have a plot. It’s more like a patchwork quilt, made up of rumor and myth, dreams and doom. Everything’s going to seed, and everything’s weird. No one is at peak condition. As the narrator, Jen is our guide in this somewhat glamorous, definitely odd world of murdered landlords, Italian yachts, and dinner parties where Magic Mountain is discussed and someone named Inez is saying something grandiose. And Jen is just as confused by her surroundings as we are; she says of the generation which Adler so brightly acclaimed as “here”: “None of us is quite leading the life we were at all prepared for.”
This isn’t always as grim as it sounds. Speedboat is a funny novel. The first section, for instance, is titled “Castling,” after a move in chess that requires a large number of conditions to happen at all. Jen admits offhandedly—blink, you’ll miss it—to being awful at chess, and it’s a hint: this is a novel about someone who cannot plan ahead, can’t play the game, but will be on the board anyway. Things get silly and tragic, and it happens over and over. People do not evolve; they revolve. For example, when Jen is asked to sit on a panel to discuss the female orgasm in fiction, she turns down the invitation, supposedly so that she can stalk a prowler in her neighborhood. In the next fragment, Jen observes a tray pile-up at a museum cafeteria dining line. Adler tells her jokes, then describes a crime. It’s hard to tell which is which.
Where Speedboat is comedy, Pitch Dark is tortured romance. It’s not without humor, but it has far more melodrama, as all romances must. This makes it harder to stomach; the plot is almost disappointingly linear, and Kate Ennis is a more defined character in the traditional sense. When she goes on a trip to Ireland, she does so to to get over her married lover, Jake. “Did I throw the most important thing, by accident, away?” she laments.
Given this sort of language, it is not surprising that Adler watched soap operas voraciously for a period of two and a half years. When a character on Another World—one of her favorites—committed suicide, she was shaken. For Adler, soaps had a continuity “stronger even than the news, where stories and characters submerge and reappear—or don’t—depending on where the limelight is.” She wondered whether soaps portrayed life once upon a time, before “the violent, flash discontinuities of media news and personal air travel came along.” The characters in Pitch Dark can seem plucked from this soapy version of reality. “Look here, you know, I loved you,” pleads the foolish Jake. One can hear the organ music swell.
“The flash discontinuities of media news” reign over Adler’s world—what Jen Fein calls “the trash of shared experience.” But Adler’s chaos is not hopeless. Just when you think you’ll get swallowed by all the jokes and all the soap bubbles, both books end with decisions of some sort, as if all that came before was a way of working out the problem. Jen decides to have a child, in spite of how incongruous motherhood seems; Kate decides once and for all what to do with her ex-lover. These novels give shape to randomness, sense to confusion.
After two novels, Adler went back to journalism, to reporting on the moment. But her fiction hasn’t aged much; in fact, if she has more to say, now would be the ideal time. The present is more discontinuous than before. We could use someone sensible to report on the scene.