century of dislocation
By K. Thomas Kahn.
Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?… Is that where it begins? I don’t know. I don’t know where it begins. It is where I am.
These lines, from the opening pages of Renata Adler’s second novel, Pitch Dark (1983), should rightly be read as a self-reflexive rumination on the fragmented and nonlinear prose style in her two fictional works, an endeavor to centralize the act of storytelling (and, with it, the conflicts between objectivity and subjectivity) begun by Adler when Speedboat was published in 1976. The impact of Speedboat upon writers as diverse as David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and David Shields proves its status as a sui generis text. As Guy Trebay notes:
Speedboat … stamp[s] contemporary consciousness with its singular mark. Because the book prefigured by decades certain telegraphic forms of communication we now take for granted, it is easy to miss the point that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter.
Because Speedboat in effect reinvented the novel with its unique mix of vignettes, kaleidoscopic and panoramic reportage, and a presciently liberal social commentary, Adler’s prefiguration of how contemporary life is ingested in—and therefore best understood by—fragments represents a stylistic shift in narration. As such, Speedboat is a seminal text in the history of the literary novel’s evolution. Now that it and its companion novel Pitch Dark have been reissued by the New York Review of Books after being out of print for some twenty-five years, one can read these texts anew, posit their importance to experimental fiction written in the wake of Speedboat, and also admire Adler’s gift for incisive social and personal insights that are still relevant and resonant to this day.
Both Speedboat’s and Pitch Dark’s narrators are reporters. In the former novel, Jen Fain shifts back and forth in time as she relates experiences at boarding school, graduate school, cocktail parties with academics, interviews conducted with people of different classes and races in her capacity as reporter, and the political conflicts that affect a liberal, bohemian social clique whose globetrotting always brings them back to Manhattan as if the city were a magnet. (These experiences are also Kate Ennis’s in Pitch Dark, but the later novel focuses more on Ennis’s psychological conflict than on the more external factors with which Speedboat is concerned.) As Adler eschews plot almost entirely, the vignettes Jen Fain offers form a whole only as one reads. Muriel Spark observes how, when reading Adler’s prose, “[y]ou have to piece it together as you would if you had picked up a stranger’s private journal.”
Although Speedboat is more of a public chronicle than a private document like Pitch Dark, it is still very much a subjective view of city life and how this affects an individual’s consciousness. Fain observes: “I find that many city people give their most minute attention to the ethics of found objects, small.” In many ways, this is one of the pressing issues in Speedboat: how the mundane encounters in our lives—the bureaucratic idiocies at the institution where Fain serves as an adjunct; telephone calls from PBS soliciting donations; international phone calls with bad connections, effectively rendering them party-lines (as Matthew Specktor has also termed Adler’s prose style in his piece in The Believer); the political and intimate disconnect one has with one’s lovers—are like pieces in a puzzle which can never be placed together into a concrete whole, and yet, if we are to make sense of our individuality, must somehow be mapped on to our subjectivities, even if our attempts fail: “Something lost in translation there, perhaps. Everywhere.”
And while “[p]eople seem to be unhappy in so many different ways,” Fain must incorporate the fragments of other people’s experiences in order to fathom her own. In this way, “the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time,” thus affecting the narrative we attempt to construct for ourselves:
The plot of things separating, not so common, disintegration, breaking up. The plot of one thing following in the track of another, as in thrillers, chases. The plot of things parallel. Suspense, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the future. Nostalgia, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the past. Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta: they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or do not come out.
Also affecting our narratives are, as Trebay believes Adler presages, our modes of communication and travel, which combine to further displace us from other people despite how necessary they are to the task of trying to understand our identities in relation to the world in which we live: “The jet, the telephone, the boat, the train, the television. Dislocations.”
Pitch Dark takes dislocation as its main theme. Like Jen Fain, Pitch Dark’s Kate Ennis is a reporter, and, to some extent, the social, cultural, and political background with which Speedboat deals is one the reader must keep in mind when reading Pitch Dark. Due to this, the two novels read as companion pieces, with the first-person narrators blending into each other, complete with shared experiences and a common worldview. (Indeed, in the second section of Pitch Dark, the narrator even becomes Adler herself, causing Spark to wonder: “Does Miss Adler mean to suggest that she herself is Kate Ennis?”)
Ennis’s main conflict in Adler’s second novel is whether to leave a married man with whom she has been having an affair for eight years. More poetic in both style and depth than Speedboat, Pitch Dark uses repetition to convey the circuitous meanderings of its narrator as she ponders whether or not to leave Jake (a conflict and character name that allude to Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater). Two oft-repeated refrains that get to the heart of Ennis’s mental state throughout the course of Pitch Dark are as follows:
You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life. Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?
And while Ennis muses on her past with Jake, her present is sullied by the fact that her identity—and Pitch Dark is very much Ennis’s quest for autonomy—is subsumed beneath Jake’s as well as the other events in her life. In her attempt to excavate herself, Kate’s internal journey is mirrored by an external one that moves from Manhattan to New York State, from Orcas Island to the Irish countryside.
Increasingly, Ennis’s travels give rise to feelings of paranoia and both cultural and self-dislocation: “I still have the sense, how to put this, that the land, even the sleeping country towns, know of me.” The titular section of Pitch Dark is the most plot-driven, but it is still very much interior in focus as Ennis deals with an ever-mounting sense of panic after a slight fender bender in a tiny Irish town, an incident that becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare involving a lorry driver as a bizarre “teamster” in a middle-of-the-night motorway ride to Dublin in a rented vehicle Ennis feels sure is under police scrutiny and which has hardly any gas in the tank. Spark is spot-on when she remarks of this section: “This is a superb piece of nightmare writing.”
Like Jen Fain in Speedboat, Kate Ennis discovers that to think of the self as unaffected by one’s environment is a flawed endeavor; to this end, both narrators realize that the act of storytelling in which the “I” is front and center risks missing material or else running against the problem of how to incorporate it: “Because it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something…” In this way, the quote with which I began this piece comes to suggest that a fragmented, solipsistic style is the best way to unearth one’s identity from the events that shape (and sometimes destroy) it. Describing a diary she kept in her twenties, Ennis observes:
The penmanship was fine, still those clear, regular capitals. But the record was of moods. There were no events, few names, no facts, no indication of what happened… What few names there were appeared uncharacterized, and not part of any incident or sentence; and the moods were described only to the extent of being up or down, like a chart of the stock market or of an illness… The events simply were not there, and, more surprisingly, I could not reconstruct them.
The collective anxiety of Manhattan life portrayed in Speedboat, along with the more personal anxiety and paranoia experienced by Kate Ennis in Pitch Dark, are ones that are still resoundingly relatable to our lives today. As Specktor writes:
[Adler’s] work hasn’t dated: its depth of engagement on every level—with private life and the life of state—its comedy and perspective, its shrewd observation of everything from literature to politics to manners and back again, these qualities mark Adler’s work as fathomless, as damn near inexhaustible.
Adler’s work is an analysis of the individual in ”an age of crime,” as she phrases it in Pitch Dark, one in which “[v]ery few of us, it seems fair to say, are morally at ease.” As Jen Fain remarks in Speedboat, as she attempts to quell mass hysteria on a tiny charter plane “start[ing] down the runway of the Fishers Island airport”: “For flights I have these pills. … I counted and found I had enough painkilling pills for everyone.” Substitute Xanax for the Valium and Percodan scattered throughout Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and one has our world today, a world in which external realities affect our inner states of mind, a world we inhabit with others whose differences in some way become part of our own story: “As much as this is the age of crime, after all, this is the century of dislocation. Not just for journalists or refugees: for everyone.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, Music and Literature Magazine, The Millions, and other venues. He is the curator of @proustitute.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 18th, 2013.