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Renata Adler's idiosyncratic titles Speedboat and Pitch Dark return

The longtime critic and journalist aids our look at her unclassifiable fiction, which feels as groundbreaking as ever.

Photograph: Richard Avedon
Renata Adler
“I started out with writer’s block,” says Renata Adler, “Then there came editing, then criticism, then reporting and then fiction.” She adds: “My work came out backwards.” Though the former New York Times film critic and New Yorker fixture may feel her experience atypical of fiction writers, reading Adler’s two unconventional novels convinces that this breech birth was for the best.

Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), both reprinted by New York Review Books this month, are engrossing, idiosyncratic titles that use Adler’s life and work to propel the stylistic innovations that feel as fresh now as they must have when they were originally published. Though the classification of novel seems most fitting, their restless mix of autobiography, invention and critique refuses to be pinned down; and often these thinly divided modes of storytelling yield to aphorisms, satire or deadpan jokes. Meanwhile, there’s little story to speak of, but it compels almost against reason.

Consider Speedboat, the more formally adventurous of the two. The plot is effectively pieced together in the reader’s mind: Journalist Jen Fain slips from job to job and from lover to lover. Every section—whether it is one line, a paragraph or a couple of pages—is a solitary shard, and these pieces often shift their shapes as they unfold. A third-person narrative becomes a first-person confession. A field report gives way to a cartoonish Hellerian nightmare. Nothing remains still, and the center does not hold. Oftentimes, Jen’s encounters boil down to what might be cosmopolitan koans, capable of inspiring either profound realizations on the nature of metropolitan life or just a glimpse of its emptiness. (“ ‘I yield to myself,’ the congressman said, at the start of the speech with which he was about to enter history, ‘as much time as I will consume.’ ”)

The fractured nature of Speedboat feels connected to the nature of life as Jen, or Adler, experiences it: It’s overwhelming, here absurd and there tragic, and the pettiness of its parties and dinners is often exposed by the global difficulties on which Fain reports. When trying to comprehend the complexities of Civil Rights–era discrimination and murder cases in Mississippi, Fain concludes, “I don’t know what it means. I am in this brownstone.” Interestingly, just a paragraph earlier she was trying to make sense of absurd happenings, including the “Tanzanian Army Worm Outbreak” and the “Naini Tal Sudden Sky Brightening,” as reported by the “Center for Short-Lived Phenomena.” Maybe comprehension is overrated.

While maintaining the same sort of clipped, anecdotal storytelling, Pitch Dark is perhaps even more of a memoir, driven by narrative and a paramour’s anguish. Reporter Kate Ennis is on the verge of ending a long-term affair with a married man, Jake; she escapes to Ireland to come to terms, has a run-in with the law and quickly returns home. The gnomic parcels of Speedboat have a presence, though here they echo the protagonist’s distraught state of mind. Kate goes so far as to drop Adler’s name, further blurring the division between author and creation. As Adler explains it, “I wanted to say, ‘Don’t think I’m making this up. This is real for me.’ And, in fact, it was real.”

Though these books were well received when they appeared—Speedboat even garnered the Ernest Hemingway Prize for Best First Novel in 1976—in both the early and later days of her career, most remember Alder for raising hackles with her nonfiction. The headlines here include a lascerating review of her film-critic cohort Pauline Kael and, years later, a single line about a Watergate judge from a book that was also critical of The New Yorker. (She had to defend herself for calling John Sirica a “corrupt, incompetent and dishonest figure” with ties to organized crime.) But, as an avid fiction reader, it’s possible she has been more interested in the gasps that come from thrillers, or even conventional novels, all along. She gushes about Le Carré, Dickens and James. When asked why her books skew so far from what she loves, and whether she intended to set any compositional precidents, her reply is unsurprisingly like Jen Fain or Kate Ennis: “It turned out to be, that’s the way it was. And that’s the way I did it.”

Renata Adler talks with David Shields at Strand Book Store Fri 5.