Pitch Dark, 1983
Toward a Radical Middle: Fourteen Pieces of Reporting and Criticism, 1969
A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic, 1968-69, 1969
Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time, 1986
Politics and Media: Essays, 1988
Gone: The Last Days of “The New Yorker,” 1999
Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media, 2001
That Renata Adler has been acclaimed both as a journalist and as a novelist would be less surprising were her novels at all realistic in technique. Yet while her novels are not journalistic, they are decidedly contemporary. Indeed, it is for her creation of a distinctly contemporary voice that Adler deserves the high praise she has received. Adler was born in Milan, Italy, on October 19, 1938, and was educated at Bryn Mawr College, the Sorbonne, and Harvard University. She later earned a law degree from Yale University as part of her research for her fifth book, Reckless Disregard, a work in which Adler’s own high standards led her to criticize the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and Time magazine for their “reckless disregard” of the truth in their reporting of General William Westmoreland’s alleged misconduct during the Vietnam War and Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon’s part in the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese soldiers in 1983. Adler helped judge the National Book Awards in 1969, served on the editorial board of The American Scholar from 1968 to 1973, and was a member of the executive board of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) from 1964 to 1970.
As one who came of age during the Eisenhower years, Adler sees herself as part of a largely forgotten, seemingly speechless generation, inconspicuous to the point of anonymity. The voice Adler has developed in her novels (and to a lesser extent in her nonfiction) to capture this sense of anonymity is, paradoxically, remarkably distinctive, yet it is similar in certain ways to the minimalism of her contemporaries Leonard Michaels, Ronald Sukonick, and Joan Didion. Having begun her career as a journalist (much of her work has appeared in The New Yorker), Adler served as film critic for The New York Times in the late 1960’s, and this latter experience helps to account for the cinematic, jump-cut quality of her work.
The cinematically disjunctive style and structure of her novels are designed to reflect an equally disjunctive world, or, rather, an equally disjunctive perception of the world. Her novelistic prose is brittle, and the narrative voice as self-consciously detached and inflectionless as it is anonymous. The landscape, or “mindscape,” is lunar–bleak and colorless–and the characters indistinct, rendered merely as roles or names; they appear as little more than black-and-white snapshots glimpsed while thumbing through someone else’s photograph album. Scenes are juxtaposed rather than linearly and logically assembled; the reader discovers that the onward march of Adler’s relentlessly paratactic sentences leads not to resolution but instead to reversals, returns, and refrains. The effect, however, is not one of despair. In fact, Adler has been a harsh critic of the apocalyptic stridency and unearned nihilism which she believes characterizes so much contemporary fiction, art, and music.
Skeptical of the “seismological” approach adopted by a number of postwar novelists, Adler prefers what she terms the “polygraph” method, which entails the author’s focusing on a particular psychological point of view. Speedboat, Adler’s first novel, is precisely such a work: a polygraph of a life of quiet desperation for which Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is no longer a possibility. As the title suggests, this novel deals with motion–flying, driving, boating–but this is motion without any apparent aim and without any evident destination. The novel’s point is reminiscent of Didion’s in her Play It as It Lays (1970), a novel that preceded Adler’s by six years. The problem that the narrator, Jen Fain, faces is one which the novel’s reader must face as well: how to transform the fragmentary scenes, situations, and moments into the wholeness of story. The discontinuity of Jen’s style of narration does not so much obscure her story as bring her predicament into even clearer focus. Jen remains elusive. In some ways, she resembles Adler, but in most respects she remains a mystery, a welding together of opposites. (Her name, ambiguous, suggests both preference and falsification.) The one constant that emerges from her disconcerting narration is her refusal to heed the voice, perhaps her own, that tells her to “forget it . . . throw it away.”
The same is true of the narrator-heroine of Pitch Dark. Heeding Emily Dickinson’s dictum “Tell all the truth/ But tell it slant,” Kate tries to make sense of the end of a love affair. More clearly than in Speedboat, structure gives way to voice, sequential plot to imagistic pattern, as the psychological problem of how to live without love becomes the narrative problem of how to tell the story of such a loss without incurring even further damage. Adler combines sentimental love story with existential angst and postmodern technique. In her art, despair is compounded by blackly humorous self-consciousness and yet offset, at least in part, by the Beckett-like persistence of the main character. Whether dealing with society, politics, and culture (Toward a Radical Middle and Canaries in the Mineshaft), film (A Year in the Dark), the media (Reckless Disregard and Gone: The Last Days of “The New Yorker”), or the efforts of her two main characters to narrate and thereby make sense of their lives, Adler has shown little concern for what others may consider fashionable. She has earned much praise–and caused much confusion. Unable to place her or her work with precision, critics have largely given her more tacit respect than attention.