Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
The Cult of the Authoress
By Roxanne Fequiere
Renata Adler’s two novels—Speedboat and Pitch Dark, published in 1976 and 1983—are often referenced in tandem. After falling out of print, they were simultaneously re-released in 2013. Reviews from that year tackle the titles as a pair, often picking favorites or comparing protagonists, though it’s generally accepted that they both serve as something like a stand-in for the Adler herself.
Speaking of Adler herself, she was the principal attraction when I first laid eyes on Speedboat; I remembered reading parts of her Toward A Radical Middle in college, the descriptions of her prose in every cover blurb practically hummed with reverence. Then, the Richard Avedon photograph of the writer—on the back cover, nested within the novel description lest it get buried within the paperback itself—a stunning portrait in which she wears pulls off a sweater, collared shirt, and jaunty straw hat with aplomb. Then the front cover: a candy-colored Helen Frankenthaler detail. “Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches,” the back of the book promised. It was an easy sell.
There are certain female writers who loom large in the minds of bookish women like myself, their personas lovingly framed in our minds alongside our own favorite pull quotes from their oeuvres. Perhaps it’s Dorothy Parker, tossing off bon mots between sips of a strong gin cocktail, or Françoise Sagan driving barefoot through the south of France, a sea breeze tousling her shaggy crop cut.
Speaking of cars, there’s Joan Didion, impossibly slender and insouciant, leaning up against her Corvette with that dangling cigarette—or maybe it’s her infamously streamlined packing list that comes to mind. There’s Zora Neale Hurston, with her hat angles just so, seated before one of Carl Van Vechten’s patterned backdrops, and Zadie Smith in her signature headwrap. Sylvia Plath. Eve Babitz. We find ourselves in their words, and something less tangible but no less potent in their looks, their loves, their lives.
Reedy with deep-set eyes, a signature braid-and-bang coif, and the ability to wear the hell out of a men’s button-down shirt, blazingly brilliant with a sharp tongue and even sharper pen, Renata Adler fits in nicely among this pantheon of stylish thinking women’s patron saints. She’s the sort of writer you want to be reading, or at least you feel you ought to familiarize yourself with. Brywn Mawr and Harvard; The New Yorker and The New York Times, during the heady ‘60s, no less. It didn’t matter that I never quite got around to actually finishing Speedboat, or vaguely remembered a few false starts when I’d attempted the opening pages. I bought Pitch Dark on the power of Adler’s personal brand.
Though the actual term “personal branding” can be traced back to the late ‘90s, the practice itself has certainly been evolving for several decades. I found myself wondering if Adler was aware of her own personal brand, the striking, whip-smart New York intellectual, when writing her novels. At one point, Kate Ennis, Pitch Dark’s first-person narrator and protagonist, considers using a fake name in order to slip out of Ireland unnoticed. Nothing too fantastical, she reasons, maybe just swap a letter or two so that it will look like an honest mistake if she’s caught. One of the options she comes up with? Alder. From manuscript to edits to revisions, it’s hard to believe this slip was unintentional. Then again, I’d been essentially reading Kate’s narrative as Adler’s the entire time. Maybe it was inserted as way of letting the reader know that she was aware of that blurring.
The narrative thread of Pitch Dark is delivered piecemeal, in fits and starts. There are bits of repeated text that begin to ring in the ear like refrains, until finally, dozens of pages removed from their first utterance, they’re explained away in an anecdote that’s only tangentially tied to the plot. At first, I found myself eager to piece these prose fragments together. The more I realized that many of them are like the pitch-dark roads Kate finds herself driving along, circuitous and potentially just wasting fuel on the way to the final destination, I began to lose interest. And yet: I’m still quite enamored with the idea of a fragmented novel, with its wisps of witticisms and sharp observations sprinkled among bits of a soft focus plot. I’m still enamored with the idea of Renata Adler. I’m willing to plunge into that uncharted territory with her again—and maybe slow down a bit on those twists and turns to see what I can make out in the darkness.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.