Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark is one of those complex books that benefit from rereading. Even just going back over passages I marked while reading, pieces that had been puzzling me clicked into place. Not all of the pieces clicked, mind you, but a few did and I am not certain how to write about it. The book has no plot, there is not even a story really. All we know is that the narrator, Kate Ennis, has been having a long-time affair with a married man, Jake. At various times in the book she is still seeing him, has left him, or is in the process of leaving him. And none of this happens in any sort of order. The structure is very much a collage. Coincidentally I read another collage book recently, How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields. He mentions Adler with great pleasure in his book. Small wonder. Birds of a feather and all that.
This collage thing though. Yes, it is that, but, and I am by no means a knowledgable music person, but more than collage, the book seems to me like a musical score, a film soundtrack perhaps. I’m going to go with a soundtrack I have heard analyzed and say it is like the music for the Lord of the Rings movie in which there are motifs and instruments and moods attached to locations, races, and things. Like Hobbit moments always have flute and a few notes, always the same, always introduce them. Does that make sense? So the book is like that. There are refrains, thoughts, ideas, sentences, pieces of sentences that get repeated over and over. Sometimes they disappear for a long while only to turn up again fifty pages later. And, like in the film score, while they are the same they are also always, ever so slightly different because after those recognizable notes the theme goes in a new direction or the notes are played in a new context which changes their meaning ever so slightly. So, for instance, refrains that get repeated: “He knew that she had left him,” “Quanta,” “Can we live this way,” “And in the matter of the Irish thing,” and the one I find to be most sad, “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?”
Pitch Dark was originally published in 1983 after the success of Adler’s first novel, Speedboat. Adler was, is, first and foremost a journalist but had a fourteen-month stint as a film critic for the New York Times in the late 1960s. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Kate Ennis in Pitch Dark is also a journalist. She never is in one place for long it seems. And sometimes Kate gets mixed up with Adler. There is a point in the middle section of the book where Kate has been staying in the house of the Irish ambassador while he is away and she decides that she needs to leave Ireland right away because she is certain people are after her (this is all paranoia). At the airport she decides to buy a ticket under a fake name:
I should make the name as much like my own to account for the mistake. Alder, I thought. But that does happen so often. I was afraid they might make the same mistake and be on the lookout for just such an Alder.
But the narrator’s name is Kate Ennis which is nothing like “Alder.” Then even later in the book she and Jake, the man with whom she is having the affiar:
One of the times he was on his island, and before she ever left, she wrote a story. He said Kate, will I like it. She said, I don’t think so. He said, I won’t read it then, if you don’t want me to, since it is not in your name.
And then another recurring refrain:
Whose voice is this? Not mine. Not mine.
It is never clear who is saying this, Kate in reference to an intrusion by Adler, or Adler in reference to Kate, insisting that she and Kate are not the same.
Are you interested? Are you curious? I hope so because there is more. I think what this book is about is dislocation, groping in the dark, and storytelling. If I keep going this evening, this post will get far too long, so tomorrow night I will elaborate.