My post yesterday about Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark is rather incomplete and kind of confusing, just like the book! Ha! Can I claim that in my brilliance I was attempting to create, in a blog post, the experience of reading the book? I wish I could but, as spectacular as I am, such a feat is beyond my talent. I did promise to elaborate on a few things and that I will do.
For all it’s complexity and seemingly random bits and pieces, I think a big part of the book is about storytelling. Adler, as I mentioned yesterday, sometimes conflates and confuses, making the “I” of the narrator doubtful. Is this Kate Ennis or is this Renata Adler narrating? Which leaves the reliability of the narrator in doubt. If I don’t know who is talking, how do I know I can trust what is being said? Emily Dickinson is even invoked:
And the thing of course is this, that to me my life is serious. It is just that, I don’t know, the reality I inhabit is already slant. In the sense I think that Emily Dickinson meant by Tell it true but tell it slant.
In case you don’t recall Dickinson’s poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
What Adler does in Pitch Dark is exactly that. She tells it slant. All of her twists and turns and completely unrelated stories and non sequitur intrusions, the skipping around in time and place, there is truth in there but we can’t get at it directly. We take the scenic route. We are told early in the book:
For a woman, it is always, don’t you see, Scheherazade
Tell the truth but tell it slant and don’t give all the answers because answers mean the story is over and there is no reason to keep reading and no reason for the storyteller to continue on either.
It seems to me, after letting the book sit for awhile and then going through my notes, that Pitch Dark is very much about storytelling. Along with Dickinson and Scheherazade, Adler also brings in Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Conrad, Penelope and Ulysses, Beatrix Potter, Dickens, Hemingway, Salinger, John O’Hara, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, and Thomas Wolfe just to name a few.
Storytelling is everywhere in the book. Kate/Adler tells us that she once tried to keep a journal, that for several months she recorded details on a daily basis. But
the salient point about it was only this: that it was lies. My letters too, at that time and after, consisted largely of what I wanted other people to believe.
She goes on to say that she is certain that she is not alone, that she knows the diaries and letters of others are lies too and biographies of famous people constructed from such documents are “probably quite largely false.” We are all such storytellers we even tell stories to ourselves.
There is an especially interesting musing on storytelling and the law at the end of the book. The Constitution, Adler writes (do you know Adler went to law school?), essentially requires everything to be a story. When a law suit is filed, a story is created. The person or entity against whom the suit is filed must create an alternate story in answer or concede the case. The stories told in court by lawyers are different from the kind of stories told by writers. Writers try to tell original stories but lawyers try to tell stories that have precedent. Even though the stories lawyers tell attempt to not be original, the outcome has a more radically lasting effect on the lives of the people involved than the original story of a writer could produce.
“This is the century of dislocation,” we are told, and the structure of Pitch Dark echoes that dislocation. The reader is made to feel disoriented, unmoored, left in the dark. But the stories, true or not, keep getting made, keep trying to make sense of things:
What’s new. What else. They may be the first questions of the story, of the morning, or consciousness. What’s new. What else. What’s next. What’s happened here, says the inspector, or the family man looking at the rubble of his house. What’s it to you, says the street tough or the bystander. What’s it worth to you, says the paid informer or the extortionist. What is it now, says the executive or the husband, disturbed by the fifteenth knock on the door, or phone call, or sigh in the small hours of the night. What does it mean, says the cryptographer. What does it all mean, says the student or the philosopher on his barstool. What do I care. What’s the use. What’s the matter. Where’s the action. What kind of fun is that. Let me just say that everyone’s story in the end is the old whore’s, or the Ancient Mariner’s: I was not always as you see me now. And the sentient man, the sentient person says in his heart, from time to time, What have I done.
What’s this book about? I’ve told my own story about it. Your story will probably be different. I can guarantee that Pitch Dark is a puzzle, a challenge, rich, wide and deep with all sorts of stories lurking in its pages.