How do you approach a book you know is going to be challenging? I said yesterday that my NYRB subscription is presenting me with opportunities to try authors I might not otherwise have considered reading previously. And I see now, too, that it's going to push me to read outside my normal comfort zone, which is never a bad thing. It's always good to expand my thinking and try literary forms that are new to me. I tend to read books that are similar in type--similar genres, stories and with fairly straightforward structures. So when I saw Anne Tyler's blurb on the back of Renate Adler's Pitch Dark, my current NYRB subscription title, I knew I was going to be presented with a reading challenge.
"If you simply allow [Adler's fragments] to settle in their own patterns, flashing light where they will, you'll find Pitch Dark a bright kaleidoscope of a book."
Now, I would normally call what Adler has written as "experimental fiction", but I think I am being chastened by Gary Indiana who has written in the Feb/Mar issue of Bookforum about Renate Adler and NYRB's two recent reissues of her 1976 novel Speedboat and Pitch Dark which was originally published in 1983.
"The kind of thought debris you find on the Internet describes novels in this form as 'experimental,' which is predictive of a certain off-putting difficulty and self-indulgent esoterica. Often, too, it is declared by a gatekeeping sort of criticism that anything that deviates far from a nineteenth-century template is 'not a novel.' It seems late in the day for such parsing. But in fact, classifications that formerly reflected a delight in all literary forms and the intellectual pleasure of differentiating them—Mary McCarthy’s essays 'Novel, Tale, Romance' and 'The Fact in Fiction' come to mind—now serve as filtering screens for the literary market, which is currently dominated by aesthetic conservatism of a depressingly conformist ilk: middle-class marriage saved, or ruined, or attacked by vampires.
As for what form he is talking about? He describes her books as:
" . . . consist[ing] of anecdotes, vignettes, jokes, aphorisms, epigrammatic asides, and longer passages of prose—eclectic inventories of consciousness. Their immediate effect is that of a flea market in Samarqand or Ouagadougou, where the items on display (vintage clothes, military decorations, photo albums, broken appliances) are fractionally different enough, in style and provenance, from their cousins at the local swap meet to look like artifacts of an alternate universe. Adler’s eye and ear for the peculiar are unmatched in American letters."
His description actually sounds quite appealing to me, but I don't always do well with narratives that don't follow a structure I am used to. I tend to feel adrift, or more often like I am sinking, in the story. If I begin feeling lost in the narrative, it makes me feel a little disoriented and that I am 'not getting it'.
So, back to my original question. How do you approach a book that is challenging? I'm determined to read Pitch Dark, and read it carefully and slowly. But how do I keep my bearings in the story and not feel adrift? And worse, lost? Maybe it would be beneficial to read the afterword first, which in this case is by Muriel Spark. I'm both a little apprehensive about reading this book and excited for the challenge. So this is my post as I begin reading. Maybe I'll let you know how it's going midway through, and can adjust my expectations accordingly. In the meantime, any advice is welcome.