I don't mind a good challenge now and again, but it's with a little sigh of relief (if I can be honest) that I turned the last page of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the book very much but less as an entertainment than an exercise, if you get my meaning.
"Renata Adler's novel Pitch Dark, like her first work of fiction, Speedboat, is a genre unto itself, a discontinuous first-person narrative. Miss Adler's mind is analytical and her style ebullient. She also has an old-fashioned real story to tell, a love story, although it is by no means told plain. You have to piece it together as you would if you had picked up a stranger's private journal. You have to read between the lines (the lines themselves are another sort of entertainment) and snatch at hints and fragments until the whole becomes clear, and the character of the narrator is filled out by the honest expression of her feelings, her opinions and pensées, her daily experiences, always with an edge of desperation."
Oops. Did you catch that? In her afterword, Muriel Spark notes the 'reading between the lines' is another sort of entertainment. That's okay. There were moments/aspects of the novel that were entertaining. I waited to read the afterword until after, but mostly out of sheer laziness and the fact that I had built up momentum and didn't want to stop the flow of reading the story. I was happy to see that, while a challenging read for me, I wasn't quite as lost as I thought. I caught on to quite a bit, Spark clarified a few things, and shed light on a few more.
Since this is a story told in fragments, you'll forgive me if my post, too, is presented in fragments. One inspires the other, right? Pitch Dark is broken into three sections. The second has the most straightforward narrative and quite a ride it was, too, which is only fitting considering the story she was telling.
The first and third sections were definitely fragmentary, a little disorienting and required notetaking on my part. My notes are a hodge podge of facts and ideas, so let me try and make sense of them. Kate Ennis, rather like Adler herself, is a journalist. She's been in an unsatisfying love affair with a married man and has broken it off. I got the sense that Jake, her lover, dumped her, but as he wants her back by the end, maybe it was Kate who did the dumping. Her relationship with Jake was unsatisfying, more of a 'take' than 'give' sort of situation at least on his part. At one point Kate thinks that all the joy and beauty of his life were things of which she had no part. They never even managed to spend an entire week together. Over the course of the novel it's this relationship, this love affair that is central to what Kate is thinking.
The story is told in first person, It's Kate who is the "I", or is it? But more about that in a minute. Along with her failed love affair she shares many other reminiscences. In the first part she talks/or is thinking about her years as a grad student, her friends at university, about her trip to Orcas Island off the coast of Washington where a raccoon wedged its way into one of her walls and then goes on to die. The last section resembles the first but it has much more of a journalistic tilt to the stories she tells. The fragments are almost ruminations on current events--on law and government, on legal matters, history, even on the outlawing of handguns, which is pretty timely. Pitch Dark, by the way was published in 1983.
The middle section, for me, flowed the most naturally. She travels to Ireland for a visit at the invitation of the ambassador. She rents a car and has a mishap--dinging a truck along the way. She owns up to it, but what happens next is a little surreal (or maybe just paranoid at first glance). The owner of the truck and the local police seem not to terribly concerned about the accident, though they've noted the rental sticker and by story's end it's obvious they decide to milk the insurance company for more than the worth of the car. Kate doesn't know that and believes she has simply run afoul of the law. It's a mad ride through Ireland with Kate looking over her shoulder at every turn. She's removed the sticker from the car and then worries it'll be seen as a cover up on her part even though she tried to pay the truck's owner for the damage. She goes so far as to plan on leaving the country under an assumed name. Spark called it a "superb piece of nightmare writing", and it did have thriller-ish moments. I had hopes it would descend into a good crime story, so you see it had its moments.
Adler uses lots of repetition throughout the course of the novel, which I tried to note and tie to the themes, though I had less success and had to turn to Muriel Spark for a little illumination on intention. Actually I'm still not entirely sure about intentions, but I do think this aspect is quite clever and like Adler's play on the text. Kate Ennis is the "I" of the story, but author and character merge at one point. When Kate is thinking up names she can use at the airport, she wants something similar to her own that will be easy to remember yet not her own at all. She first thinks Alder, which made me wonder (since Kate's last name is Ennis) just who the "I" really was. There are parallels between Kate the character and Renata the journalist (from what little I know of the latter). All through the text she (Adler would write and Kate would think) the refrain would be--"Whose voice is that. Not here. Not mine." (Or a similar riff anyway).
"Does Miss Adler meant to suggest that she herself is Kate Ennis? Illogical characters are fine, but this has the effect of professional illogic. It breaks the fiction, and, for a brief moment, we have autobiography."
Spark believes the question a work like this poses to the reader is, what is a novel? "There is no absolute definition, but certainly, to some extent, a novel is a representation of the author's vision of life." So you see this is a novel that (for me anyway) takes some puzzling out. I don't know that I've figured it all out, but it's certainly been an interesting ride! And as often happens in my reading, I find it's after I have finished a book--when I've had a chance to mull it over a little and maybe read something more about it (like Spark's enthusiastic afterword), that I discover I have a much greater appreciation for what an author set out to do in their work. It was a challenge at times, but challenges are good now and again, right.I've tentatively picked up Anna Segher's Transit for my next NYRB read. I've also got Paul Hazard's The Crisis of the European Mind (a very hefty nonfiction read), and Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel waiting for me as well. Before I delve too far into any of them, however, I need to turn my attention to my Meville House novellas for a bit. I've started Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room and am looking forward to getting back to the story. A challenge of a different sort.