Star Turn

Peter Campbell

  • Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
    Hamish Hamilton, 144 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 241 11313 X

This is a complicated novel but a simple story. Kate is having an affair, has been for years, with Jake. It seems to be over:

He knew that she had left him when she began to smoke again ... Years ago, he had smoked, but not when they met. So she stopped, as people do when they are in love ... Long after that, she began to smoke again.

But then another voice breaks in:

  So he knew she had left him?

  Not knew, not left. Not right away, or just at first.

  Why don’t you begin then with at first?

  Look, you can begin with at first, or it seems, or once upon a time.

  Or in the city of P.

  Or in the city of P. In the rain. But I can’t. It is not what I know how to do.

  Well, you must get these things straight, you know, resolve them in your mind before you write them down.

Such conversations punctuate the book. They explain why the story will not advance as other stories do, and are themselves the rocks which disturb its flow. In omitting names and quotation-marks they make distinctions ambiguous. Who is telling who to get things straight?

The narrative is one of flight and return. Events in serial order might go like this: Kate, leaving Jake, wants to go to some place by the sea. She goes to Orcas Island. She investigates suicide: ‘Long after I wrote to London Exit, I heard from Los Angeles Hemlock.’ She is lent a house in Ireland and goes there (although it is not clear whether this is before or after the ‘leaving’ which begins the book). The central section describes the Irish stay: a small accident, and growing anxiety about her crime (although what the crime was she cannot remember), drive her to subterfuges and a dash away from taciturn servants and oblique encounters. Her behaviour is more than agitated, less than mad. The menace which is inherent in her being a woman on her own in an isolated house in a strange country (Daphne Du Maurier out of Patricia Highsmith) is exploited in scenes where it seems things are going on which are being kept from her – but is she imagining it? Then she is in London. There are phone calls about a reconciliation. Later what we have been reading is read by Jake. In the last section the themes are so interwoven that ‘when?’ and ‘where?’ must be inferred circumstantially.

The conflict between storytelling and true description, making sense of life (which is like a story) or making life into a story so that you can make sense of it, are matters which Kate’s paragraphs bring to one’s attention. And there is the matter of her distresses, and whether they are hers alone, or the world’s. She writes with the delicacy and caution of a drunk keeping his balance, of a neurotic wary of a recurring mania, of someone who knows the world is aslant, but is unsure if the slant is universal. It makes many questions unrhetorical: ‘Did I throw the most important thing perhaps by accident away?’ ‘How could I know that every time you had a choice you would choose the other thing?’ In a world of deceptive appearances assumptions result in sad stories: ‘I thought,’ she says of a raccoon, that ‘he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying. So are we all, of course. But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.’ She is clever, but seems less successful in action than less clever people. Seeing the truth may make you an incompetent Cassandra or holy fool when the code which turns knowing into action is faulty.

Scraps of conversation or memories define and exemplify the quality of the love affair. In the chapter about the stay in Ireland there are fewer of them, and in the first and last sections the interjections do not punctuate a narrative, but come between stories which have in common only the fact that most involve a misunderstanding or a miscalculation. Some of these tales are, like the narrative, fragmented. Some are not fully-formed anecdotes, but memories (of intolerable conversations, of a crying child denied, of dredging a pond, of an infestation of tent caterpillars), or are essays on the oddity of life (a consideration of the shower curtain in the gymnasia of girls’ colleges, of the American passport, of the mendacity, exemplified from the narrator’s own experience, of intimate journals). Some are conversations or encounters with social and political themes. These fragments are not thoughts passing through the narrator’s mind: they are her mind.

Kate, the sole substantial character, must – from time to time at least – be supposed to be different from the author. Within the story Kate’s writing may be a therapeutic exercise, or part of her running from or to Jake. Has she, on the other hand, any thoughts of which Adler would say: ‘That is how Kate thinks, I of course differ’? The book seems too clever for that. Kate’s paragraphs have not been filed down to fit her character. It is as though Becky Sharp had become Thackeray, cut the puppet strings, and taken over the show. Problems of storytelling (not just of telling her own story) are Kate’s concern:

   The relation between storytelling and eroticism is always close ... For a woman it is always, don’t you see, Scheherazade. For a man it may be the Virginian. There he goes, then, striding through the dust of midday towards his confrontation. Here I am, of an evening, wondering whether I can hold his interest yet awhile.

Scheherazade told tales in earnest. Like the refugee at the frontier or the spy in the enemy camp, her life depended on them. And Adler’s narrator, who only lives if the reader goes on reading, seems to say, ‘If you don’t go away I will tell you about ... ’, and we do not put the book down, but say, ‘Very well, Scheherazade, just one more night,’ and are rewarded by something extraordinary: our attention having been held, we find, growing up between the slabs of exposition and slivers of dialogue, a picture, in stereoscopic depth, of the pains of love.

In this mosaic each item stands on its own. It is not, as the Irish episode shows, that ordinary structures are really ‘not what she knows how to do’, but that her appetite for invention is not as strong as her fastidiousness about muddying clear perceptions. But it is also a matter of style. The intelligence and allusiveness of Pitch Dark call attention to the way of telling, which has a fine Modernist pedigree, and is evasive as well as allusive. It is not surprising to find the opening sentence of one of Nabokov’s stories so pleases her. ‘And in the second place because,’ she writes, ‘is how the Nabokov story starts, and I hate the artifice, but it is a star turn. I mean, what a star turn, what a triple coup to begin a story thus, with “And”, when nothing at all has gone before, with “in the second place”, when there has been no first place, with “because”, when there has been no why and there will be no indication what, what thing, what happening, what act, what state of mind, will follow on account of that because.’ One applauds her own star turns, which also create an antecedent world lying outside the time of the story.

But why these games with time and space, this pretence of a refusal to take responsibility for the story? The conventions of fiction are not true to the texture of experience, are particularly untrue to the way thoughts come and go, but they have on the whole proved more than adequate to sad love affairs. It is not that this story is too difficult for the traditional forms to express it, but that the form it is in can carry a freight of observations shaped to no particular character, and give substance to lives shorn of the structure-giving ties of class, society and family. This is a novel without parents and children, without masters and servants, without wealth and poverty, where the pains of love are unmitigated by the pleasures of obligation.

It works so well, the intricacy of the surface is so pleasing, the accuracy of the language so striking, that ordinary questions – about the narrator as a character, for instance – at first hardly impinge. But eventually irritation begins to colour feelings about Kate. Why put up for all those years with a man who cannot even find a week to take you to New Orleans? Why, when you are so intelligent, explain your self-destructiveness as though nothing was in your control? Why indulge your taste for sitting on rotten boughs and complain when they break beneath you? The abrogation of the conventions which distinguish writer and character spread this tetchiness. Kate’s inability to make her life work and the book’s inability to tell you things plainly begin to grate.

A great deal has been written about the artificiality of storytelling, and the need for non-serial and fragmented modes which break limiting conventions. But the seventy-odd-year history of Modernism seems to show that, when new manners replace old ones, gains in content communicated on one level are cancelled out by a loss of information at another. In Cubism, for example, the problem was that when you had fragmented the scene no one knew what the bits were unless the subject was very obvious. Thus the guitars and fruit bowls. The trouble with Surrealism was that the painter’s strange juxtapositions, reinterpreted by others, might have a meaning quite different from his. The trouble with Pitch Dark is like those troubles, and its pleasures, too, are those of making a whole out of a selection of views, parts, memories. Adler has cut her story up and made a patchwork from the pieces.

‘Do I need to stylise it, then, or can I tell it as it was?’ she/Kate asks on page one. And about a hundred pages later she asks:

But will they understand it if I tell it this way?

Yes they will. They will surely understand it.

But will they care about it?

That I cannot guarantee.

Is it stylised? Well no, it is told as it was – but it is mannered, and hard to understand because of that. Some of the mannerisms – refusals to explain and connect – make the story more interesting, as a hard crossword puzzle is more interesting than an easy one. Some make it more real, for life is full of randomness which fiction, even at its most picaresque, cannot mirror when there is a plot toward. But some of it is a way of refusing to admit the ordinariness of the tale itself, the moral vacuousness of the situation. So in the end we care less than we expected, and find the book is like the friend who hints at an amazing revelation, but who, when the time for telling comes, will not be plain because she fears the facts will not live up to the promise.