Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

Back in the summer of 2014, I read Renata Adler’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Speedboat (1976), a book that narrowly missed out on a place in my highlights at the end of that year. Pitch Dark was her follow-up to Speedboat, published some seven years later in 1983.

Just like its predecessor, Pitch Dark features a first-person narrative relayed in a fragmentary, non-linear style. The narrator, Kate Ennis – a journalist by profession – is in the process of breaking up with her lover of eight years, a non-committal married man named Jake. At various points during their affair, Kate has expressed a desire to go away with Jake for a few days, a weekend of rest and relaxation; Jake, for his part, always seemed somewhat reluctant to commit.

Sometimes, you said, I will, we’ll do that. Once or twice, you said, We’ll see. It became a sort of joke between us, that weekend. Sometimes it was reduced to just dinner at a restaurant in Pennsylvania, not far from the place where you sometimes spend a few days fishing; but we never went there, either. Other dinners, not that one. And it began to matter. I don’t know why. A child’s thing. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can say, as a not inconsiderable man to a grown woman, We’ll see. (pp. 38-39)

The book is divided into the three sections, the first and third of which are fairly similar in style, both featuring vignettes from various points in Kate’s life intercut with reflections on the nature of her relationship with Jake. In this respect, she adopts an analytical, self-reflective approach, frequently questioning herself about their time together.

Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away? (p. 15)

You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life. (p. 22)

Was there something I did, you think, or might have done. I ask you that, some thing I did not do, and might have done, that would have kept you with me yet a while? (p. 44)

I wonder whether he will ever ask himself, say to himself, Well, she wasn’t asking all the earth, why did I let her go? (p. 28)

The first two quotes (along with a couple of others) recur throughout these sections of the novel creating a sort of loop, returning to and building on earlier conversations as the narrative unfolds. The vignettes are wide-ranging and diverse, featuring stories of friends and acquaintances, musings on various subjects from American football to the finer points of law, and most affecting of all, the tale of a sick raccoon that takes shelter in Kate’s barn.

The middle section is perhaps the most compelling – a relatively self-contained account of Kate’s brief trip to Ireland, an experience shot through with a strong sense of foreboding, paranoia and fear. While en route to a remote castle in the Irish countryside, Kate grazes a truck with her car, a hired vehicle from a rental agency. On noticing the car rental sticker, the truck driver decides to confer in private with a local policeman who then proceeds to tell Kate that everything has been taken care of. Kate, quite correctly as it turns out, suspects that some kind of scam is afoot, especially when the other driver is reluctant to exchange licence numbers. Nevertheless, she continues on her way to the castle where the welcome she receives is rather brusque, to say the least. The retreat’s owner, an ambassador, has assured Kate that his staff will take care of her. ‘Talk to them, the ambassador had said, they are a friendly people.’  As it turns out, they are anything but. On her arrival, Kate is virtually ignored by the cook and the housekeeper – the latter is particularly obtuse in her treatment of this guest, particularly when asked for directions to a nearby house.

The strained visit ends with an anxious drive through the night as Kate attempts to get to Dublin to catch a morning flight out of the country. In her lack of familiarity with the Irish roads, Kate takes a wrong turn somewhere, a diversion that leaves her perilously short of petrol. As a consequence, she must rely on the assistance of an unfamiliar lorry driver (‘her teamster’) in finding her way to the capital. Haunted by the incident with the earlier truck driver, Kate is convinced that the authorities must be on her trail – every light and every vehicle seems to pose a potential threat to her safety.

Then, when I had stopped and turned around, there were those headlights coming toward me, the first car I had seen in more than twenty minutes; and I thought, Could the police have alerted one another, in every little town along the way, ever since I set out from the castle, dropping my key in the intense dark at Cihrbradàn, and could this be another of their agents, sent to follow me out of the station at Castlebar? Not so paranoid a thought as that, for many reasons; not least, because the police in this country must be accustomed to following nightriders of all descriptions, Protestants, Catholics, gunrunners, suppliers, enemies, members, betrayers of the IRA. And then, of course, I was following my teamster. But what grounds to trust him after all? (p. 51)

Pitch Dark is a book about love and longing, about what is left and what might have been. In some ways, Kate seems to be reaching out to Jake, communicating on paper some of the thoughts and feelings she has been unable to express in person. At one point in the story, there is a blurring of the margins between the author and the narrator, a move that left me wondering how much of Kate Ennis was based on Adler’s own personal experiences. Either way, it is a difficult book to capture in a review, one that is almost certainly best to experience in person. While the style of Pitch Dark might not appeal to everyone, it does serve as an intriguing companion piece to Adler’s earlier novel, Speedboat. This is another perceptive, erudite piece of work by Renata Adler – all credit to NYRB Classics for publishing it.

48 thoughts on “Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, Speedboat is terrific. I think you’d like it a great deal. Adler is one of those writers you’re happy to follow wherever she takes you. A wonderful prose stylist.

      Reply
  1. Tredynas Days

    I read Speedboat a while back & resisted it at first. Preparing a post on it enabled me to overcome that resistance- it’s brilliant. I’ve skimmed your review as I shall certainly read this one some time, but from what I’ve read here it sounds very similar

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does take a while to fall into step with her style and sense of rhythm, that’s for sure. While I didn’t love this as much as Speedboat, I did like it a great deal, the central part in particular – it seemed the strongest, most compelling section of the book.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    Based on your description this sounds very good. I tend to like stories with non linear narratives. The way that you described the Irish segment makes it sound fascinating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. It’s an unusual one, very fragmented in terms of style – but then again, that fits with Kate’s situation and frame of mind. The trip to Ireland is definitely the most compelling section in the book – it has a tension or sense of momentum which sets it apart from the rest of the narrative.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    Sounds interesting. What does the central section have to do with the rest of the book? Or is that something we have to read the novel to find out?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, having read the whole novel, I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to that! There are various points in the book when the timeline isn’t entirely clear, and this is one of them. I think it takes place when Kate needs some time away from Jake in order to clear her head. As a section on its own, it works brilliantly. In fact its very cinematic – I could see it playing out as a short movie in my head.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Speedboat is the one I would recommend, definitely. She’s not a million miles away from Joan Didion, so you might find her interesting in that respect.

      Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    It doesn’t sound as strong as Speedboat certainly. The strength of the mid-part also makes it sound a bit structurally imbalanced.

    A definite perhaps rather than a definite definitely I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A definitely maybe – I think that’s a fair assessment, Max. While I would love to hear your take on it, that isn’t a strong enough reason on its own for me to try to sell it to you. It is a strange one from a structural perspective as the middle section is so tense and gripping, a mood that seems largely absent from the rest of the book. I could have happily read a lot more about that trip to Ireland and the various threads it set in motion…ah, well. That said, the writing is excellent throughout, and the observations interesting (she seems to have a journalist’s eye for detail). An intriguing read, if not an entirely satisfying one.

      Reply
  5. buriedinprint

    I’ve had these two on my TBR for a couple of years now, but I hadn’t really imagined reading them as companion pieces (well, only vaguely, in the sense one does with any author’s multiple works) but it sounds like they truly would make for a fascinating pair. (And perhaps leave one craving a good solid plot on the other side of them, but never mind.) What would we do without NYRB to land so many good books on our TBRs?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there are some parallels between the two – stylistically they definitely feel like the work of the same writer – but then again, there are differences too. The lack of a strong plot line is a potential downside, but it seems to be more of an issue here than in Speedboat – or maybe I should qualify that by saying I missed it more in Pitch Dark.

      She’s an interesting writer, definitely worth reading – let me know what you think when you get a chance to give her a try!

      Reply
  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Reading your reviews of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, I think I prefer Speedboat, and if I am not mistaken, so do you. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the structure and setup you describe appeal all that much to me, but the quotes you include are beautiful. And it is always hard to resist an NYRB cover like the one in your picture….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the quotes, TJ. The writing is excellent throughout, really beautiful – she’s a wonderful prose stylist. The cover image is taken from ‘Las Mayas’ by the American artist Helen Frankenthaler. It’s not dissimilar to some of Jackson Pollack’s work, don’t you think?

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I had a look too. Her work is fascinating and very appealing. I think the cover of Speedboat features another of her pieces, Tutti Frutti.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Speedboat is definitely the stronger of the two, Ali. I would be fascinated to see what you think of this writer’s work as her books are quite different to other more conventional novels. I guess one could describe them as collection of vignettes, experiences and observations as opposed to narrative or character-driven works.

      Reply
  7. Emma

    Great review, Jacqui.

    I have to ask something about the first quotes: Is this use of commas common? The rythm of these sentences sounds more French than English to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. It is quite unusual. Her prose has a very distinctive rhythm, especially in the passages where she is reflecting on her relationship with Jake. You know it’s interesting you should say the rhythm sounds quite French to you as something about Adler’s prose reminded me of the writing in Delphine de Vigan’s book about her mother, Nothing Holds Back the Night. Even though the subject matter is somewhat different here, the style or rhythm of the prose is similar – almost as though it would benefit from being read aloud.

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    I enjoyed Speedboat immensely, and hadn’t been aware of Pitch Dark until your review here. Thanks for the pointer. It sounds like it’s a less impactful read than Speedboat but still compelling in its own way. What I remember most about Speedboat is how it kind of etched under the skin, even whilst individual sections might not have been especially memorable or even interconnected. Is there a similar experience here or is the narrative more straightforward?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know it’s really difficult to explain! In some ways, the narrative is more straightforward here, especially in the middle section of the book as it’s linear and fairly self-contained; but then again, the book as a whole feels more disjointed. Max made a good point earlier when he said that the structure seems somewhat out of balance. I think he’s right about that. It’s almost as if that middle section overshadows everything else. Do you think you’ll read it, Belinda? I would be fascinated to hear what you make of it.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I may well read it; I enjoyed Adler a great deal when I read her last time. It looks like they have Pitch Dark at my library so I’ll add it to my list and hopefully will get around to it soon.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great! She’s well worth reading. I would definitely recommend Speedboat ahead of this one. As others have commented, it might take you a little while to catch Adler’s rhythm, but once you do it will get under your skin. She’s one of those writers you’re happy to follow wherever she takes you. Even if I didn’t love Pitch Dark as much as Speedboat, I did find it very intriguing.

      Reply
  9. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    Sounds fascinating. I think I am not a big fan of the fragmented style. I recently read Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg and I kept thinking I would have enjoyed the book more had I read the chapters as seperate articles instead of a single book. But then, there is always an eagerness to try out a new author and see if her style of fragmented writing would work for you.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know what you mean about these fragmentary novels as they can be a bit hit or miss. Speedboat is by far my favourite of those I’ve read to date; I think the quality of the writing, coupled with an underlying sense of unease with the world, carries it through. Dept of Speculation, on the other hand, didn’t do a lot for me. So many other readers loved it though – so much so that I feel out on a limb with that one.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I didn’t seem to take to Speedboat quite as much as everyone else so I’ve not been tempted by this – especially as it doesn’t sound as good. I’m not entirely convinced her non-linearity is a stylistic choice!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I didn’t think this would be one for you Grant as I had remembered your disenchantment with Speedboat from our previous discussions about this author. She’s not for everyone, that’s for sure!

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I will read Speedboat some day. Thus one sounds like I would find it interesting but I would probably not love it. That middle section sounds like a story in a story. Like Max, I find it makes it sound imbalanced.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you will enjoy Speedboat a great deal. Interestingly, I much preferred it to Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, which I know you liked a lot. It’ll be interesting to see what you think of the Adler in comparison to some of these other vignette-style narratives.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I don’t know if you’s like them, Guy. It’s hard to say. Maybe take a look at a sample of Speedboat on the kindle to see how you fare?

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. She’s definitely worth reading. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of her. In some ways, she reminds me of Joan Didion – but then again, there is something different about Adler’s style, something unique. It’s hard to explain.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s