“Pitch Dark” by Renata Adler

“Pitch Dark” by Renata Adler  (1983) – 149 pages


“We watched The Newlywed Game. The moderator had just asked the contestant, a young wife from Virginia, What is your husband’s least favorite rodent? “His least favorite rodent,” she replied, drawling serenely and without hesitation. “Oh, I think that would have to be the saxophone.”

If the above lines from “Pitch Dark” make perfect sense to you,  this novel may be for you.

When I saw that New York Review books (NYRB) was releasing both “Speedboat” and “Pitch Dark” by Renata Adler, I must admit I was surprised.  I read “Speedboat” back when it came out in 1976, and I was tremendously charmed by it like nearly every other reader was.  However “Pitch Dark” was a different story.  That novel had more than its share of negative or so-so reviews.   I decided not to read the novel then.  If the reviews had been at all good, I probably would have read it based on how much I liked “Speedboat”.

There was one significant positive review of “Pitch Dark” when it first came out in 1981.  That was the New York Times review written by Muriel Spark which is now the Afterword of the novel.  There are few people whose opinion on a novel I would trust more than Spark, but that rule did not hold true in this case.

Most of the recent reviews have reviewed both of the books together and have been extremely favorable toward both books  and have the tone of being valedictory toward Adler.

Having a strong positive view of the books NYRB publishes, I finally read “Pitch Dark” now.  The ‘plot’ of the novel or what there is of it is about Kate Ennis who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because she is breaking up with her married lover Jake.  This seems to be the main theme of Chapter 1, but Jake is dropped and never mentioned in Chapter 2 when Kate takes a car trip through Ireland.  There she has a fender-bender with a big truck, and she is enormously paranoid that all the Irish are out to screw the insurance company.  She says some really awful mean things about the Irish which I won’t repeat here.   Kate, like Renata Adler, is extremely blunt.   Kate is deeply disturbed throughout her Irish trip.   Chapter 3 is sort of like Chapter 1, but even less coherent and penetrable.

The entire novel is introspective and is essentially an interior monologue.  I found  “Pitch Dark” to be extremely murky and disjointed.  It was not a pleasant or meaningful read for me on any level.   There were a few scenes that held my interest but nothing tying them together.   There are no memorable characters in the novel besides Kate Ennis herself.   After reading some of Adler’s own review criticism, I feel more comfortable with my own negative words on “Pitch Dark”.   After all, Adler said the following about the movie ‘Green Beret’ starring John Wayne – “so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail.”  I probably would agree with her on ‘Green Beret’ but maybe not with those words.    Of the writings of Pauline Kael, Adler wrote that it was, “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. “

“Pitch Dark” was Renata Adler’s last novel.  Since 1981 she has written solely non-fiction.

By all means read the delightful “Speedboat”, but to quote Adler’s own words from another movie review, ‘I think you ought to skip’ “Pitch Dark”.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Fascinating, Tony. I have both books in original paperback versions from the ’70s. The ’70s is a decade that “dates”: I have no idea why, but often when I go back and try Erica Jong, etc., I have a feeling that the language was for that time only.

    I did read a fascinating book by her: Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker.

    Perhaps I’ll reread Speedboat.


  2. Hi Kat,
    I agree, the Seventies is a decade that dates. Then came Thatcher and Reagan, and we’ve been stuck in that mode ever since. Maybe some day we’ll get out of the rut.
    I pretty much agree with the world view of Renata Adler, and it does look like her non-fiction would be fascinating. But as a novel ‘Pitch Dark’ didn’t work for me.


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