Thoughts on Renata Adler’s Fragmentary Fictions

A few months back I had the opportunity to interview Renata Adler for Bookslut. While I really enjoyed our conversation–and am really happy with how the piece turned out–I didn’t really get much chance to write about her novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark. So I figured I’d post a few words here.

1. As time goes on, I find myself more and more drawn to fragmentary writing—writing that works through the accumulation of images. The finest example of the style is probably Renata Adler’s novel Speedboat. Nominally the story of a journalist named Jen Fain, it appears as a sequence of short anecdotes, snatches of conversations, journalistic observations, and nuanced details of city life. A man steals his downstairs neighbor’s New York Times and is never heard from again. A narrator—maybe Jen Fain, maybe not—confides that she is a poor interviewer, someone—again, maybe Fain, maybe not—moves the story from narrative to critical essay, observing that “I recognize every literary style at once, and I detest them all.” It’s not always clear who is speaking, or what order things are happening in.

2. I enjoy this style of writing. But it does fight against a natural desire to see a story unfold more or less sequentially. As Adler herself put it in our interview, “one doesn’t want to be brought up short all the time.” Reading a work that is constantly doing this—even one as deftly arranged as Speedboat—requires care and attention. At the very least, the reader has to take her time and think. But there’s a real value in that—in really paying attention to what you are reading and how the text is creating meaning. Sometimes, I find myself drawn to texts that push me even harder. Fragmentary writing feels natural to me on some level, despite the attention it demands.

3. Speedboat in particular also appeals to me because I see it as a truly great New York novel (though not all of its action takes place there). Some of that is Ader’s eye for detail, some of that is the particular quality of some of the book’s characters (I’ll mention the newspaper thief again, if only because I’ve also seen that sort of thing happen), but a lot of it is that Adler’s fragmentary style really lends itself to describing city life.

4. My favorite quote about the city comes from The Great Gatsby: “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.” I like it largely because it’s that restlessness–common to all big cities, but particularly evident in New York (in part because its so much denser than other American cities)–that I most admire about the city. Adler’s fragmentary style captures that restlessness, that unsettledness, better than almost any other narrative technique.

5. To be sure, that technique is not specific to her writing about New York. Most of Pitch Dark, which is also quite fragmentary, takes place outside the city–it’s too most memorable scenes (an encounter with a trapped raccoon and a long, winding road trip–take place in Connecticut and the Irish countryside, respectively. And both books encompass a lot more than just insights on city life. But I still think of them, both of them, as truly great New York novels.

I have more to say, but that seems like enough for now. You can check out my interview with Adler here.

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Thoughts on Werther and “A Lover’s Discourse”

One of the reasons I wanted to restart the blog is I missed having a place to sort through ideas about books that I read, without writing full-on essays about them. One thing I wanted to try is to put together skeletal, more fragmentary posts that record certain ideas and impressions, without necessarily exploring them as fully as possible–“blog as notepad.” This is a bit of an experiment on my part, an attempt to use the format of the blog to create a different kind of writing than I usually do. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

I recently got done reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse back-t0-back. The two are related–“love” sits at the center of both works, and much of Barthes’s book is given over to the discussion of Werther and his story. Since A Lover’s Discourse is a seminal “fragmentary” work, I figured this would be a good place to start my digital notebook…

1. Werther falls in love with a woman named Charlotte. She is engaged to (and eventually marries) someone else. Werther leaves for a time, but ultimately returns. Eventually he commits suicide. This is an inadequate summary–and the book encompasses much more than this–but ultimately, this is his story in its most basic sense.

2. Barthes quotes Andre Gide saying of Werther “I had forgotten how long it took him to die…He keeps going on and on until you want to give him a push, right into the grave.” Barthes calls this comment “silliness,” but in put in mind of the inevitability of Werther’s situation. Once he returns to Charlotte’s village, there is a certain inevitability to his ending. In effect, Wether’s decision to return is his decision to die. And so, in one sense, he does die slowly.

3. In Kafka’s The Trial there is a famous scene where Joseph K learns the parable “Before the Law.” In the parable, a man from the country tries to gain admission to the law. He waits before the door of the law, which is opened, but guarded. Over time he attempts to persuade the guard to let him in–eventually giving up all his worldly possessions in the process. The guard accepts these bribes only as a matter of course, telling the man “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.” (Needless to say, the man never passes through the door.)

4. Werther, like that man, omits nothing. He returns to Charlotte, knowing she is already married. He visits her, even after she has expressly told him not too. His end is set as soon as he makes the decision to return. It is hard not to see him as someone who has decided to see things through to the end, though he already knows the end. I am tempted to say Werther dies as soon as he returns to the village, and the rest of his story is posthumous (in effect if not in fact), though that isn’t really true. He simply sees his story through to the end; no one can say that he didn’t see things through to the end.

5. What strikes me most is how much more I prefer A Lover’s Discourse to Werther; it’s not just that I enjoy the book more aesthetically–ultimately, Barthes discusses love in terms that veer closer to my own. I recognize a certain manner of thinking about love, the way the book both immerses itself in love and yet holds love at a certain distance.

6. Barthes also omits (almost) nothing. His book looks at every word or phrase associated with a lover’s discourse (“I love you,” “alone,” “compassion,” obscene,” etc.).

7. The difference between the two is the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Werther enacts the story of love–Werther’s discourse in some respects presents himself as love–where Barthes ruminates over love, or more precisely over the language of love.

8. I have traditionally preferred fiction to nonfiction for precisely this reason–it seems more visceral, more rooted in the emotionally “real” moment. The story. The essay (and ALD is an essay first and foremost) is more indirect. Rather than embody his subject, Barthes picks it up, looks at it, thinks it over. And yet, there is just as much feeling in ALD as there is in Werther. It just appears at different angles. Reading the two in succession, I find those angles more compelling, more realistic. I don’t know if they shed more light on “love” (as if that were the point), but they do offer more consolation for the anxieties, pains, and confusion that love often engenders.

9. Werther’s story is so much his own–his story so set–that there is little room for the reader to think differently. We watch Werther, we feel with Werther, but we don’t add much to Werther. Barthes’s angles leave the reader more space. They let the reader think. There is no spectacle in Barthes, pulling us out of ourselves.

10. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on fiction (far from it). Or that I don’t think Werther is compelling (it is). I’m only noting that by reading the two back to back, I realized that I’ve undervalued the essay as a form. Which is an odd realization–especially since for quite some time now, writing essays has been more interesting to me than writing fiction. But there it is.