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.