Letters. The year began with letters. Well, emails. Jokey work emails that turned, somewhere along the line, to letters—getting-to-know-you letters, then, to love letters. I began to consider paragraph breaks. Thrilled to his name in my inbox. In a smoky restaurant in Mexico City I read one letter again and again, then handed my phone to friends and asked them to read it, asked if they heard what I heard.
I had not received such
letters in many years, and was out of practice.
I had recently moved from a single room in San Francisco where the only books I could keep close were those I taught. It was a year of rediscovering books I had known and not seen in a long time. Collections of poetry I had found in the stacks of now-gone Aardvark Books, the still-there Green Apple.
In winter, I sent him poems by Joanna Klink, poems of light and frost and estuary. He checked out books of poems from the library, sent phone pictures of pages to me: Kyle Dargan. Mary Oliver.
Friends sent me other poems, ones by Maria Hummel. Jon Davis. I saved everything. My phone ran out of room.
More emails. I planned a Summit, an endeavor as big and overshadowing as the word suggests. This required many many emails. Books languished, half-read, on my coffee table. (I am reading them now: among them, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, Peter Kline’s Mirrorforms). Too many browser tabs stayed open. Birthday cards and bills lay unsent on my desk. As if there were a different well of hours to draw from, I also worked to finish my own book. Read my own words over and over until sentences arrived to me on training runs and in dreams, and I understood they were complete.
In spring, he sat in my kitchen and read me Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.” Layli Long Soldier visited campus and read to us from Whereas, then a love poem from her phone.
At the beginning of summer, he found his old copy of The Wind in the Willows. (“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward.”)
Driving over a pass in the Rockies at the end of an August hailstorm, I read him the bewildering music of Anne Carson’s “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men.” (“From the shadows run mysterious ground lines down into my apparent heart.”) A story of image and estrangement, hers, but perhaps my campaign was one of foils. There we were in the same country. Were we not there to disprove her essay’s theorem?
On a stolen afternoon in fall, we packed sandwiches and library books and headed up Bear Jaw trail. Stolen from emails, I mean. High up in the aspens, I read Jane Hirshfield to him. (“If the leaves. If the rise of the fish”).
On the way back from the Chicago Marathon, I bought Susan Steinberg’s Machine in the airport bookshop, Barbara’s, all while holding the largest McDonald’s ice cream cone ever dispensed at O’Hare. Please patronize Barbara’s; they were very forgiving about the ice cream cone.
After he was asleep, I read Sharon Olds to myself.
On nights he wasn’t there, I thumbed through my old books for articulation, clues to this season. I found myself turning to persona poems (like Amy Gerstler’s Ghost Girl), stories of manners, inward-turned, jar-tight stories of being a woman, or an other woman, of the mind casting around in its now ill-fitting loneliness. Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark and Laurie Colwin’s “Animal Behavior.” I let myself be devastated by tenses (here, Adler’s narrator, Kate): “You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life.”
On nights he was there, he read to me from The Once and Future King, a book I taught long ago.
Well, so what? In certain houses, certain years of life, reading to someone and being read to is routine. The default even. But I had not lived in such a year, or house, for many. (“Until you brought me, casually, an hour,” Klink writes.)
Then he read to me. Some nights by headlamp, or perched on a rock over Oak Creek, but most in the plain confines of my beige-walled apartment by the light of an oil lamp he’d cleaned up and given me. Year of long return. Year of song, a voice that is not yours telling you a story. Year I was let back in to the original enchantment of reading a book: a shoulder, feeling the words begin in his chest, breath held as the page turns. A light nearby, not much more than a candle, waiting to be blown out.
This was a year of books of marvelous disappearance. I began with Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne: a catalogue of vanished writers that is also a paradoxical and seductive manifesto for the “literature of the No.” I read Haytham El-Wardany’s How to Disappear, translated by Jennifer Peterson and Robin Moger: a sustained immersion in sonic detail, in the endless sound of the city, that uses the form of a self-help book to explore alienation and failure. That probably sounds depressing, but in fact it’s exhilarating! So is Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, a small dense meteorite of a book about disappearing from home, womanhood, and even language. So is Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection When the Sick Rule the World, in which entire neighborhoods have vanished.
An uncanny year. I read, for the first time, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, with its wonderfully creepy long central chapter, the narrator escaping — from what, she doesn’t exactly know — across a dark Irish landscape that hums with paranoia. I reread Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer in the old Françoise Delisle translation, which I think is supposed to be a bad translation, but I really love it: that weird children’s party, the simultaneous sense of carnival and threat, and then, of course, the disappearance, the lost love. I was privileged to read, in advance of publication, Kate Zambreno’s incredibly tender Book of Mutter, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in 2017: a book about art and grief and how both create strange loops in time. I read Renee Gladman’s Calamities, which is really about appearance, not disappearance — the appearance of writing, the appearance of drawing — but still has a profoundly ghostly feel. It’s like a book of spells: so focused on the desire to conjure something, it becomes the song of what isn’t there.
I read, for the first time, Roland Barthes’s lectures on The Neutral, translated by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. How fantastic to think about a kind of disappearance that isn’t negative, but bubbles up like champagne foam! I read again, because I can’t stop reading it, Bhanu Kapil’s lush and harrowing Ban en Banlieue, in which a girl stops, evanesces, lies down on a sidewalk forever. I read Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which is about being sent, transported, about black church practices that cannot be owned but only collectively produced, that must be given away. This too is a kind of disappearance: an ecstatic dissolving of the subject so that a collectivity can come into being. In the communal shout, in the moan, one is no longer one but part of “an unbroken circle, a critical sociality of intense feeling.”
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In 2011, I spent Bloomsday at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. The store is a jewel box: two stories, stacked with books buried beneath more books. On the first floor, a piano room provides a corner for readers to hide in, beneath towering stacks of hardcover biographies. There’s the children’s section with a miniature bed draped in red velvet, a typewriter tucked into a booth along the hallway, and then the library, lined with benches and books, the windows cracked, framing Notre Dame and cherry branches. Because it was Bloomsday in the store named for the store that had originally published Ulysses, an artist had been commissioned to draw Joycean-inspired works. There were readings throughout the day and devotees drifted through.
I’d been living there as a tumbleweed for nearly three weeks. The tumbleweed program is unique at Shakespeare & Co and has been a feature of the store since it opened in 1951. In exchange for some hours of work, artists are allowed to sleep between the stacks, free of charge. Since the early days, the program has become a bit more defined. Tumbleweeds help open and close the store, as well as work for two hour scheduled shifts throughout the day. Since it was the middle of June, the store was packed. I was one of seven staying at the time, many of whom I already considered close friends.
That evening, the tumbleweeds hopped a cab to a lavish home where the store was hosting a party for their first Paris Literary Prize. The party was an aberration in the daily routines I’d become adjusted to: taking a shower in either the public showers on Ile de la Cité or in the third floor, doing my best not to splash water outside the tarp or incur the housekeeper’s wrath, also doing my best not to wake a sleeping George Whitman. Then I’d pull on jean shorts and a t-shirt, grab a book, wander along the Seine, help between the stacks of the store, run off to some park or some wine bar or some museum. I purchased a copy of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, the cover blue with a liquid woman and most of the pages paperclipped to keep them together. Most mornings, I woke early, bought a coffee and croissant, and read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital along the Seine, until it was time to make my way back for the store to open.
On Bloomsday, however, the tumbleweeds had been enlisted to help at the party. We were required to look presentable. We had to do our best not to smell like we’d been sleeping on the floor of Shakespeare & Co for weeks. We had to wear black dresses. I picked up mine for five euros from an H&M. The tumbleweeds poured champagne and refilled cheese plates, pausing to listen to toasts and an opera singer, stealing away to touch up lipstick next to the chic Parisians who put our pink shade to shame. Then, we got drunk on champagne and danced.
At the end of the night, there weren’t enough cars to get everyone back to the store. We were offered a choice: waiting thirty minutes for the next cab, or taking three free bottles of champagne. We took the champagne and we walked. It was a few miles, but we just had to stay on the one road and keep going. We drank straight out of the bottles. We held hands and exchanged secrets and skipped a few steps forward to turn and photograph ourselves: tipsy tumbleweeds in black dresses.
The bookstore has just released A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson, the biography reads like a multi-faceted oral history and is told in many layers: colored photographs, tumbleweed biographies, recountings from former employees and writers-in-residence. The story it tells is as varied, unique, and romantic as the shop is. It’s a difficult thing, to capture something as expansive as the history of Shakespeare & Co, but this history manages to come close.
At the center of the story is George Whitman. He opened the store, originally named Librairie le Mistral (“Le Mistral”), in 1951 on 37 rue de la Bucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame. He’d purchased the building — back then without electricity and fashioned like three long, railroad-style rooms — from an Algerian grocer looking to move out to the countryside with his family. Despite the building having been condemned for nearly a century, Whitman decided to go for it.
Over the next six decades, the store would go through many chapters. The events, in and of themselves, each seem larger than life: the Beat Generation infiltrating the store; the spies that circled it, applying for employment, during the Cold War; the years the shop was closed down because the Parisian authorities had finally figured out that Whitman didn’t have the appropriate permits; the filming of Jorge Luis Borges’s collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion, and then, years later, Ethan Hawke’s fictional book release in Before Sunset. The store has been at the center of riots and movements, with Whitman often leading the charge. He created a home for bohemians and wanderers in the middle of Paris. It didn’t always flourish, but the community grew, and when it came time to give back to the store, after a fire ravaged its shelves, benefits were held around the world. The list of authors that haunted the shop is formidable: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Jeanette Winters, among so many others.
Whitman, who died in December of 2011, had long wanted to write a history of the store. The title, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was his. He never got around to it, as easily distracted as he could be, but the story of Shakespeare & Co is his story to tell, and he told it to varying degrees of truthfulness. As is quoted on the back of the book, Whitman said: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
Whitman himself could seem like a larger-than-life character. I was lucky enough to meet him before he died. Even in his pajamas, his untameable white hair poking in every direction, he held a room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti described Whitman as a “romantic wanderer, the kind of wayward Walt Whitman carrying Coleridge’s albatross.” To Anais Nin, Whitman seemed “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell.” Allen Ginsberg said of him: “He’s a saint, lives on nothing, gives shelter to everybody. Helps young poets, too, but he’s very poor. Someone should do something for him. His only income came from books.”
Whitman told many that he considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to be about him. He hid money in books and then forgot where he’d put them. Sometimes he’d refuse to sell a book if he didn’t want to part with it. Once, he got it into his head that he wanted a pyrotechnic wishing well in the middle of the store. It was ill-planned and dangerous and someone else had to rush in and stop him from burning the shop down. Whitman was known to set his hair on fire if a reading was boring or if he needed a haircut. Other times, he’d interrupt a reading by tossing chicken down from the top floor for his dog to catch
When his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, started to help maintain the bookstore, doing her best to bring it into the 21st century, he resisted. He hated any attempt she made at modernity and did his best to sabotage her. If she alphabetized books, he’d come down after closing to return the store to its rightful disorder. He attacked the newly installed, no-longer-life-threatening stairs with a hammer, the same hammer he used to destroy the toilet Sylvia had installed. He literally stole the cash register under cover of night and, the next morning, pretended he had no clue of its whereabouts. Best guess: bottom of the Seine.
He also loved to tell stories about Shakespeare & Co, helping to imbue the shop with its own mythology. Whitman winked at a relation to Walt Whitman and an affair with Nin: “I might have loved her once.” In her journals, Nin wrote how Whitman had originally come to Paris to find a houseboat, inspired by her story, “Houseboat,” except that the books had mildewed, so “he moved as near to the river as possible, and often from his window, watching the river, he had the illusion he was living on a houseboat.” Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart appropriately sets this recounting aside, with a swift: “This story isn’t accurate.” More than likely, it’s a story Whitman told Nin.
At the beginning of Halverson’s attempts to collect these stories into a publishable history, she worked on the top floor of the shop, where Whitman used to live. She sorted through his papers, all kept in wine crates and plastic tubs. Many friends of the store came by, offering their own experiences and inquiring after stories they’d heard: “Did William Shakespeare really establish the shop while on vacation from playwriting in London? Was James Joyce buried in the building’s cellar?”
Halverson writes that “the story of Shakespeare and Company is not simply a set of facts and dates; it’s also a feeling, an emotion.” She “wanted to construct a book like a box of treasures that would be valuable both to those who know the shop well and to those who’ve only just learned of it.”
With A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, Halverson has managed that. The book is electric, dense with details and filled with the ephemera and lore and love one finds when stepping into the shop.
Each night at the bookstore felt like magic. There was the night we ran through the streets during Festival de la Musique, listening to terrible bands playing on street corners and getting drunk off bottles of red wine we clutched at the neck; there was the night we went as a group to a bar down a side street off of another side street where the bartender was a ninety-year-old woman who served bottles of one variety of beer and reserved most of her bar for sleeping birds and a fat cat leashed to the front door; there was the night we tried and failed to put on a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest. The tumbleweeds were all the same breed: young and eager, imaginative, strange, and kind. We all understood how lucky we were to be staying at the shop, and how singular those weeks would be. We did our collective best to make the most of them.
These tumbleweed biographies collected in this book are one facet of the “box of treasures,” offering a window into the store, through the eyes of those who have slept on its concrete floor. Helen Martin stayed at Shakespeare with her husband in 1951, right at the beginning, and made stew with George “right over the books.” Linda V. Williams was enlisted by Whitman to mind the store in the midst of the student revolution, only to find herself in charge of two Scandinavian girls being chased by the gendarmes. The 25-year-old Amanda Lewis stayed at the shop until the end of 2002: “I stayed exactly a month and slept in the children’s section surrounded by picture books and went to the soup kitchen and walked around looking at churches and drank red wine in the library and fell asleep at night in the middle of paragraphs and was so, so content.”
By the time I stayed there, Sylvia had taken over management of the shop. She and her then-fiancé, David, pushed me repeatedly to write my biography as my time at the store neared its end. I kept putting it off. I didn’t know what I could possibly say. I didn’t have a photograph to include, which was required, so a friend, Brit, and I ran off to Palais de Tokyo, where they had a photobooth. We each did an individual set, and then we did one together, vogueing behind editions of Bluets and Invisible Cities that we’d borrowed from the store.
It was my final day in the shop. I’d made plans with friends to drink wine and eat cheese on the Seine after the store closed down, but before I could do that, I had to fulfill my one last requirement as a tumbleweed. Back on the third floor and faced with a wall of binders filled with tumbleweed biographies, I sat down at the computer. I told a version of my story, as I’d been taught to do by the versions of the store’s story I’d heard while I was there.
Now my biography is one of the dozens included in A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Near the end, close to the present tense, a page is darkened with my typing, my solo photobooth mugs angled across the page. Kelsey Ford, aged 22, stayed at Shakespeare & Co between May 31 and June 24, 2011.
As George said, “All the characters in this bookstore are fictitious, so please leave your everyday self outside the door.” Shakespeare & Co is a store that houses stories. To become one of them is a small, special thing.
Image credit: Brit Bachmann
My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.
To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.
My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.
In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.
Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.
I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.
Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.
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Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old — a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea — to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style.
Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism.
1. She Is a Cautionary Tale
Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.
2. She Was Right About The New Yorker — Before She Was Wrong
Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?”
Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today — a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age?
3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished
Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse — to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books.
In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s:
[T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false.
“Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons — for whom Adler also has no great regard — was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity.
The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives — which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials — is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure.
“Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally — and this has served her well and at times not so well — her capacity for indignation.
Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold — if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway?
One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great.
4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One
Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now.
I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission — some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it.
And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf — and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove.
This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda — that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended:
Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment — the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant.
5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics
Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard — qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose.
6. Her Work Was Made to Last
Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times’s handling of the Jayson Blair affair:
[T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon — a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform.
In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them.
“After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.
This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we’d booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn’t come cheap; a week’s sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it’s worth it — not least because the house’s sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch’s old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf’s intrepid hero/ine surmounts, “For it must be remembered that… [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning…no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality.” I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush’s sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances — that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives didn’t just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page.
In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of “deep time,” a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf’s. Péter Nádas’s putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of…well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about — e.g, the 300-page sex scene — are in fact the opposite of erotic; they’re a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. “Unsubtle Bodies,” would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself — despite, perhaps, even Nádas — caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it’s just like them: it’s a masterpiece.
I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer’s row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride’s surprise National Book Award, but I’d like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass’s Middle C. Not only hasn’t Gass lost a step at age 88; he’s gained a register. One of Middle C’s deep motifs involves an “Inhumanity Museum,” but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter’s Luck.
Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It’s a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including “A Gift” and “Cymbalta” and “Bob,” and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own.
On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer’s rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens — yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York — into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith’s Just Kids isn’t technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n’ roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses.
Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days… I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent’s collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It’s John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it’s even Joseph Mitchell good.
I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer’s The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker’s The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution — specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn’t turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged.
As usual, I find myself running on well beyond “Year in Reading” length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I’ve talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron’s The Long March, or William T. Vollmann’s Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it’s starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we’ll always have Maine.
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Gary Indiana posits that “no current literary label appealingly describes the kind of narratives [Renata Adler’s] Speedboat and Pitch Dark are.” This might be true. However in the name of moving forward with discussion, perhaps we can all go with Matthew Spektor’s summation of Adler’s debut novel: “if it’s ‘like’ anything at all, a steeplechase of [dazzling] hurdles could be it.”