Pitch Dark​, ​we've been compelled to ask: Why write a novel in bits and pieces? What can facts and fragments tell us that a linear narrative couldn't?

"/> Notes on the Fragmented Novel: Renata Adler's Pitch Dark — The Airship
By Misha Grunbaum

First, the idea of a fragment. Then the idea of a novel in fragments. Somehow echoing the heterogeneity of real life and love.

If a novel were a piece of art hung on a wall, this would not be a simple photograph nor painting, but a mosaic. Renata Adler's Pitch Dark is filled with fragments that might well be shards of photographs, or shards of glass showing the scene beyond the wall, or shards of a mirror reflecting back the reader's mind.

"We were running flat out," the narrator of Pitch Dark begins. "The opening was dazzling. The middle was dazzling. The ending was dazzling." And then she goes back again and again: "The truth was, there was something in the ice cube"; "I broke the law, perhaps I ought to confess this at the start;" even asking, "Why don't you begin then with at first?"

If those are the beginnings, where are the ends? Maybe Pitch Dark only ends in the minds of its readers. This is a novel of ellipses, of scattered thoughts and incomplete stories. We hear references to "the Sanger people," "the matter of the Irish thing," "the scandal at the tennis courts," and wait for the full story to emerge. Sometimes, especially in the case of Jake--the man with whom the narrator is having an affair, the reason she is running away to desolate islands and driving down pitch-dark roads--the clues are so oblique that we must infer from the gaps what has actually come to pass.

David Markson did the same thing in Wittgenstein's Mistress. Amy Hempel, too, with "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried." And Renata Adler joins the two in drawing inspiration from Wittgenstein's epigrammatic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which begins, "The world is everything that is the case" immediately followed by, "The world is the totality of facts, not of things."

But perhaps facts are not what these authors are after. Emotions, maybe, or components of an individual consciousness.

"Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?" the narrator Kate Ennis repeatedly asks herself, and so we wait for that important, final piece to complete the picture of her life. Until then, Kate's thoughts and questions pull us along from a late-night experience with a dying raccoon to letters exchanged with suicide-assistance societies, from a relationship on the rocks to a beautiful realization that the world cannot be reduced to facts, but to stories.

If a narrative, a plot, does not hold all these fragments together, then the promise of a full picture must.

Is a novel in fragments the ideal literary form of the early twenty-first century? After a day of clicking through web sites and checking Twitter, I almost want to say yes. And yet, "I’m not good at [using the Internet]. Work is lost. Emails, unfinished, unwise, go off sua sponte," Adler says when asked by an interviewer. Both Pitch Dark and Speedboat were acclaimed upon their original publication in the seventies and eighties.  It must be that readers back then were able to accept that not all the threads would be neatly tied up, that a crucial moment might always remain out of sight. They must have been willing to decide, as Kate Ennis was told, that "We just need something to tide us over the pitch, the daily pitch of not knowing whether one or the other is going to go."

In the absence of a clear and full picture, what must remain is voice. Voice and emotion.

There may be no proper story in Pitch Dark; it is every bit as unmoored as its better-known sibling Speedboat, but its melancholy, ruminative tone is unforgettable. After the facts and the fragments, after the stories and the sorrows, Renata Adler has left us with the pure and real emotion of a woman distanced from her relationship.

Image credit: Flickr user DavidGuthrie