It doesn’t mean much to say that Renata Adler’s journalism isn’t as interesting as her novels — almost nothing is as interesting as Renata Adler’s novels. In 2013, the American publishing house New York Review Books reissued her two slim novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark. These had been cultish hits when they were first published, 30 years earlier, and it was easy to see why. They are excellent skewers of the complacency and pomp of American society and fashion: funny, manic, memorable and made up of tiny, brilliant scenes. ‘Her husband had invented a calorie-free spaghetti from seaweed,’ she writes of one party guest: ‘He was the world’s yet unacknowledged living authority on seaweed and its many uses. She was quite eloquent about it. I was interested for nearly seven hours.’ On republication, people loved these two novels all over again, and now the same publishers have, very sensibly, issued a new selection of Adler’s other writings, mostly long New Yorker-ish essays and some heavyweight reviews.
Adler’s subjects are the institutions of American cultural and political life: the government and the media, demonstrations and marches, the National Guard and the Supreme Court. Specifically, she’s interested in newspapers and films, and spent a year as the film critic for the New York Times. Included here is her hatchet-job on the film critic Pauline Kael (‘She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favourite words’).
Beneath all this, what draws her is the way people talk. At a civil rights march in 1965, she overhears one student: ‘I’m worried, though, about the Maoists.’ At a conference for radical political groups, in Chicago in 1967, she listens to the delegates. ‘What is the criterion for being black?’ someone asks. Whole cultural moments are conjured in these tiny phrases and it is tempting to — like Adler — simply quote them without any editorial comment.
These essays are inevitably a little dated. Watergate, the Starr Report, and the 1987 nomination of the extreme conservative judge Robert Bork to the supreme court all feel like the hot topics of a different time; and it takes a particular American insularity to be quite so convinced of the almost biblical importance of the New York Times. Perhaps that is simply America: moral, in complicated and sometimes troubling ways; a little self-important; composed of old-fashioned but still hugely resonant political debates. That grandiosity is precisely the subject of the novels. From Speedboat, again:
‘I yield to myself,’ the congressman said, at the start of the speech with which he was about to enter history, ‘as much time as I will consume.’
This precise noticing with a satirical edge is what makes these essays still valuable today. Adler treats the slightly confused idealism of the civil rights marches of the late 1960s, for example, with light irony and broad affection:
The people in the line linked arms, and the procession was long enough to permit the marchers to sing five different civil rights songs without confusion; the vanguard could not hear what the rearguard was singing.
The image is double, of course: the marchers are confused and yet admirable, sympathetic and yet singing too many songs.
It is hard to read Adler’s accounts of these old non-violent campaigns without recalling that America still struggles with vast civil rights disturbances today, but that they are now much more violent. If Adler has an heir it might be someone like the recently retired TV satirist Jon Stewart, who shares both her moral wryness and love for America. Perhaps the real loss is that nobody quite this careful is still paying attention.