I do not have the attention span to sustain a lengthy depression, but I have of late been reading two novelists who do: Renata Adler and Joan Didion. I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining. If weather reports were offered in novels, in their novels the forecast would almost always be gray, mostly cloudy, chill winds, with a strong chance of rain. They seem, these two writers, not really happy unless they are sad. They keep, to alter the line from an old song, a frown on their page for the whole modern age. Muriel Spark once wrote an interesting book entitled Girls of Slender Means. Miss Adler and Miss Didion are slender women who write slender books heavy with gloom. Let us look, then, to their means as novelists in the hope of discovering to what end they lead us.
Along with their gloom, Miss Adler and Miss Didion share an expertise at self-promotion, albeit of a subtle kind. The New Criticism used to advise avoiding the author and concentrating on the work, but this was before the advent of personal journalism and the author’s publicity interview. Both Miss Adler and Miss Didion send themselves out to the world as nervous, rather fragile characters. “She scrutinizes and edits her speech ceaselessly,” writes a reporter, interviewing Miss Adler for the cultural pages of the New York Times, “cutting off thoughts with ‘Oh, that’s a blind alley,’ or ‘No, that’s not true.’ And faintly but noticeably, her hands often quiver.” Miss Didion, in such works as her recent Salvador, makes plain her difficulty with migraines, is usually photographed in sun glasses, writes about the nightmarish quality of publicity tours.
Two delicate ladies, one might think. But if so, what is Miss Adler doing so regularly as a subject in Women’s Wear Daily, her single gray braid over her shoulder, or as subject of the fashion photographer Richard Avedon, while Miss Didion, who has written big-money screenplays, apparently holds her own on the coast among some fellows who, as they say out there, “play hard ball”? Depressed these women may be, nervous and fragile they may seem, I nonetheless take them to be two tough cookies.
Of the two, Renata Adler is the less practiced novelist. She has written, in fact, two novels but no narratives. Speedboat, her first novel, and Pitch Dark, her second, are both composed for the most part of short, journal-like entries, which, in the modernist spirit, a reader has rather to assemble on his own. Speedboat, published in 1976, was much praised; it won the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel of the year in which it was published. Reading it today, one notices certain affinities with the work of Ann Beattie: a flatness of expression meant to convey a deep spiritual fatigue. On the formal level, the novel seems Barthelmystically influenced, though without Barthelme’s intellectual playfulness. Here is a characteristic passage:
A young professor from Iowa, who was in the city for a lecture series on Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, spoke of his closeness to his own students, with several of whom he had had affairs, although he did not believe, in the academic context, in shacking up. He was preoccupied with his brightest student, a girl, with whom, during office hours, he engaged in—he wished there was an Anglo-Saxon word for it—fellatio. I said I thought it was sort of a metaphor for education, wasn’t it. Then I thought I had gone too far. But no. He said, “Exactly.” We all watched the “Eleventh Hour News,” which went on, of course, at the Twelfth Hour. Jim and I drove out to the country. It was very late. We stopped for coffee at an all-night dairy-and-diner on the way. A man got out of a truck, came in, ordered a milkshake, put his wallet on the counter, and mumbled something. Then he left, looking angry. “He asks me for a package of rubbers,” the man behind the counter said. “I mean, this is a dairy.” When our car broke down near the highway exit to the farm, a boy with a sign reading BOSTON trotted over. He thought we were slowing to give him a lift.
Miss Adler is not telling a story in Speedboat; instead she is trying to create a feeling through the thoughts, incidents, and odd happenings that occur to the presence at the center of her book, Jen Fain, who is a working journalist also teaching a film course at a school that resembles the City University of New York. The feeling she is trying to create is one of dislocation, disorientation, depression. “There doesn’t seem to be a spirit of the times,” Jen Fain remarks on the second page of the book. Miss Adler, though, will soon enough supply one. On that same page she has her character remark, “I think sanity, however, is the most profound moral option of our time.” And at the bottom of the page, awaking at the apartment of one of her men friends, she is told, “Just stay here. Angst is common.” We are, you might say, off and limping.
Manhattan Transfer John Dos Passos called his novel of New York life in the early 1920’s; Manhattan Transference Renata Adler’s account of New York life in the early 1970’s might be called, for even though Miss Adler is no lover of therapeutic culture, the world she describes in Speedboat is a highly neurotic one. “Sometimes it seems that this may be a nervous breakdown—sleeping all day, tears, insomnia at midnight, and again at four A.M. Then it occurs to me that a lot of people have it.” In Speedboat disconnection is a way of life. Rats roam the halls; a Doberman pinscher attacks an old woman. Jen Fain reports: “I knew a deliverer of flowers who, at Sixty-ninth and Lexington, was hit by a flying suicide. Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind.” And: “There are some days when everyone I see is a lunatic.” These passages pile up, and all are written, in the spiritual if not the grammatical sense, in the passive voice.
Having said all this, I must go on to say that I do not find Speedboat boring. It ought to be, but it isn’t. Perhaps it isn’t because, though the book offers none of the traditional pleasures of the novel, it does offer pleasures of a different kind. When it begins to hum, Miss Adler’s is a lively mind, which throws off interesting insights. “Lonely people,” she writes, “see double entendres everywhere.” In a brilliant passage she talks about what she calls “the Angry Bravo,” which is what goes on when, in her example, an audience cheers No, No, Nanette when in fact behind their cheers is rage at Hair or whatever the going triumph of the day is. She is also clever on the unseriousness of certain artists and intellectuals. In a scene in which no names are given, an Indian lady whom I take to be Mrs. Gandhi is told by a poet whom I take to be Allen Ginsberg, “I think in this country we need to disburden ourselves of our, our burden of rationality.” To which Miss Adler offers the capping comment: “He sat down. It did not seem exactly India’s problem.”
The world depicted in Speedboat is that of unattached youngish people for whom money is not a serious problem but finding a purpose in life is. They I won’t say bound but at least crawl into one another’s beds, less it seems out of passion than out of the need for comfort and solace against a cold world. They are distanced from life. Boredom is among their deadliest enemies. They have endless time to spend thinking about themselves. (“‘Self-pity’ is just sadness, I think, in the pejorative,” says Miss Adler’s Miss Fain.) Therapy is no help. “In every city, at the same time, therapists earned their living by saying, ‘You’re too hard on yourself.’” There is a slightly frenetic stylishness about their lives. “Elaine’s was jammed”; a man invents a drink called “Last Mango in Paris.” Nothing quite holds. Jen Fain avers: “The radical intelligence in the moderate position is the only place where the center holds.” But of those who write or argue or say that the center will not hold, I always wonder how they know they are standing in the center—or anywhere near it.
It doesn’t take long for Speedboat to run out of gas. The book provides no forward motion, nothing in the way of momentum. In a snippet of conversation reported in one of Miss Adler’s paragraphs, a man says: “Janine, you know I’m very tired of your aperçus.” So in time does one grow tired of Miss Adler’s, which, in a book without any narrative force, could, any one of them, as easily appear on page 14 as on page 203. Cause and effect, narrative order, nothing seems to matter. “It all ends in disaster anyway.” But then Miss Adler is forthright about not having a story to tell. Toward the close of Speedboat, she writes: “There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots.”
Friend, here’s the bad news: you want to call yourself a novelist, you’re going to have to find a plot.
Pitch Dark1 Renata Adler’s recent novel, does appear to be setting out to tell a story: that of the break-up of an eight-year love affair between another journalist, Kate Ennis, and a married man referred to as Jake. But the story turns out not to be much of a story. As the dust-jacket copy has it, “. . . Pitch Dark moves into new realms of feeling.” This book, too, peels off into aperçuistical paragraphs; it is interested in making disconnections. It is about, as the narrator of this non-narration says, “my state of mind.” This second book of Miss Adler’s is more modernist, more avant-garde, in intention than Speedboat. The practical consequence is that, within its pages, more puzzles are offered, more elaborate games are played.
Like all contemporary works of modernist intention, Pitch Dark is highly self-reflexive—that is, it often talks about itself. Thus, two-thirds through the book Miss Adler writes:
But will they understand it if I
tell it this way?
Yes, they will. They will surely
But will they care about it?
That I cannot guarantee.
The way that Pitch Dark is told is aslant, through indirection. “Do I need to stylize it, then, or can I tell it as it was?” Miss Adler stylizes it, in my view. At the forefront of her book is the affirmation that stories can no longer be told. “For a woman, it is always, don’t you see, Scheherazade. For a man, it may be the Virginian. There he goes, then, striding through the dust of midday toward his confrontation. Here I am, of an evening, wondering whether I can hold his interest yet a while.”
Throughout Pitch Dark lines repeat, meant to convey a refrain-like resonance. “But you are, you know, you were, the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life,” is one such line; “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” is another. We cannot know for certain who is saying these lines, Kate or Jake. But the lines recur, as do, among others, these two: “The world is everything that is the case,” which is from Wittgenstein, and “And in the second place because,” which is the first line of a Nabokov story. Both these lines are there to establish the modernity of Miss Adler’s narrator’s mind as well as to establish the modernity of her own intention in this book. Of the Wittgenstein line, an epigrammatic couplet by the poet Donald Hall seems particularly pertinent here:
The world is everything that is
Now stop your blubbering and
wash your face.
For there is a certain high-tone blubbering going on in Pitch Dark. In its pages Miss Adler has the portentousness knob turned all the way up. “As much as this is the age of crime, after all, this is the century of dislocation,” Kate Ennis notes. “Not just for journalists or refugees; for everyone.” As for the novel’s weather report, it is given on page 79: “I stand, in pitch dark now, and in heavy rain.”
Miss Adler never does get around to telling the story of Kate Ennis’s long love affair with Jake. Instead she shows the sad after-effects of its break-up. Accounts of events, she believes, are lies. What is important are moods, feelings, symbols. So we are given an account of a raccoon who slowly dies of distemper on the stove of Kate Ennis’s country house. Is this meant to stand in for the symbolic death of her love affair? So we are given a lengthy, deliberately paranoid account of a trip through Ireland. Is this meant to stand in for Kate Ennis’s feeling of utter disorientation after the prop of her love affair is pulled out from under her? So the same lines repeat and resound throughout the book. Miss Adler succeeds in giving her novel a highly claustral feeling. Reading it one feels rather as if one is being asked to play handball in an empty but very small closet.
Bleak, psychologically inconclusive, bereft of the normal pleasures of storytelling, Pitch Dark has nonetheless enjoyed a pretty good run in both the popular press and from critics. In part, I suspect, this derives from the autobiographical atmosphere of the novel. In the course of an adulatory piece about her in New York magazine Miss Adler implied—and perhaps more than implied—that the love affair that she has not really written about in Pitch Dark is one that she herself has gone through. Then there is a celebrity sheen playing about the book’s pages. Kate Ennis is often aloft, en route to one or another island; in Ireland she stays at the house of a former American ambassador to that country. There is also the attraction of gossip. “One morning, in the early nineteen-eighties, Viola Teagarden filed a suit in a New York State court against Claudia Denneny for libel. Also named as defendants were a public television station and a talk-show host.” We all know who Viola and Claudia are, do we not? Withholding such obvious names is a fine advance on name-dropping.
As for the critical appreciation of Pitch Dark, here Miss Adler has what I think of as the moral minority on her side—that select group of critics who worry about not lending approval to avant-garde endeavor. Roger Shattuck, for example, writing in the New York Review of Books, has remarked that “Adler has created in Pitch Dark a sense of form that could be called cubist.” Professor Shattuck plays that old shell game of modern criticism, switching genres, in which the critic has to guess under which genre the work lies. “Adler, like many of her contemporaries, abjures fusion, practices simple removal,” he writes. “The resulting minimalist genre should properly not be called a novel, for it answers radically different expectations, brings other rewards.” Better yet, the book has allowed Professor Shattuck to erect what he calls “the innarratability principle,” which has to do with the inability—or, more precisely, unwillingness—of certain modern writers to tell their story straight out.
But to return to the old, perhaps boring, narratability principle, would it be too rude to suggest that Miss Adler has let slip away an extremely interesting story? The story of being a married man’s mistress, told from the point of view of the mistress, is after all neither a common nor an unpromising one. What is it about women who enter into lengthy affairs with married men? What do they have to gain? What is it they are afraid of? Why are they so ready to put themselves almost automatically in second place or below? But then this is a story Renata Adler, given her view that accounts of incidents are lies and that narrative contains the seeds of its own falsity, could never tell. She is among that band of contemporary writers who evidently do not agree with Oscar Wilde’s statement: “It must be our faith that there is nothing that cannot be said with words.”
Joan Didion, my second Sunshine Girl, is vastly superior as a novelist to Renata Adler. To begin with, she really is a novelist—that is, she has no bias against telling stories and she is interested in lives outside her own. Her vision is dark, her views are bleak, but she is richly talented. That she is a novelist to the bone became clear a little more than halfway out in her first novel, Run River (1963), where the book’s heroine, Lily Knight McClelland, finds herself seated next to a sailor on a Greyhound bus from San Franscisco:
From San Francisco to Vallejo she sat next to a sailor who was going to meet his girl in Salt Lake City. She lived with her folks in Salt Lake but Frisco, he explained, was their lucky town. They had met there, in a gin mill on Market Street, four days before he shipped out in 1943. When she promised to wait had been the A-l moment in his life, and the second A-l moment had been a week before on the U.S.S. Chester when he got his first sight in two years of the Golden Gate Bridge. . . . Lily began to cry, struck by the superiority of his appreciations to her own, and the sailor said wait a minute, hold your horses, it wasn’t sad, honey, it was like women crying at weddings. . . . When the sailor got off at Vallejo to wait for the Salt Lake express Lily wished him good luck and watched him covertly through the window. He was sitting on his duffel bag reading a comic book and eating a Milky Way, and she wanted to get off the bus and give him her garnet ring for his girl, but did not know how to go about it.
Run River is set in the countryside above Sacramento among the families of the landed gentry and is the only novel I know, since those of John Steinbeck, to present life in California with the kind of density of detail that makes it seem real. It takes in three generations; it talks about Dekes at Stanford and Pi Phis at Berkeley and the pre-World War II days of convertibles and Glenn Miller albums. The range of human types is wide, not least interesting among them the father of Lily’s husband, of whom Miss Didion writes: “Everett had once explained that his father referred to all Mexicans and to most South Americans—including the President of Brazil, who had once been entertained on the river—as goddamn wetbacks and to all Orientals as goddamn Filipinos. . . . Easterners fell into two groups: goddamn pansies and goddamn Jews.”
At the heart of the novel is a tragic love between a husband and wife. This love is made tragic by the wife’s penchant for lapsing into rather empty affairs, one of which ends in a murder of one of her lovers by her husband. The plot begins with the murder, flashes back for the better part of the book, and closes on the very real if highly complex love between husband and wife. Published when Miss Didion was only twenty-nine, Run River has something of the feel of Faulkner to it—“I think nobody owns land until their dead are in it,” one character says—but rather good Faulkner.
A note of despair plays through Run River yet somehow does not take over the book. The density of novelistic detail covers it over, the devotion to complexity of presentation lends it an affirmative feeling. But Joan Didion, in her next three novels, has not returned to density of detail, and complexity has become, in her work, less something to demonstrate than to talk about. Her second novel, Play It As It Lays (1971), is her Hollywood book, but it might have been more accurately entitled Fear and Trembling, and the Sickness Called the West Coast. The philosophy behind it has been called, I believe, freeway existentialism.
Maria (pronounced Mar-AY-ah), the character at the center of Play It As It Lays, is a film actress whose career is in eclipse and whose marriage to a coming young director is shot. She has a daughter in a mental institution, has had an abortion, is on barbiturates. “From my mother,” she announces early in the novel, “I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.” Along with migraine, she suffers dread. She feels the “peril, the unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” Looking for some order in life, she finds none. Instead her portion in life is unrelieved, immitigable anxiety. “All along she expected to die, as surely as she had expected that planes would crash if she boarded them in bad spirit, as unquestionably as she believed that loveless marriage ended in cancer of the cervix and equivocal adultery in fatal accidents to children. Maria did not particularly believe in rewards, only in punishments, swift and personal.”
With Play It As It Lays Miss Didion acquired, as a novelist, a new in-group: those people who no longer believe in cause and effect, who feel, as a knowing Hollywood figure puts it to Maria, that they know something because “we’ve been out there where nothing is.” Or, as Maria herself says, on the final page of the novel: “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.” Along with nothing, Miss Didion knows a thing or two about the Hollywood life about which she writes. She knows how agents think and talk; she knows the distinction between a tan acquired at a health club and one acquired during an entire life spent in season. Yet the question arises, why would a writer be drawn to the subject of a rather inarticulate young woman having a nervous breakdown in expensive surroundings? The inadequate answer is, I fear, because she is a Sunshine Girl, drawn to the dark and the hopeless in human affairs.
William Dean Howells once said that what Americans want is a tragedy with a happy ending. But I wonder if that remark doesn’t require being amended to read that what Americans want, or at least those who take pleasure in the novels of Miss Adler and Miss Didion, is sadness in plush circumstances. Miss Didion’s third novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977), is set among the ruling family in a country called Boca Grande—a country with no history and where everyone lives in cinderblock houses. The story is told by one Grace Strasser-Mendana, a North American trained as an anthropologist who studied under Krober and worked with Lévi-Strauss but who has lost her faith in her own method, “who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos.” She married into Boca Grande’s ruling family, and is now dying, at a fairly leisurely pace, of cancer. She has also, she says, “been for fifty of my sixty years a student of delusion.” The story she has to tell is about Charlotte Bogart Douglas, whose eighteen-year-old daughter Marin is a revolutionary student on the run from the FBI. Charlotte has come to Boca Grande to await the arrival of her daughter—or, as the narrator puts it, “located herself at the very cervix of the world, the place through which a child lost to history must pass.”
With A Book of Common Prayer we are in V. S. Naipaul country, the Third World in turmoil and collision with Western things it can live neither with nor without. There is a hotel in which nothing works, a French-named restaurant serving wretched food, swimming pools without chlorine, while off in the mountains the guerrillas may or may not be forming for attack. Except that, unlike Naipaul, Miss Didion is playing this subject for dark laughs. Although she scores greatly off the grotesque right-wing family that rules Boca Grande, a family that stages various coups against itself, she does not do so from a left-wing perspective. Charlotte Bogart’s first husband is a left-wing academic intellectual, her second husband a radical lawyer roughly cut from the model of William Kunstler, yet the second husband can say to the first: “Something I’ve never been able to understand is how you happen to know more Trotskyists than Trotsky did.” Agents provocateurs appear in Boca Grande, but “the main mark they leave is to have provided employment for the many other people required to follow them around and tap their telephones.” No, the politics of this novel are neither of the conventional right-nor left-wing variety. They are more radical than either; they are the politics of despair.
Here the visions of Renata Adler and Joan Didion begin to mesh—so much so that one could gently lift sentences from A Book of Common Prayer and insert them into Speedboat or Pitch Dark, or vice versa, without, I suspect, anyone noticing. For example: “I am less and less sure that this story has been one of delusion.” Or: “What an odd notion it was that fiction was just a matter of getting facts completely, implausibly wrong.” Or: “I am less and less convinced that the word unstable has any useful meaning. . . .” Or: “I guess I’m just neurotic.” The first and third sentences are Miss Didion’s, the second and fourth Miss Adler’s. Despair, in the contemporary novel, doesn’t have a great deal of range: it speaks, you might say, in one voice.
One up on “The Waste Land,” Miss Didion’s novels usually end with both a bang and a whimper. Charlotte Bogart Douglas is killed in yet another of Boca Grande’s habitual coups d’état. The narrator reports: “The moment and circumstances of her arrest are matters of record but the moment and circumstances of her death remain obscure. I do not even know which side killed her, who held the Estadio Nacional at the moment of death.” One had scarcely anticipated less. But in the end one feels as Keats reported feeling upon viewing a painting by Benjamin West entitled “Death on the Pale Horse”: “. . . in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness.”
Democracy,2 Joan Didion’s most recent novel, is, as its narrator, a woman calling herself Joan Didion, calls it, a “novel of fitful glimpses.” It is Miss Didion’s richest novel since Run River. By richest I mean that there are riches on every page: lovely details, sharp observations, risky but always interesting generalizations, real information—many of the things that I, for one, read novels in the hope of discovering. “Let the man build you a real drink,” one character says to another, and with that single sentence, a sentence of a kind for which Miss Didion has a splendid knack, she calls up a whole way of life, in this instance that of the business-class country-club stage of culture.
Miss Didion can build you a real character, too, and Democracy, slender though it is as a novel, is filled with interesting characters, major and minor. Of Billy Dillon, the administrative assistant to Harry Victor, the husband of the heroine of Democracy, a left-wing politician who made an abortive run for the Presidency during the Vietnam war years, the demographics of whose “phantom constituency were based on comfort and its concomitant uneasiness”—of this Billy Dillon, Miss Didion writes: “Killer mick, Harry always said about Billy Dillon, an accolade.” Jack Lovett, a high-rolling international operative who early understood “war itself as a specifically commercial enterprise,” is a man of “a temperamental secretiveness, a reticence that had not so much derived from [his] occupation as led him to it.”
At the center of Democracy is Inez Victor, the wife of Harry and the lover of Jack Lovett and the most interesting of Joan Didion’s female characters. A daughter of the rich business class in Hawaii, beautiful, beautifully connected, she worked after college as a docent at the National Gallery, an under-editor of Vogue, put in a year at Parke-Bernet. With Inez Victor we are of course in the world of Women’s Wear Daily and Rolling Stone, the celebrity world of the beautiful and the bored. Hers is a name that crops up with a fair regularity in the Style section of the New York Times or Washington Post. She is a woman who has everything but happiness. Her husband refers to her “quite unpalpable unhappiness.” Miss Didion notes: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch.” Like all Joan Didion’s heroines, she has a wide “capacity for passive detachment.” (Charlotte Bogart Douglas, in A Book of Com mon Prayer, feels a sense of “separateness,” which is much the same thing; Lily Knight McClelland, in Run River, feels perpetually disconnected; and Maria, in Play It As It Lays, feels nothing but all of the above.) But Inez Victor’s passive detachment, in Miss Didion’s hands, can render interesting effects:
Inez said the 3:45 A.M. flight from Honolulu to Hong Kong was exactly the way she hoped dying would be.
Dawn all the way.
Democracy is doing two things at once. It is telling the love story of Inez Victor and Jack Lovett, and it is providing an account of the fraudulence of public life, in its political and celebrity realms, and both are subtly done. Its criticism of left-wing politics, in the person of Harry Victor, is devastating. As Jack Lovett says, “You people really interest me. . . . You don’t actually see what’s happening in front of you. You don’t see it unless you read it. You have to read it in the New York Times, then you start talking about it. Give a speech. Call for an investigation. Maybe you can come down here in a year or two, investigate what’s happening tonight.”
But it won’t do to slip Miss Didion into a political box. She doesn’t much like what has happened in America. Yet she doesn’t much like it anywhere else either. Set for the most part during the Vietnam years, her novel, perhaps intended to bring Henry Adams’s novel Democracy (1880) up to date, dwells on the decline of American power and the decay of American life. But then Miss Didion is, by temperament, drawn to decline and decay.
Good as Democracy is, one cannot help feeling it would have been better if Miss Didion had left out the character called Joan Didion, the novelist. Throughout the novel, this Joan Didion drops in to tell you about the difficulties and limitations of narrative. “This is a hard story to tell,” she says at one point; “I am resisting narrative here,” she says at another. “Consider any of these things long enough,” she remarks, “and you will see that they tend to deny the relevance not only of personality but of relevance.” There is a sense in which, because of the fragmented way she tells her story, Miss Didion must have felt called upon to bring her own novelistic problems into the book. Yet one also feels that she is pleased by the modernist note that this device demonstrates.
Why make narrative seem so difficult? The trick used to be to make telling a story as straight and smooth as one could. Now it seems to be to make it as tortuous and jagged as possible. I think Miss Didion would have done better, to borrow a phrase, to have played her story as it lay, and not to have undermined it with accounts of the unreliability of narrative.
With its deconstructionists in literary criticism, its ordinary-language and other philosophers, and its novelists, our age may one day come to be known in intellectual history for its role in the advancement of techniques to prove that reality doesn’t exist. Along with their natural gifts of dark temperament, our Sunshine Girls, Renata Adler and Joan Didion, are joined in this enterprise. It is more than a mite depressing.
In search of comic relief while reading the novels of Miss Adler and Miss Didion, I happened upon Nietzsche’s little book Schopenhauer as Educator—one must take one’s laughs where one can find them—where I came upon the following remarkable explanation of why such novels, and the general train of thought they represent, are so depressing:
Basically, you see, cheerfulness is only to be found where there is victory, and this applies to the works of all true thinkers as it does to every work of art. Even if the content is terrible and serious as the problem of existence itself, the work will have an oppressive and painful effect only in those cases where the half-thinker or half-artist has spread the haze of his inadequacy over it; whereas nothing better or more cheering can happen to a man than to be near those victorious persons who, because they have thought the deepest thoughts, must love what is most alive, and finally, like the wise men they are, turn to the Beautiful. They really talk, they don’t stammer or gossip; they really live and move, unlike other human beings who lead such a strange mask-like existence. For this reason when we are near them we feel, for a change, human and natural and have an urge to shout out as Goethe: “How marvelous and precious is a living thing! how real and truly adapted to its condition!”
Recall that Nietzsche is here talking about Schopenhauer, the darkest of all modern philosophers. There is plain pessimism and there is heroic pessimism—and of plain pessimism, of the kind Renata Adler and Joan Didion dispense, we have had quite enough. Let, please, the sun shine in.
1 Knopf, 144 pp., $12.95.
2 Simon & Schuster, 234 pp., $13.95.