Renata Adler: Troll or Treasure?

Weighing whether the writer is a real custodian of journalistic values or just an overqualified provocateur

André Carrilho

It’s 1967, it’s 5 in the morning, and Renata Adler, a 28-year-old reporter for The New Yorker, is at a club on the Sunset Strip. She has been observing, in that limpid, discarnate New Yorker style—as if the writer’s brains have been preserved in a mason jar, with a single watchful orb of an eyeball floatingly attached—the local non-culture: the street preacher with his “practiced homiletic quaver”; the hippie girl who says “Sometimes I think I’m dead and I’m hallucinating the whole thing”; the general sensation of a vague and rootless millenarianism, in which “there is nothing to do but to wait in some small café for the coming of the Word.” Now, at the Hullabaloo, with members of the Monkees and the Mamas & the Papas alongside her in the audience, Adler is watching the band Love. It is playing “with a kind of driving, electronic desperation,” and at the end of a song the crowd gives “a kind of desperation cheer, as one might cheer an acquittal verdict for a defendant against whom the case looked bad.”

I love this little moment-in-prose—from “Fly Trans-Love Airways,” one of the pieces collected in After the Tall Timber, a career-spanning new anthology of Adler’s nonfiction—because, just for a second, I know something Renata Adler doesn’t. I know that within a year, this band in which she is not particularly interested, Love, will record Forever Changes, a glassy, paranoid masterpiece, an album worthy of her own freakishly advanced sensibilities: And the water’s turned to blood / And if you don’t think so / Go turn on your tub. And knowing this, I understand that there is something truly, yes, psychedelic about Renata Adler.

I don’t mean drugs, of course. Forget drugs. Adler, now 76, has always written as if she’s never taken a drug in her life—as if the fiercest, purest jinni of a mind-expanding molecule, upon approaching the crystal ramparts of her consciousness, would wither up in shame. Her reputation, in mid-2015, feels floaty and diffracted—quite Internet, really, in that it doesn’t completely scan, and it has an undertow. Some people adore her fiction: her two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), were reprinted to fresh accolades in 2013. Other people are just discovering her journalism. And you can’t help gawping at Richard Avedon’s rock-star beautiful ’70s photographs of her, like the one on the cover of After the Tall Timber—denim, range-measuring gaze, her famous thick braid hanging like a hunter’s trophy. A surplus of edge. She appears ready to saunter up to the cockpit, produce a pearl-handled pistolet, and suggest with ghostly good breeding that the pilot fly her to Tripoli. Which is actually how many of her peers see Renata Adler—as a zealot on a private mission of disruption. But we’ll get to that.

Adler is, before anything, old-school Manhattan highbrow—steeped in excellence, the clinkety-clink of cocktail glasses, acuity and charm, a lost age. When she joined The New Yorker in 1963, having studied at Bryn Mawr, the Sorbonne, and Harvard, her colleagues had names like Gardner Botsford and St. Clair McKelway. She was engaged for a time (gossip, but relevant) to Edmund Wilson’s son. She did not admire—“detested,” in fact—the sprawling and subjectivized New Journalism (Wolfe, Mailer, etc.). The vulgar fact of the writer-reporter’s existence, his blundering actuality, was not to be advertised, oh dear me no, but sublimated into immaculate syntax and telling detail. And yet, under that translucent superiority of style, there’s a hum, a glimmer, a threat—most un–New Yorker–ish—to Adler’s New Yorker pieces: the “scruffy, dazed, and twitching hen” in a Biafran marketplace, the woman who approaches G. Gordon Liddy in the street and says to him (“perfectly amiably”), “Death to the CIA.” She possessed a set of literary instincts not quite as canine as, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s—they lacked his snarl and drool, his hallucinatory hackles—but no less acute or telepathic, and in the end rather more dangerous.

“Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind.” So observes, prophetically, the young-woman-in-the-city narrator of Speedboat. Adler’s own accomplishments would be serial and rather anomalous. In 1968, she became the chief film critic for The New York Times, succeeding the eminent stodge Bosley Crowther. Her withering superlatives enraged the filmmaking community: “the soundtrack … is among the most crudely exacerbating ever put on film”; “of an awfulness that bends the mind”; “the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” (That last one was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) But her prose was invincible, her smaller judgments brilliantly piercing: Norman Mailer, she noted, in his three-tough-guys-shooting-the-shit improvisation, Wild 90, “looks more guarded than the most courtly formalist.” She quit after 14 months—wearied by deadlines, subeditors, the hasty, pulpy feeling of working for a newspaper—and went back to The New Yorker. In 1974 she began a gig as a speechwriter for the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Nixon impeachment inquiry. (What? Yup.) After that, she went to Yale Law School. In between, she published Speedboat, which one doesn’t so much read as throw open randomly, like the I Ching, to light upon some enigmatically barbed Girls-esque incident or an aphorism that could have come from her film reviews at The Times. “It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind.”

To those in the business, in her business, Adler is known mainly for two whopping negatives. The first was her 8,000-word forensic obliteration of the film critic (and her New Yorker colleague) Pauline Kael in The New York Review of Books in 1980. The article is like a midnight revenge attack from inside Kael’s authorial conscience—her every tic, solecism, and inauthenticity itemized in flaming letters on the scroll of judgment. The second was Adler’s 1999 memoir, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, about the transition from the era of editor William Shawn (whom she loved, in her way) to the era of editor Tina Brown (whom she loved rather less)—about civilizational collapse, basically. The book is elegiac, amusing, vicious, partisan, jaundiced, disproportionate, intramural, sideswiping, face-stabbing, powerfully artistic in some of its characterizations (notably of Shawn), and a kind of extended moral blackout. By the end you’re asking yourself if you’ve been spending time with a supremely overqualified troll. In due course, nearly a dozen unfriendly articles about Gone appeared in The New York Times, and so another flame cycle was initiated: Adler versus The Times. She wrote a much-too-long article in Harper’s arraigning her former employer (“the arch-censor”) on charges of ideological stultification. Not much fun to read, but fabulously incautious and careericidal. “Suppose we blow up the whole thing,” the narrator of Speedboat had wondered. “Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors.”

Are you feeling it, the whirling duality of Renata Adler? Lamenting a decline in standards, a falling-away from the great days, she goes off (in her beautiful prose) like a barbarian blogger. Like, how come nobody around here has any fucking manners?! But if not for the out-of-scale ferocity of that, we wouldn’t have the tremendous metaphysical sobriety of this. Read it slowly, please.

Not infrequently, an event so radical that it alters everything appears for a time to have had no effect, or even not to have occurred. This is true in personal as in public life. A loss, a flood, a medical diagnosis, a rolling of tanks toward the statehouse—life goes on apparently as usual. Nothing is changed. It is particularly true of events that are irremediable.

That’s how she opens “Irreparable Harm,” her 2001 New Republic demolition of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. A rolling of tanks toward the statehouse, a dopey editor chopping your copy, a tripping girl on the Sunset Strip, with Charles Manson in the wings … It’s the signature note of her work: that faint chime, like a wineglass flicked at the rim, of apocalypse. She trembles, ultra-sensate. Invisibly, even modestly, the world just ended. Irremediable. Irreparable. But don’t you worry about it. Keep reading The New York Times.