Last Night by James Salter: “My Lord You”
Mistah Salter – He dead. The New York Times has an interesting obituary that paints Salter as a man plagued by the twin demons of ambition and bitter resentment over the failure to transmute critical acclaim into popular success. While the piece does stop well short of being a hatchet job, it is definitely in the business of burying rather than praising its subject. Having said that, it does quote a lovely line from Reynolds Price who described Salter’s work thusly:
“In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Salter’s death reminded me of my need to return to this series of posts but it also reminded me of why this project began to run out of steam in the first place: I didn’t particularly enjoy “My Lord You” the first time I read through it. In fact, it was only after re-reading the story three times that I came to realise the precision and power that lies hidden behind its rather distracting use of metaphorical imagery.
Back in October 2014, I began a constellation of posts that tried to articulate the reasons for my reluctance to engage with the field of genre short fiction. While the bulk of the constellation went into describing the genre short fiction scene as an engine for acquiring and redistributing social capital rather than generating interesting stories, the root of my problem was that I simply did not like the stories that said engine was bringing to the attention of the wider genre community. As I said in my piece “Short Fiction and the Feels”:
In each of these stories, the genre elements sit somewhere between the metaphorical and the literal; aspects of a fictional world that seem to mirror the contours of real emotional lives whilst leaving the world unchanged and the metaphor unresolved and shrouded with the kind of ambiguity that renders precision anathema. As a genre reader, I am frustrated by the authors’ lack of interest in exploring how these genre elements might transform their fictional worlds. As a literary reader I am left perplexed by the decision to abandon realism in favour of a quasi-metaphorical language that makes the characters’ emotional lives seem more rather than less opaque.
Re-visiting these opinions more recently, I did begin to wonder whether my problem might not have been rooted in an aversion to fantasy literature. To me, fantasy always feels a bit like cheating because it allows the author to embed the logic of their stories in the fabric of their fictional worlds. There’s a fine line between using fiction as a means of engaging with the world from a particular viewpoint and constructing a fantasy in which all of the writer’s beliefs and prejudices are somehow magically true. Producing fiction in which the world actively rises up to meet the oncoming force of your narrative has always struck me as way too much of the latter.
Of course… traditional science fiction pulls this type of shit all the time and the boundaries between traditions have long been under pressure from a professional class with an interest in creating a single integrated marketplace for science fiction, fantasy and horror. As unpopular and deliberately narrow as it may seem, my vision of science fiction of a world-facing literary tradition in which authors are held accountable for their departures from reality, even when it is only on the level of scientific inaccuracy.
When I accused the quasi-metaphorical of falling somewhere between the demands of genre and the demands of traditional literature, I meant that many of these stories seemed completely unaccountable. Even allowing space for radical formal experimentation, literary fiction must ultimately resolve as some form of statement about the world or human nature and the same is true of the genre fiction that I want to read (although SF’s historical abrogation of the mimetic impulse allows for a considerably broader idea as to what constitutes resolution). My feeling about the quasi-metaphorical is that while many of these stories carry a very real and carefully-engineered affective payload, the artifice that goes into many of these stories also serves to distance them from the world and obscure many of the crunchier details in which the wheels of fictional conceit might be expected to meet the road of reality.
Though not a piece of genre writing, Salter’s “My Lord You” resembles the quasi-metaphorical in so far as it is a story built around a single metaphor that appears to have been designed with the intention of capturing a very specific feeling. However, unlike many of the quasi-metaphorical stories I touched on in my earlier pieces, Salter uses his metaphorical device as a means of uncovering all sorts of crunchy ideas about the nature of relationships and human sexuality.
The story opens with a woman attending a stuffy upper-class dinner party at which she feels decidedly uncomfortable. Salter does a fantastic job of conveying the overbearing stuffiness of the party by devoting a bit of attention to the correct way in which to serve caviar:
He served caviar, brought out in a white jar such as makeup comes in, to be eaten with small silver spoons.
— The only way, Deems muttered in profile. He seldom looked at anyone. Antique silver spoons, Ardis heard him mistakenly say in his low voice, as if it might not have been noticed.
As if! The point of view character’s sense of detachment from the social group in which she finds herself drips from every alien detail from Deems’ enigmatic female companion to the way Ardis physically looks at the room:
Though they had known Deems for a while, she and her husband had never been to the house. In the dining room, when they all went to dinner, she took in the pictures, books, and shelves of objects including one of perfect gleaming shells. It was foreign in a way, like anyone else’s house, but half-familiar.
Ardis does not just feel uncomfortable because Deems’ house feels alien to her, she is also uncomfortable because she is acutely aware of how mannered and affected Deems’ performance as host has become. Deems “mistakenly” pointing out that he has antique caviar spoons is almost worse than daring to serve caviar with a normal set of stainless steel spoons. How dreadfully gauche!
The stuffiness of the dinner party and the narrator’s sense of alienation from the social rules in operation serve to make her acutely aware of her status relative to the rest of the group. She is actively worried about saying the wrong thing:
Far more interesting was a comment Ardis heard Irene make, in what context she did not know,
— I think there’s such a thing as sleeping with one man too many.
— Did you say “such a thing” or “No such thing”? She heard herself ask.
Irene merely smiled.
It is useful to think of Ardis as someone who is trapped between alienation and the desire to ingratiate herself with a new social group as it goes some way to explaining her reaction to what comes next. Like a great colourful bird that has somehow flown in the window, a man named Brennan arrives at the party drunk and begins making a spectacle of himself, describing his wife as a criminal before confiding with a complete stranger:
Do you know how we met? Unimaginable. She was walking by on the beach. I was unprepared. I saw the ventral, then the dorsal. I imagined the rest. Bang! We came together like planets. Endless fornication. Sometimes I just lie silent and observe her. The black panther lies under his rose-tree, he recited. J’ai eu pitie des autres…
When Ardis asks him where the quotation is from, he replies:
You can’t guess? Pound. The sole genius of the century. No, not the sole. I am another: a drunk, a failure, and a great genius. Who are you? he said. Another little housewife?
Brennan arrives at a party, discusses his “endless fornication”, quotes a fascist poet, describes himself as a genius and dismisses a complete stranger as a “little housewife”. He then goes on to grope and proposition Ardis and ask another woman if she has ever been involved in sex work.
Salter is ostensibly mute on the effect this has on Ardis but the more transgressive Brennan’s behaviour becomes, the more Salter uses dialogue rather than description and the more he attributes said dialogue to disembodied third-person pronouns rather than proper names. The effect is singularly striking: It is easy to imagine Ardis in a state of shock, vaguely aware of people speaking yet unable to recognise who said what to whom. Sex, violence, fascism and genius… Brendan shatters every norm of polite dinner party conversation only to disappear from the story once and for all. The point of the story is how this momentary contact with someone indifferent to the stuffy and affected rules of polite society comes to obsess the otherwise emotionally muted Ardis.
Ardis’ encounter with Brennan inspires her to read poetry and the love poetry she winds up reading in turn reminds her of a long-lamented love affair:
She’d called him several times over the years, believing that love never died, dreaming foolishly of seeing him again, of his returning, in the way of old songs. To hurry, to almost run down the noontime street again, the sound of her heels on the sidewalk. To see the door of the apartment open…
It is hard to read this paragraph and not be put in mind of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the countless novels about frustrated, disempowered women that followed in its wake. However, while Bovary handles the tension between romantic fantasy and reality by recounting the tragic facts of Emma Bovary’s life, Salter makes the tension manifest in the form of a dog.
Having learned that Brennan lives in her area, Ardis goes out of her way to cycle past his house. Fascinated, she starts walking up his driveway only to come face-to-face with Brennan’s enormous Alsatian dog. Terrified, Ardis convinces the dog to back away (“Do not show fear. She knew that.”) and heads for home only to realise that the dog is following her.
He seemed to float along in the fields, which were burning in the midday sun, on fire.
Though not exactly subtle, Salter’s metaphorical canine proves to be a surprisingly flexible representation of an unspoken yet transgressive sexual desire.
The desire in question is undoubtedly transgressive as everything about Brennan’s arrival at the dinner party speaks to the breaking of taboos: He is not just drunk, rude and violent, he also talks incessantly about his own genius, holds questionable views and smashes up someone’s garden whilst driving home drunk. In a comment on my post about “Comet”, the estimable Brendan Byrne describes “My Lord You” as a story about the desire for sexual domination but I think the sexual energies in this story are far more basic and inarticulate than those that might be contained within the highly formalised structures of a Master/slave dynamic. Ardis becomes obsessed with Brennan because he represents the unbounded potential of a universal sexual other; he is the open door to the apartment and what that apartment might actually contain is as much of a source of terror and fascination as the dog.
The fact that Brennan represents something deeply atavistic to Ardis is particularly evident in the way she looks at him during the dinner party:
The unsettling thing was the absence of reason in him, his glare. One nostril was smaller than the other. He was used to being ungovernable. Ardis hoped he would not notice her again. His forehead had two gleaming places, like nascent horns. Were men drawn to you when they knew they were frightening you?
The talk of horns may cause us to think of the Devil but taken with the absence of reason and an ungovernable nature, I think a more appropriate mythical figure would be that of the faun or satyr, whose hairy, muscular and priapic form denoted the animalistic in the same way as classical sculptors’ tended to emphasise the rationality of their deities by making them hairless with feminine facial features and tiny genitalia.
Also interesting is that while Brennan and the dog are both considered to be beyond reason and ungovernable, they are both capable of being obedient when necessary: Brennan allows himself to be guided out of the party just as the dog is convinced not to jump up on the terrified Ardis. This too speaks to the primal nature of Ardis’ desire as the yearning for an unreasoning sexual other is often co-extensive with a yearning for someone who will dissolve our hang-ups and provide us with exactly what we secretly desire, even if that desire is nothing more than submitting to the desires of another person.
The thing you often hear about big dogs is that while they may terrify strangers, their owners will invariably describe them as great big softies who would never hurt a fly. Salter’s use of a dog to represent Ardis’ unspoken desire for sexual transgression is not just a representation of Ardis’ fear of her own sexuality but also a recognition of her desire for a properly integrated libido, the ability to understand oneself and bring one’s desires to heel in a way that replaces fearfulness with control over our own savage natures.
The trees streamed past in the dark as they drove home. Their house rose in brilliant headlights. She thought she had caught sight of something and found herself hoping that her husband had not. She was nervous as they walked across the grass. The stars are numberless. They would open the door and go inside, where all was familiar, even serene.
While Salter’s use of a dog to represent a desire for sexual transgression is uncharacteristically ‘on the nose’, his description of the context from which this desire springs is entirely consistent with the methods he employs in the rest of this collection. For starters, Ardis’ husband Warren barely features in the story until the couple are forced to confront Ardis’ growing obsession with Brennan and the dog. Salter does not give us much to work with regarding Warren until he tries to initiate sex:
— Tired? her husband asked as she emerged.
It was his way of introducing the subject.
The passionless nature of Warren and Ardis’ marriage is made even more evident in a paragraph of almost unsurpassable literary quality:
After a while they would prepare for bed while the wind seized the corners of the house and the dark leaves thrashed each other. They would turn out the lights. All that was outside would be left in wildness, in the glory of the wind.
Savage nature is something that exists outside of the marital home. As in “Comet” the house is both a shelter from the terrors of the night and a way of cutting oneself off from a universe so deep, dark, and filled with possibility that it feels like it might just suck you off your feet and hurl you outwards into the beyond like a character in an Olaf Stapledon novel.
While Ardis may hope that the calmness of her marital home will allow her to free herself from her desires, the dog hovers at the edges of the garden like an intrusive thought:
It was true. He was there.
Much like a desire that will not recede, the dog functions as a link between the airless calm of the place Ardis lives and the dark rich passion of the place she yearns to be. Under the guise of returning the dog to its owner, Ardis takes the animal home and lets herself into Brennan’s house only to strip half naked and begin reading the notes left for him by his Venezuelan wife. Hoping to be discovered by Brennan, Ardis looks out the window and happens to notice Warren in the garden:
Thank God, she thought helplessly.
Upon returning home, Ardis continues to obsess about Brennan and the dog that will not leave her alone. Desperate to regain some sort of control over her own life, she talks about calling an animal centre or anyone who will rid her of these feelings. Warren asks:
— Why don’t you call the police? Maybe they’ll shoot him.
— Why don’t you do it? She said coldly. Borrow someone’s gun. He’s driving me crazy.
Tensions grow within the couple (“His wife’s back was turned towards him. He could feel her denial”) until the following morning when they notice that the dog, though still in their garden, is lying in a peculiar fashion. Suddenly afraid that the dog might be dead, Ardis tries to run to him but Warren holds her arm:
— Let me go, she said.
She began to weep.
— Let me go.
— Leave him alone! He called after her. Let him be!
I am moved to consider whether or not Warren took Ardis at her word and decided to shoot the dog. Salter neither describes Warren doing the deed nor addresses the question of whether the dog has been physically wounded; he just suggests that the dog is somehow in the process of dissolving:
She could sense the heavy limp weight of him, a weight that would disperse, become something else, the sinews fading, the bones becoming light.
While Ardis’ desire for Brennan is made physically manifest in the person of the dog, Warren’s place in Ardis’ sexual universe is addressed in the question of whether or not he shot the animal. Ardis may have asked him to shoot the dog but, like all transgressive desires, she also wanted him to do nothing of the sort. I am reminded of the scene in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher when the young student finally relents and performs all of the transgressive sexual acts requested by his teacher only for the older woman to be left spiritually bereft: As fantasies, these acts allowed the woman to escape from a life in which she was an unpleasantly standoffish middle-aged woman living with a controlling mother. As realities, these acts made her feel nothing except sore and more than a little bit ashamed. Warren’s real-or-imagined decision to confront the dog causes the collapse of Ardis’ fantasies and leaves her literally chasing after a feeling she could never bring herself to experience:
She ran after him. Warren could see her. She seemed free. She seemed like another woman, a younger woman, the kind one saw in the dusty fields by the sea, in a bikini, stealing potatoes in bare feet.
I am not in the least bit clear as to what “kind” of woman Salter is talking about here, and therein lies the point. This is a glimpse into Warren’s sexual universe and it seems as weird and incomprehensible as Ardis’ bizarre obsession with a drunken neighbour’s dog.
While the foreground of the story is dominated by a dog that serves as a sort of crude fetish object for the more transgressive elements of Ardis’ sexuality, the real meat of the story lies in the space around the dog where Salter exposes carefully chosen details about his characters’ sexualities and relationship. The dog itself is a strong metaphor and its tendency to lurk at the edges of Ardis’ garden certainly captures the way that sexual thoughts and desires can often seem to hover just on the margins of our attention. However, the point of the story is not that Ardis has transgressive sexual desires (I suspect most people do) but rather the subtle ways in which these desires manifest themselves and come to influence how Ardis sees both herself and her marriage. Also wonderful is the way that the story captures the transitory nature of such desires in a scene where Ardis happens to notice Brennan at a restaurant bar:
He was alone. The dog was not outside, nor in his car, nor part of his life anymore – gone, lost, living elsewhere, his name perhaps to be written in a line someday though most probably he was forgotten, but not by her.
She remembers what Brennan once represented to her, but the feeling is gone. The dog is no longer with him and no longer capable of serving as a metaphorical link between the world of her fantasies and the realities of his life.