Last Night by James Salter: “Such Fun”
Looking back over the pieces I have written about this collection I am struck by the fact that I’ve effectively been dancing around an idea first put forward by the German poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht.
Brecht was a life-long committed Marxist at a time when that meant something other than being an academic. As a Marxist, Brecht was concerned about the purpose of the theatre and people’s tendency to use it as a source of escapism and/or moral complacency: Turn up at a show, identify with one of the characters, experience their moral gyrations at one step removed, go back to your life without even pausing for self-reflection. Brecht’s response to this tendency was to develop a form known as ‘epic theatre’ that encouraged the audience to engage critically with his plays rather than relying on more traditional forms of engagement such as searching for strong characters with which to identify.
Brecht would pursue this end by deploying what he called Verfremdungseffekt, which is often translated as ‘distancing effect’, ‘estrangement effect’ or simply ‘the V-effekt’. The best known distancing effects are those that draw attention to the play’s status as a fictional conceit by breaking down the fourth wall, anything to prevent the audience from relaxing into a passive state and treating the text of the play as some sort of inviolable entity. Given the universality of postmodernism and the frequent use of meta-fictional conceits in popular culture, I suspect that today’s writers have to work considerably harder to force their audience onto a critical footing but the basic principle of the verfremdungseffekt remains intact: You cannot encourage your audience both to suspend their disbelief and to treat your text as an intriguing fiction. An audience that is engaging critically with a text is not surrendering to your attempts at emotional manipulation and an audience that has submitted to a series of carefully curated emotional experiences will be either unwilling or incapable of engaging with a text in a dispassionate fashion. Audiences can, of course, move from one footing to another but they can’t do both things at once.
The reason I mention the verfremdungseffekt is that I think something similar is going on in this collection. Every story thus far uses literary techniques to encourage us to identify with a character and their needs only for Salter to hide much of his real intent in little details that only become apparent when you step back from the stories and survey them not as the journeys of particular characters but as the interaction of different ideas and themes. This effect is definitely at work in “Such Fun”, one of the shorter stories included in this collection.
The story opens with three women tumbling out of a restaurant and deciding to go for another drink. The early pages of the story are dominated by what can only be called the bantz:
— I always get one of the good tables, said Leslie.
— Is that right?
— And what does he get?
— It’s what he hopes he’ll get, Leslie said.
— He’s really looking at Jane.
— No, he’s not. Jane protested.
— He’s got half your clothes off already.
You can almost hear the cackling.
Salter establishes Leslie and Kathrin as these two very glamorous women who are perhaps trying just that little bit too hard to have a good time. Jane comes across as considerably more reserved and yet her insistence that she is considerably less brave than either Leslie or Kathrin encourages us to view her as a bit more of an introvert, the quiet girl who gets dragged along on girl’s nights out as a foil for her more confident friends. That joke about the head waiter undressing Jane with his eyes bears all the hallmarks of a mature social dynamic… they needle Jane in order to make her feel included but also because it amuses them to scandalise her.
The trio finish their drinks and wind up heading back to Leslie’s apartment. Now quite drunk, the women continue to banter until Jane mentions that she might have broken up with her boyfriend:
— So, what happened? Leslie said.
— I don’t know. I just wasn’t interested in the things he was interested in.
— Such as? Kathrin asked.
— Give us an idea.
— The usual stuff.
— Anal sex, Jane said. She’d made it up, on an impulse. She wanted to break through somehow.
This is a lovely exchange in part because of the highly-sexualised nature of the earlier exchanges. The women joke about having sex with waiters and doormen but the suggestion that a boyfriend might have been pressuring one of them into anal sex forces the group to dump the banter because now we’re dealing with real sex and real experiences.
Jane succeeds in forcing the conversation onto a more substantial footing and so the women begin to discuss their failed and failing relationships. Kathrin leads the charge with a story about how her playwright husband had slowly turned into a pathetic drunk before Leslie starts talking about her tits and her need to dance.
The story is littered with moments in which Jane is struck by a wave of envy for her friends: She regrets not having toured Europe with them, she regrets not having had an affair in Venice and she regrets their looks and easy sensuality. If we take Salter’s cues and identify with Jane then “Such Fun” presents itself as a story about jealousy and self-hatred. Jane is not always charitable in her descriptions of her friends but every word drips with a desire to be someone else:
Kathrin was like someone at one of the clubs, glamorous uncaring. She had passion, daring. If you said something, she wouldn’t even hear you. She was a kind of cheap goddess and would go on like that for a long time.
What is it that Jane actually envies? Is it really her friend’s easy sensuality or is it something else? The answer comes at the end of the story.
Jane leaves the gathering and catches a cab. Realising that the young woman in his cab is actually in floods of tears, the driver asks Jane what is wrong and Jane responds by telling him something that she could never have told her so-called friends: She is dying.
Jane is an attractive grown woman and you have to believe that she could have lived the life of Kathrin or Leslie had she any real desire to do so. She does not envy the fact that Kathrin is a ‘cheap goddess’, she envies the fact that she will go on like that for a long time… drinking too much, spending too, and cackling at the thought of having sex with working class men.
While identifying with Jane may deliver a significant emotional payload, the real strength of the story emerges when you deny yourself the catharsis of an ending and begin to think about the group’s emotional dynamics and how completely uninterested Kathrin and Leslie seem to be in Jane’s well-being. They can sympathise with the idea that Jane’s boyfriend might have asked her for anal sex but Jane does not even try to talk about her real news… that was never the purpose of the gathering.
Salter is typically unforthcoming on the question of what it is that Jane actually gets out of her friendship with Leslie and Kathrin but one way of reading the story is that while the more confident women use Jane to make themselves look good, Jane uses her frivolous friends as a means of reminding herself of her own intellectual and moral superiority. Sure… Jane might envy the women their easy sensuality but her use of the word “cheap” in that description of Kathrin shows true and long-standing contempt.
Ostensibly, the title of this story refers to the light tone of the women’s conversation and the idea that Jane might not want to burden her friends with terrible news but my preferred reading of the story is to view it as an intelligent woman’s attempt to distract herself in the same way as she has been doing for years. Jane’s tears and her desire to end the evening and go home is simply a reflection of the fact that the old drugs don’t work… moral superiority is a hell of a drug but it won’t cure cancer or quiet the pain of terminal illness.