Last Night by James Salter: “Platinum”
Now this is a bit more fucking like it! “Give” and “Such Fun” have their moments but both stories rely rather too heavily on grand reveals to do their work. The grand reveal that forces one to re-evaluate the entire story is a very heavy-handed technique and I think that Salter’s stories work better when his touch is lighter and readers are left to come to their own conclusions. I don’t know whether I am getting better at deciphering Salter but “Platinum” felt completely transparent to me… I read it once and then read it again but I was never left scratching my head in the way I did with those earlier stories. Despite being quite accessible, “Platinum” contains some of my favourite writing in the collection to date.
The story opens with a description of a magnificent apartment overlooking Central Park. The apartment was bought for a small fortune a number of years ago and now it is almost the almost priceless home of a true patriarch, a man who has made a fortune helping the poor and the innocent only to them spend that money making life better for the people around him:
He was a figure of decency and honor, like the old men described by Cicero who planted orchards they would not live to see fruit from, but did it out of a sense of responsibility and respect for the gods, he had a desire to bequeath the best of what was known to his descendants.
This pillar of the community is married to a woman who is intelligent, has no interest in cooking but for whom grace, generosity and good manners are as natural as breathing. When she first met the patriarch Brule’s children she seduced them with a promise of unquestioning love and loyalty:
— Look, she had said to his daughters when she and Brule were married, I’m not your mother and I never can be, but I hope that we’ll be friends. If we are, good, and if not, you can count on me for anything.
Reading this, I am reminded of how consistently brilliant Salter is with this type of emotional engineering. These are good people, they do good things and you cannot help but fall in love with them and their little eccentricities; Brule’s insistence upon walking to work, Pascale’s refusal to cook on the grounds that she cannot talk at the same time. This is a family you desperately want to belong to… how could you not? And if that line about being able to count on Pascale for anything weren’t enough, check this out:
You belonged to the family, not as someone who happened to be married to a daughter, but entirely. You were one of them, one for all and all for one. The oldest daughter, Grace, had told her husband,
— You have to really get used to the plural of things now.
“The plural of things”… The remedy to fear, isolation and existential loneliness condensed down to four words and delivered with all the lethal accuracy of a shot to the head. This is not a family that demands loyalty or makes you work for its trust… it simply takes your ‘I’ and turns it into ‘We’.
Brian marries young Sally Brule and is ushered into the state of familial grace. They move into a small apartment but because they have money, happiness and the energy that comes from being young, free, and happy they know that they won’t be stuck in it for long. The marriage produces first a little girl and then a little boy and the little girl behaves so beautifully around the little boy that her father takes her off to Paris to enjoy some quality time together at which she behaves perfectly:
It was impossible to love her more.
However, right in the middle of shepherding his daughter around Paris, Brian is left waiting for a lift and he happens to catch a glimpse of a woman exiting the lift and heading out to dinner:
He had only a glimpse of them setting forth, the light on her hair, the cab door held open for her, and for a moment forgot that he had everything.
It’s that final sub-clause that does it… within a page, he’s gone from being completely in love with his daughter to forgetting that he even has a family. In some ways, the meat of this story lies in trying to work out why Brian is suddenly struck by lust and the desire for some as-yet unnamed and un-conceived other. I say unconceived as it’s not clear to me that the woman in the lift is the same woman that Brian winds up having an affair with. I think he sees a woman who is not-wife and is suddenly devoured from all the possibilities that not-wife entails.
Salter perches himself atop this ambiguity and uses it in a later scene where Brian flirts with a woman while cooking risotto for his family:
The girl, in a white shirt and velvety pants, was watching in fascination. He held out the wooden spoon on which there was a sample.
— Want to taste it? he asked.
— Yes darling, she said.
Ssh, he gestured playfully. Not looking at him, she took the portion of rice between her lips. Pamela was her name.
Just as Salter in unclear on the question of whether Pamela is the same woman that Brian saw getting out of a lift in Paris, he is wonderfully unclear on whether Pamela and Brian happened to know each other prior to this encounter over a pan of steaming-hot risotto. Pamela turns out to be quite a brash person and so calling a married man “darling” under his wife’s nose is not exactly out of character but I think the ambiguity serves to connect Brian’s infidelity back to that moment in Paris, as though the infidelity were not a matter of sex but of deciding to consider the sexual possibilities of elsewhere.
I also wonder whether the creation of this nebulous state of infidelity might not also serve as an act of narrative foreshadowing, a means of suggesting that Brian is not in charge of either his hormones or the relationship with Pamela.
Brian and Pamela soon escape to a hotel room and Brian’s infidelity ensues, placed into a broader moral and psychological context by Salter on absolutely top form:
There had been four murders in Brooklyn the night before. The brokers were going wild on Wall Street. On Fourteenth, men stood in the cold beside tables of watches and socks. The madman on Fifty-seventh was singing arias at the top of his voice, buildings were being torn down, new towers rising. She rose to draw the drapes and for a moment stood in the space between them, in the light and looking down. The splendour and newness of her! He had known nothing like it.
I love the way that this paragraph manages to compare Pamela’s sexuality to towers rising and builders crumbling whilst also suggesting that the infidelity isn’t that big of a deal when compared to all the murders and financial catastrophes happening in the world. For Brian, Pamela is both as big as the city and utterly dwarfed by its harshness.
Brian’s desire for Pamela leaves him hollow-legged but he doesn’t get to enjoy this romantic solipsism for long as Pamela soon starts asking questions about his wife. This makes Brian paranoid and he immediately starts imagining what it would be like if Sally were to find out about his affair. Salter handles this beautifully in one great typographical flourish.
He hits us with fourteen lines of dialogue between Pamela and Brian followed by:
When he came home that evening, his wife said,
— Brian, there’s something I want to talk to you about, something I have to ask.
Then we move straight into imagined dialogue between Brian and Sally.
This works beautifully as the line “when he came home that evening, his wife said” serves as a physical buffer between the text of the Brian/Pamela conversation and the text of the imagined Brian/Sally conversation. A tiny divider between two chunks of text that also symbolises the futility of Brian’s attempts to keep the two sections of his love-life compartmentalised. Suddenly, the arrogance of betrayal ebbs away as Brian begins to realise that Pamela is not content to be partitioned off. Things come to a head over a pair of platinum earrings:
She was trying one on, fastening it to her ear. She turned her head one way and the other, looking at herself in the mirror.
— What are they, silver?
— They’re platinum. Better than silver.
— They’re your wife’s.
— They were being repaired. I had to pick them up. It was hard not to admire her, her bare neck, her aplomb.
— Can I borrow them? She asked
— I can’t. She knows I was supposed to pick them up.
— Just say they weren’t ready.
— I’ll give them back. Is that what you’re afraid of? I’d just like to wear them once, something that’s hers but at the moment mine.
This proves disastrous as Sally happens to be seen by Brian’s father-in-law Brule who immediately recognises them as he got them for Sally himself. Brian is worried about this possibility but Sally calmly asserts that even though Brule happened to see them, she doesn’t believe that he will say a word.
The implications of this observation are quite slow to unfold as Sally is an amazingly brash and fearless character who seems completely unconcerned about the consequences of her actions. Unpicking Pamela’s lack of concern takes Brian a little while but he eventually works out why Brule wouldn’t comment: He too is having an affair with Pamela.
Brule summons Brian to lunch at his favourite restaurant and demands that he put an immediate end to the affair. Brian points out that while Brule may be in a position to ruin his marriage, surely Brian could do almost as much damage to Brule’s marriage to Pascale. Brule is terrifyingly unconcerned:
— But you wouldn’t be able to deny it, Brian said stubbornly.
— I’d almost certainly deny it. It would just be seen as a frantic attempt to deflect your guilt and blacken others. No one would believe it, I assure you. Most important, Pamela would back me up.
— What an incredible, what a pompous statement. No, she won’t.
— Yes, she will. I’ve taken care of that.
Brian storms out of the restaurant but he knows the damage is done. He repeatedly calls Pamela who finally answers the phone only to act completely disinterested not just to Brian’s professions of devotion and his claims to having been the victim of a terrible injustice, but in Brian in general. She doesn’t want to see him, she doesn’t want to talk to him and she doesn’t really care what happens to him. She has moved on. The story ends with a beautiful image of Pamela’s new lover Tahar, an echo of the moment in the lift where Brian felt the erotic potential of not-wife:
Tahar could only hear her end of the conversation and did not know who it was with, but he made a slight motion with his chin that said, finish with that. Pam nodded a little in agreement. Tahar did not drink but he offered a powerful intoxicant: darkened skin, white teeth, and a kind of strange perfume that clung even to his clothes. He offered rooms above the souk with a view of the city one could not even imagine, nights of an intense blueness, mornings when you had drifted far from the familiar world. Brian was someone she would remember, perhaps someone she could always call.
Tahar made another gesture of slight annoyance. For him it was only the beginning.
Compare this to the moment in the lift:
The woman, blonde and smooth-browed, was in a glittering silver top. They were going out for the evening, into the stream of lights, boulevards, restaurants brimming with talk. He had only a glimpse of them setting forth, the light on her hair, the cab door held open for her, and for a moment he forgot that he had everything.
If you look at some of the comments this story has garnered elsewhere on the internet, you will note that a lot of people are down on Pamela, they see her as some sort of predatory creature who feeds and moves on but this is to ignore the fact that Brian (and indeed Brule) do exactly the same thing. Brian had everything until he forgot. Brule had a wife and kids, until he forgot. Pascale had a famous jeweller for a husband, until she forgot. Throughout the story, Brian expresses his admiration for Pamela’s boldness and aplomb… the difference between her and Brian is not that she is any less hedonistic or selfish, it is that she has the courage to not only act upon her desires but also to live with their consequences. Pamela is someone who senses erotic potential and goes after it until she is lured off course by someone with even greater promise.
The distinction between Pamela’s unfettered pleasure-seeking and Brian’s guilt-ridden sentimentality is echoed and expanded in Brian’s encounter with Brule. Brule is someone who, much like Pamela, knows exactly what he wants from life and experiences no guilt from going after it. In fact, Brule is really nothing more than a more ambitious version of Pamela in so far as what he wants from life is not limited to orgasms and romance… it extends to the creation and maintenance of an idealised family life. This vision of the good life is then enforced with all of the focus and ruthlessness that Pamela brings to her movement from Brian to Tahar. When Brule learns of Brian’s infidelity, he is not outraged by Brian’s betrayal of Sally but by Brian’s decision to depart from the life-script that Brule had so carefully and expensively laid out for him: the plural of things.
I love the way this story begins with the hope-filled romance of the perfect life only to then reveal that this romantic vision is only kept alive thanks to brutal business lunches at which marriages are negotiated over like business deals.
There is something very Houellebecquian about this reduction of love to sexual economics but I am also reminded of the sexual class system that features throughout the works of Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac in particular. Brookner would no doubt look at Pamela and Brule and see confirmation of her belief that while there is only a finite amount of happiness in the world, some people seem much better at hoovering it up than others. My experiences with families and my distrust of institutions in general makes this vision of an ideal family life secretly underpinned by cynical selfishness quite compelling and yet I think the real meat of the story lies in what it does with the character of Brian.
Brian hits on a good thing when he meets Sally. Not only is she charming but her family are almost superlatively lovely. Imagine those Christmases at Brule’s apartment… lunch followed by a discrete cigar on the terrace, the steam from your breath adding to the exhaled smoke to create a small blue cloud that hangs momentarily in the air above Central Park before some architectural updraft breaks it up and whisks it away. Brian had everything and yet he wanted more. I think Brian is the meat of this particular story as he is someone who felt the urge to cheat on his wife, acted upon it, took pleasure in his cleverness and yet lacked the honesty and strength to carry it through. Brule and Pamela run rings around Brian because they know who they are and make no apologies for it. Brian has the hunger, he even has the nerve to act upon his desires but he lacks the focus and character required to either own his desires or learn to control them. This is a story about class and the fact that Brian lacks it.