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.

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Last Night by James Salter: “Eyes of the Stars”

It is hard not to read this story as an invitation to compare-and-contrast its female characters. Like “Comet”, “Eyes of the Stars” opens with a vivisection of its primary protagonist:

She was short with short legs and her body had lost its shape. It began at her neck and continued down, and her arms were like a cook’s. In her sixties Teddy had looked the same for a decade and would probably go on looking the same, where was not that much to change. She had pouches under her eyes and a chin, slightly receding when she was a girl, that was lost now in several others, but she was dressed neatly and people liked her.

There’s a surprising amount of cruelty and laziness about this description. Teddy’s obesity is characterised as a loss of shape and begins at her neck in a way that invites us to think of her pretty face, which is always the first thing people try to compliment in fat women. Drenched in vinegar, such compliments invariably take the form “…but you have such a pretty face!” as though obesity were a body’s act of betrayal against an innocent and undeserving face. Equally uncomfortable is Salter’s decision to append the description with the rejoinder that “she was dressed neatly and people liked her” so as to assure us that Teddy is not one of those slovenly fat people who are deserving of our unreasoning hatred. The mention of the cook’s arms also gives this passage an edge of snobbery as though Teddy’s weight made her look like a member of the working class.

Uncharitably viewed, this is Salter weaving a character from raw social prejudice. Charitably viewed, this is a deliberate act of cruelty designed to make us think of Teddy as someone who has long been the victim of other people’s unkindness. When I refer to Teddy as the story’s primary protagonist, what I mean is that she is the character with whom we are meant to sympathise. She is the ‘goodie’ for want of a better word.

 

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Last Night by James Salter: “Comet”

It occurs to me that a gap has emerged between the types of film that I enjoy and the types of book that I tend to read.

As the contents of this blog suggest, I am generally drawn to small, intimate and psychological films that ask a lot of their audiences. Made with a painter’s eye and a jeweller’s hand, these films demand not just a familiarity with the language of cinema but also a capacity to sift the debris of fictional lives for traces of raw humanity. If forced to choose a film that most captured my current mood, I would happily point to Francois Ozon’s 5×2 as it strikes the major chords of a modern marriage only to then invite the audience to speculate as to nature of the tune that once united them.

Given that the books I read generally keep humanity at arm’s length, I thought it might be fun to seek out some literary short fiction that adopted a similar relationship to its readers as the works of Claude Chabrol and Francois Ozon. Hell…. Reading something a bit different might also help to improve my reading skills, which have atrophied considerably since I stopped regularly reviewing books.

I wanted a work that would present me with beautiful human puzzles and my search eventually lead me to James Salter’s Last Night. It is my intention to write a little something about each of the book’s ten stories, starting with “Comet”.

As I write, I have not yet finished Last Night but I have read a few stories ahead in an effort to familiarise myself with Salter’s techniques and spot any recurring themes. The first theme to emerge from my reading is an interest in older sexualities and the emotional lives surrounding them. “Comet” is a story that invites us to consider the differences between a freshly-married bride and groom.

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