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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A Perspective on Perspectives

The Good people at Nerds of a Feather are currently experimenting with a couple of new formats including the Blogtable I was lucky enough to participate in earlier this week. The second format they have tried is called Perspectives and it seems to involve a number of bloggers responding to a particular piece or event. For reasons best known to The G, they chose my reviews of Terraform and Uncanny magazines as the basis for their first Perspectives.

Whenever people respond to anything I write (particularly negatively, natch) my first instinct is to mutter about them getting the wrong end of the stick but this time, I was reminded of an old article by John Clute in which he talks about the wonders of ‘misprision’ and how someone’s decision to latch onto a meaning other than the one you intended can serve to open up interesting perspectives on the original piece. Plus… it would be a bit off of me to argue that the author is dead and then argue that people have failed to interpret one of my essays correctly! So rather than seeking to ‘correct’ their responses or ‘punish them for their impudence’, I’ll respond to their ideas directly and use them as an opportunity to clarify some of my own thinking.

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There is no such thing as a Reliable Narrator

A recent issue of the London Review of Books contained a fascinating review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, sequel to her Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. One of the questions addressed in Colin Burrow’s review (which can be read here if you’re a subscriber) is that of whether Mantel is overly charitable in her depiction of Thomas Cromwell as a man with thoroughly modern sensibilities:

The crude question ‘Does this mean that he could have felt as much and as finely as he does in this book?’ still needs to be asked. The novel’s present-tense mode of narrative, focalised through a single principal character, has an intrinsic problem. It would be almost impossible to write this kind of fiction and make the central character a brute, since so much depends upon what he or she notices and feels, on sensitivity. If a fiction represents the sensorium of one character’s feelings, then an inert or insensitive sensorium would probably generate inert fiction.

To my mind, this is pretty much spot on. While I have not read Bring Up the Bodies, I have read Wolfe Hall and Mantel’s depiction of Tudor England is so fragrant and atmospheric that it simply could not have been filtered through the mind of a character who saw the world purely in terms of fights, political conquests or scientific problems in need of a solution. In order for Mantel to portray Tudor England as a place full of colour and contrast, she needed a central character who would be alive to those elements of his world. Had Cromwell been a brute, then he would have attended to brutish things and our impression of the Tudor England would have been immeasurably more brutish as a result.

This got me thinking… people often talk about characters in very instrumental terms, portraying them either as psychological riddles in need of decoding or as means of capturing the reader’s empathy and using that connection to immerse them in the world of the novel.  Indeed, people often talk about the possibility of novels having ‘unreliable narrators’ in the sense that some fact about the narrator might shed some doubt on his or her version of the facts and thereby encourage readers to infer some previously hidden truth about the events described in the novel. The problem with the concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’ is that it assumes that there can be a ‘reliable’ narrator but I do not see how this could possibly be.

When each of us walk into a room, our attentions are drawn to different things dependent upon our perceptual capacity, our life experience, our personality, our interests and our mood. Two people can walk into exactly the same room and their minds will turn to very different matters: One will notice a social rival and begin speculating about how they can confront and humiliate them while another will begin to internally enthuse about the style of dress and the quality of the food. In this case both narrators are, strictly speaking, unreliable as the picture they give of a particular situation is incomplete and slanted… but how else are we to perceive the world except through our eyes, our experiences and our personalities?

A little while ago, I wrote about Jo Walton’s Hugo Award-nominated novel Among Others (2011) and commented on how cold and emotionally detached the world of that novel felt to me. Given that, much like Wolf Hall, Among Others focuses upon the life and experiences of one particular character, I inferred that much of the coldness of the world came from the fact that the book’s narrator was some kind of psychopath:

The work whose tone and setting most closely match that of Among Others is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) as Mor is not only isolated and alienated but also intensely calculating in her relationships with other people. There are scenes where Mor discusses purchasing buns for other girls on the understanding that this will get them to buy her buns in return that echo with the same sociopathic lack of humanity as the scenes in which Ender ponders murdering or brutalising a bully in order to set an example.

Among Others and Ender’s Game are perfect examples of the kind of book that Burrow speculates must exist: They are emotionally inert because their central characters are themselves emotionally inert. The same can be said of Steve McQueen’s second film Shame (2011), which is cold, austere and minimalistic because its central character lives a life that is just as uncluttered as his elegantly-designed Manhattan apartment.

The ‘take home’ point from all of this is that characters are not solely defined by the things they think or the things they do, they are also defined by the things they pay attention to. Any novel that uses first-person narration or clings closely to a third-person viewpoint character must necessarily be read as that character’s subjective impression of the world they inhabit. While all of us share the same physical world, we live our lives in subjective universes built to suit our preferences. The art of great writing lies not just in making a character or a world that seems realistic, but in exploring the way in which the world makes the character and the character makes their own world.

A Paragraph from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story

Last night I picked up my copy of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) and just started reading. Within a couple of pages, I pulled up short, unable to get past the astonishing beauty and craft of this paragraph:

So for hours they drove south through the songs and rhythms of country music, the stations weakening and changing, the disk jockeys swapping names and accents, the sponsors succeeding each other in a revolving list of insurance companies, toothpaste, soap, Dr Pepper and Pepsi Cola, acne preparations, funeral parlors, petroleum jelly, bargain wristwatches, aluminum sidings, dandruff shampoos: but the music remained the same, a vast and self-conscious story, a sort of seamless repetitious epic in which women married truckers and no-good gamblers but stood by them until they got a divorce and the men sat in bars plotting seductions and how to get back home, and they came together hot as two-dollar pistols and parted in disgust and worried about the babies. Sometimes the car wouldn’t start, sometimes the TV was busted; sometimes the bars closed down and threw you out onto the street, your pockets turned inside out. There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché, but the child sat there satisfied and passive, dozing off to Willie Nelson and waking up to Loretta Lynn, and the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.

The thing that strikes about this paragraph is the way that it breaks down into three very different sentences. The first – which MS Word is currently underlining entirely in green – is not just a run-on sentence but a run-on sentence comprising little more than a list of things overheard on the radio. Aside from Straub’s eye for set dressing (The South belongs to Dr Pepper and Pepsi… not Coke), the astonishing thing about this sentence is that it in no way feels over-long or under-punctuated. It is easy to forget that punctuation exists in order to instruct the reader where to place emphasis and when to pause while reading ‘aloud in their head’. Straub strings his sentence together using a series of commas and a semi-colon that shifts the emphasis away from the adverts and towards the music. The sentence does not feel too long because Straub chooses his words with utmost care and precision. He chooses them for colour and he chooses them for cadence. He chooses them places them in the sentence in a very specific order so as to ensure that we can read the entire sentence without ever getting lost and without ever having to check the punctuation to make sense of what it is that we have just read. The words and concepts slip by us like the miles of a cross-country road trip. They fit together because we see them together, their association is almost accidental and yet strangely evocative in the same way that shopping trolleys and broken windows create an impression of poverty that has little to do with the bank balances of local residents. The semi-colon is a masterstroke as it changes the emphasis without jerking us out of the rhythm of the sentence. Once it was adverts that flowed by us, now it is song lyrics. They flow into one another and create a single impression almost by accident but seemingly by design.

If the semi-colon was impressive then the full stop is a stroke of genius. Again, we are confronted by a list of things but Straub cleverly inserts the second-person pronoun ‘You’ to suggest a growing bond between the music and the listened. What began as a way to keep the child quiet ends as a reflection on the listener’s life. YOU know what it’s like to be thrown out of a bar. YOU know what it’s like to have a busted TV and nothing to do. YOU know these things and so do the singers and songwriters. They speak to YOU, their words are no longer just a different type of noise to the adverts that started the paragraph. They got to YOU.

The third sentence finds the listener jerking himself out of a country music-filled reverie. The opening clause of the sentence is almost petulant: “There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a cliché” then comes the comma… then comes the BUT. This shit is awful, trite, clichéd nonsense but it lulled the child to sleep and it gave the miles a pleasing feel. Just enough of a pleasing feel to allow the driver to forget that the child on the back-seat has been abducted and that, sooner or later, he will have to be deal with her one way or another. That time will come… but not yet: “the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.”

Even those last two words are brilliant: Bottom Dogs… Buh-dum Dah!

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 6

Gestalt Mash have my review of the sixth volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Eisner and Tiptree award-winning manga series Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

My review features something of a reassessment of the series as I realise that, rather than looking it as a Feminist thought-experiment about an alternate feudal Japan in which the male population has been reduced by 75%, the series is best seen as a historical epic.  The term ‘historial epic’ is somewhat misleading in that it tends to summon images of fat fantasy novels with intricate plots that unravel over hundreds of years.  While Ooku’s plot may cover a number of generations, the plot is very much anchored to the waxing and waning of historical forces.  There is no grand narrative at work here, just the ceaseless change of an aging ruling class and how the decisions they make change the country:

By stepping back from the lives of the individual characters and focusing instead upon the historical themes that emerge from the passage of the generations, we can see that Yoshinaga is suggesting that history is above all a product of human passions. Yoshinaga’s characters are the twisted and broken products of a twisted and broken society and while their exalted positions allow them the power to shape and reshape society as they wish, there is the growing sense that Yoshinaga’s characters repeat the mistakes of the past because they simply cannot help it.  In Yoshinaga’s history, change happens more by chance than by design.

Needless to say, I am still very much enjoying this particular series and I hope that Viz Media continue to show their commitment to the series by publishing volume 7.

My previous posts on the series can be found at the following locations though I have also collected them under a single heading in this site’s menu bar:

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 4

Gestalt Mash have my fourth piece on Fumi Yoshinaga’s alt-historical manga epic Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

Volume 4 shifts the timeline forward in order to see how later Shoguns fare with the task of managing a changing Japan.  By allowing us to see the ways in which these later Shoguns struggle to fill the first female Shogun’s sandles, Yoshinaga not only invites a more generous appraisal of the first Shogun, she also shifts the series register away from an explicitly feminist analysis of gender differences and towards a more general political analysis of the responsibilities that accompany power.

Oh… and the book ends on a spectacular cliffhanger!

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 2

Gestalt Mash has the second of my pieces about Fumi Yoshinaga’s excellent Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

Having introduced us, in the first volume, to an alternative history of Edo-period Japan in which 75% of the male population has been killed off by disease, Yoshinaga goes about trying to explain why it is that this culture allows women to rule while also paying lip service to the idea of masculine superiority.  Intelligent, insightful and quite moving, Ooku: The Inner Chambers continues to be a very rewarding read.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 1

Gestalt Mash has recently relaunched itself and it brings with it the first in a series of posts about Fumi Yoshinaga’s Tiptree Award-winning manga series Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

Set in an alternate Edo-period Japan in which the male population has been decimated by a terrible disease, the series is an examination of why it is that old values (in particular the myth of masculine supremacy) outlive their utility in the face of social and demographic change.