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’.

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Last Night by James Salter: “Give”

A story that gave me little joy and left behind it only impertinent questions: – When was this story written relative to the others in the book? Just as composers will often re-use musical phrases and directors can often be found re-using particular motifs, “Give” is a story that seems to draw on images and themes that are also present in the other stories. Is this story’s lusty poet a dry run for that of “My Lord You” or did that image stick so firmly in Salter’s mind that he could not help but return to it? – Does Salter work better at certain lengths than others? The more space he affords himself, the more elegantly he describes to space around his moods and characters. “Give” is nearly the shortest story in the collection and while it does manage to gain some traction, the emotions and images it shuffles around are more simplistic than they are in other stories. Much like “Such Fun”, “Give” is a story with a distracting twist in the tale. I say “distracting” as the drama arising from the male narrator’s affair with another man is most definitely not the point of the story. This is not a story about lost love or a marriage strained by infidelity, it is a story about a world woven from lies and enforced with all the passive-aggression that the middle-classes can muster. Continue reading →

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.

 

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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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