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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