All That Is by James Salter: Deep seriousness and grammar-defiant swooning

Salter appears to feel no terror at boundlessness and no need to impose his own geometry. What he is more eager to impose – or to let flourish – is a particular way of seeing. Among recent American novels, <em>All That Is</em> has few equals on this score

All That Is
James Salter
Picador, 304pp, £18.99

In Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, a creative writing student in possession of a style “as plain and poetic as rain on a daisy” warns her celebrated but worn tutor that his latest novel, many years in the making and, at 2,500-plus pages, still unfinished, has a feeling of being “spread out”. “Spread out?” he asks. “Okay, not spread out, then, but jammed too full,” she replies, citing a few examples of what she means, among them the genealogies of the characters’ horses. It’s a vivid glimpse of the kind of long-gestating project that has actual models in literary history – Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul (1991) might be the classic modern instance – and so it is to James Salter’s credit that, in writing his first new novel in 35 years, he has taken an approach that risks being both spread out and jammed and comes up with something that is so nearly a masterpiece.

If there’s an appropriate metaphor for the way Salter tells the story of the navy vet and book editor Philip Bowman, it isn’t the family tree but the social network, with its emphasis on “mutual friends” and “people you may know”. In other words, this is a novel with an inordinate number of dropped names, including such figures as Vernon Beseler, a drunken poet and the ex-husband of Dena (there are also characters called Enid and Edina), a “tall, loose-limbed” single mother from Texas who ends up living in “a small white house in Piermont” with Bowman’s friend Eddins; Stanley Palm, a divorced painter whom Eddins and Dena meet at the restaurant Sbordone’s; and Judy, the “darkhaired girl in a tight sweater” whom Stanley meets at the Village Hall and who says nothing when he slips his hand inside her leather jacket. Everywhere Salter turns, he finds facts and anecdotes and fragrances to pass on; you soon stop distinguishing between the essential and the indolent.

A heaving supporting cast tends to be used to fill out a world but the purpose here is temporal as much as spatial. Bowman is a frequenter of bars and dinner parties and an able seducer but he is also an ordinary man, the majority of whose mostly uneventful life we see, and all those secretaries and in-laws and colleagues amount to a lifetime’s driftwood. We first encounter him during his final days as a seaman in the Pacific war and we leave him in a moment of apparent calm, at some point in the 1980s. The years stream by, doing little – apart from supplying the odd presidential assassination – to distinguish themselves. The only palpable means by which Salter marks the passage of time is in the intermittent updates about the ailments, break-ups and business schemes of people Bowman knows or knows about or from whom he is separated by one or two degrees. There are a thousand ways for a life to go wrong and Salter shows us most of them.

Bowman is the novel’s still centre and, now and then, a dead one; though never exactly a blank, he tends to let things happen to him and they reliably do. Most of his thoughts are of the short-term variety. The press of experience allows him plenty of downtime – he loves to read at night, with silence and the golden colour of whiskey as “companions” – but not much detachment. The only moment he says anything concrete about himself is in the early 1960s when, on a trip to London, a woman in a Soho pub asks him, “What has your life been like? . . . What are the things that have mattered?” and he replies: “The navy and the war.” But a few minutes later: “He was not sure he had told the truth.”

Any moderately or even sporadically attentive reader of All That Is would have to say that what matters, what gives Bowman a sense of purpose, is sex. Of his many relationships – things get a little frenzied near the end – the most significant are with the remote Vivian, a product of Virginia horse country, to whom he is briefly married, and Christine, a single mother whom he meets in an airport taxi queue. Bowman’s life is defined by his appetites; elaborated and explored, these are what fill the novel. The resulting view of human existence is on the limited side – liquor, female flesh, hardbacks, title deeds, divorce papers – but Salter gets what he needs from this seedy quintet.

The confidence is staggering and must be a product of age. Salter turns 88 next month and has been publishing novels since the 1950s, albeit infrequently (this is his sixth). In his preface to Roderick Hudson, which, despite the ineradicable existence of Watch and Ward, he called “my first attempt at a novel”, Henry James recalled the “terror” he felt as “a young embroiderer of the canvas of life”; continuing but switching visual figures, he wrote: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” Salter is more than a half-century older than James was when he embarked on Roderick Hudson – a quartercentury older than James was when he wrote the preface – and he appears to feel no terror at boundlessness and no need to impose his own geometry.

What he is more eager to impose – or to let flourish – is a particular way of seeing. Among recent American novels, All That Is has few equals on this score. Rhapsodic and marvelling, with a treasurable lack of cynicism and a 1950s-ish directness, Salter’s style is sensory without being exactly lyrical, like a finergrained Henry Miller or a coarser-grained Lawrence Durrell. Although he likes to linger over impressions, he is rarely wasteful. A former screenwriter, he can nail a whole relationship in a half-page scenelet, in a few exchanges or a canny detail. Eddins’s first sight of Dena is typical: “Intense but quick to laugh, she spoke with a drawl in a voice filled with life.” And yet he is not a daintily descriptive writer for whom fine purity or clean elegance is the only goal; he begins sentences with “also” and commits crimes against syntax – and occasionally sense – in pursuit of a powerful effect. The novel, though full of highlights, amounts to more than just the sum of them.

At the moment, the only other evidence we have of Salter’s late manner comes from “Charisma”, 11 elliptical pages on which “the ink has only just dried”, as John Banville puts it in his introduction to Salter’s welcome – and wieldy – Collected Stories (Picador, £18.99). It’s an awkward performance – an inquiry into the way that women think about men (“No one was like him, his energy, his emanation”) that gives the reader all kinds of reasons to recoil.

At times, you recoil from the novel, too, from the hard-boiled worldliness and the straitened conception of women and – related to these – the lordly indifference to movements in the public sphere. But mostly, Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to be helpless, like Bowman when, on meeting Christine, he tells himself: “All right, become intoxicated.”

The writer James Salter, aged 87. Photograph: Matt Nager/Redux/Eyevine

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496