Lives that seem perfect but aren’t: An appreciation of James Salter

Twenty years ago Kirsty Gunn was promoting a book about a perfect family who seemed to have everything, but whose lives were slowly falling apart. An audience member suggested she read James Salter's "Light Years". It was the beginning of a life-long love

I first came to read James Salter 20 years ago, when I was in the US on a book tour. I was promoting a novel I’d written about a family who, from the outside, seem to have everything – beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake – but whose lives are freighted by a sadness that eventually pulls them down.

After one of my readings, in Stanford, a young man came up to me and told me that I must read Light Years by Salter. “He’s interested in those things you’re interested in,” he said. “Lives that seem perfect but aren’t. He sees the cracks and broken pieces that were there all along.”

It’s true, I am interested in writing about people who seem to be living one way but are all in pieces, their situations and circumstances crazed by the cracks of something that happened to them that at first can be hard to see. It’s this idea of fragmentation, not only as a subject but as a modus operandi, that makes me love Salter’s work. He’s interested not in the sweep of a big narrative, its willed arc, moral shape – all that – but in the separate, glittering bits of his characters’ lives. He makes his stories out of the moments that glint and shine and seem so very lovely while the light is upon them. But their edges are sharp and they cut deep.

Since that day in California, I’ve read, I think, everything Salter has written: books such as The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime, the two collections of short stories, Solo Faces and The Arm of Flesh. All these beautifully put-together fictions of lives and loves that are filled with the world’s pleasures meticulously detailed: fine clothing and restaurants, good wine and conversation, parties, society, amusements of all degenerate and gorgeous kinds, sex . . . Many books written nowadays may be full of similar treasure but it’s there as stuff, as an accessory to the character, as an example of a milieu or a social type.

This worldly material is Salter’s subject. It elevates his characters and also brings them down. I know of no other writer in English since Fitzgerald who is quite as much in love with the glitter that is gold, its transformative power; who is so entranced by the sheen that money and leisure can lend to a life but who is quite aware of the damage that can be inflicted when one is so attracted to the world’s ravishments that there is no protection from them.

All That Is, Salter’s latest novel, may be his last (he is 87), though he’s not saying that. “You have the brains,” he once remarked, “but it’s energy and desire that make you write a novel.” Still, there is about All That Is the sense that the author is telling us once and for all what he is about. Philip Bowman, his hero, is more clearly drawn – as the selfmade man who has fashioned himself from the lessons life has taught him and the instruction of others who have lived on the scale to which he aspires – than any of Salter’s other protagonists. There’s also the sound here of elegy, a grand farewell:

He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man. He mustn’t . . . be going around the house in shorts like this . . . He had to be careful about such things.

For a long time, I had to buy my Salter books when I was in New York. They were hard to come by in the UK. I tried to turn people on to him here: my agent, my publisher, friends . . . But the work seemed – what? Too American? Apart from the usual procession of Roths and Updikes and despite our introduction to “dirty realism” – writers few in this country had heard of before, such as Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff – English readers were still very much settled on this side of the Atlantic.

Or were the stories just too glamorous? Too fancy? Too sexy? Too chic? After all, British fiction still felt mired, back then, in the late 1990s, in a kind of extended postwar gloom – stiff with privation and lack. Or if not, it was in thrall to the Amis school of what I might call hyper-novels – with out of control subject matter rendered in a style that satirised and turned to junk everything it touched. Here, by contrast, was a writer who didn’t have an ironic sentence in him, no subtext, no side. Every paragraph on every page was put there to delight and devastate.

Even readers who’d loved writers such as Cheever and Yates didn’t know what to do with this other kind of book that inhabited the same part of the eastern seaboard, maybe, with the same kinds of families mixing highballs on the flat, blue lawns in front of their white houses at sundown. Salter is not using those places as a jumping-off point for some other moral tale. Those houses, those lawns, are enough to tell the entire story.

If that makes his themes sound shallow, we should ask ourselves what it is we need in our fiction to consider it great and grave and consequential. A lesson learned? Facts given, yielded? Research shown in this subject or that? A sense provided of intellectual, spiritual, emotional enlightenment? Salter is not interested in any of this. His writing is about the “moment of being” celebrated by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, the power of the moment rendered in words. He opens All That Is with this note: “There comes a time when you realise that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

Salter’s first novel was The Hunters, published in 1956. A thinly veiled fictional account of his time serving in the air force, it accounted for (as did the memoirs that followed, Burning the Days and Gods of Tin) the feeling of being in a cockpit, looking out a small windshield on the world below.         

All the work, fiction and non-fiction, spins out from that first airborne novel: taking off, ascending, turning, returning to the same landing spot, this sweet earth, its necessary and lovely attractions. So we dip, we dive, we land. We meet pretty girls, have sex, fall in and out of a kind of love. There are parties, we get married, we have affairs, we get divorced. We drink whisky last thing at night, by lamplight, alone. This is what Salter has written over the years, over and over and over again. There’s nothing shallow about this world, he says. This world is all we have.

Kirsty Gunn’s most recent novel is “The Big Music” (Faber & Faber, £20)

Beauty, leisure, endless summers and a house by a lake - Salter's characters appear to be living perfect lives, but are really in pieces. Photograph: Lana Rys.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times