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Canada through the eyes of world literature

The Romance of Canada 5: The Difficulties of Trans-Border Romance

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James Salter, All That Is (2013)

According to Richard Ford, “James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” The slight preciousness of the term “American sentences” alerts you to the fact that the purpose of that particular (American) sentence is not to communicate a thought, but to impress upon you how intelligent and finely attuned the speaker is.

Which isn’t to say Salter is a bad writer; he is, in fact, a very good one. All That Is was his last novel and, given its portentous (not to say pretentious) title, it was perhaps intended to be a sort of summing up of his view of life. It’s the story of Philip Bowman, who serves in World War II, becomes an editor at a mid-sized literary publishing house, gets married and divorced, travels, has affairs, and … well, that’s about it, to be honest. The story is told in a sort of floating third person voice, which allows Salter to move among his characters, telling parts of the story from different points of view (though he never drifts far from Bowman), or pausing the narrative to give portraits of the minor characters Bowman encounters.

To the extent that the novel has a plot, it is provided by Bowman’s sex life. Salter has said that he thinks “the major axis of life is a sexual one,” and that is apparent here, as sex for Bowman (and for the other male characters) offers not just momentary bliss, but the opening up of new possibilities of existence. There are some remarkably beautiful passages in the book (not all of them — or even most of them — about sex), and Salter’s floating narrative voice allows him to achieve some stunning effects — the chapter titled “Christmas In Virginia” is a clinic (as they say), and worth reading for anyone interested in writing prose.

After a while, however, the repetitively epiphanic treatment of the male orgasm becomes a bit tiresome. Even worse, it leads Salter to write (American) sentences like this: “The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse.”

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

There are a couple of references to Canada in the novel; I’ll deal with the more substantial one first.  This comes towards the end of the book, in a chapter dealing with a character named Eddins, who is struggling to cope with the death of his wife and adopted child. The passage refers to several younger women he knows, though I wasn’t able to decide whether we’re meant to think he’s slept with them or not:

There was also Joanna, the fat girl, enormously fat with a wonderful personality who was a teller at the bank. She was good-natured, forthcoming, with a beautiful voice, but unmarried. No one would think of marrying her. She could speak French. She’d spent a year and a half in Quebec, studying. She impulsively joined a choir there the first week and he, this man, was in it. His name was Georges. He was older and had a girlfriend, but before long he dropped the girlfriend and took up with Joanna. She came back to the States, but he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave. He would come to New York on the weekend, two or three times a month. It went on for nine years. She was terribly happy and knew it would end, but she wanted it to last as long as it could and didn’t say anything. In the tenth year they got married. Someone told Eddins she was going to have a child.  (272)

That paragraph isn’t representative of Salter’s best writing, unfortunately, but it does give a sense of the casual, straightforward, and seemingly unstudied style that characterizes much of the book — I say “seemingly” because, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, the illusion of ease in writing is the most difficult thing to achieve. It’s also a good example of his way of dropping in little portraits, sometimes covering years or even decades, of characters who will never appear in the book again. (It reminds me a bit of the voiceover narration in the film Y Tu Mama Tambien, which breaks in periodically to remind us that while we are following the story of the three main characters, countless other stories are going on around them simultaneously.)

And what about Canada? Eddins lives in upstate New York, and, as we have already seen in novels by Chris Kraus and Lorrie Moore, proximity can make Canada a presence for characters who live in that region. But Salter’s attitude to Canada here is very different from what we have seen before: in torpor, the idea of crossing the border into Canada is a simple and possible one, while in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?, Canadian tourists make up most of the customers at an upstate New York theme park.

By contrast, Salter’s narrative puts the emphasis on the difficulties faced by the couple in this cross-border romance: “he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave.” This makes Canadian identity sound like a prison from which one can’t escape. Given the distances people immigrate in the contemporary world, it’s hard to understand how getting from Quebec to upstate New York could be such a problem, but Salter doesn’t elaborate, he simply states these things as facts. Are we, perhaps, to understand that these words are not really Salter’s, but those of Georges, and that he is making excuses to Joanna for not moving to New York with her? And yet they get married and have a child together, so clearly Georges is committed to her, and ultimately able to overcome the obstacle of the Canada-U.S. border — which is, after all, famously “undefended”.

Whatever his reasons, Salter emphasizes Canada’s status as a separate country, which sets him in contrast to many American writers, who often seem to see Canada as nothing more than an extension of the U.S. And perhaps this idea of difference is significant from the romantic point of view: we can’t say for certain from the passage above, but maybe the differences between them are part of the attraction between Joanna and Georges. “Vive la différence,” as they say.

Canadian Club

No, this is not some club, along the lines of the Mile High Club, for people who have had sex with Canadians, but rather the whisky, which comes up in a description of Kimmel, who serves in the Navy with Bowman during the Second World War:

He was dark-haired and skinny and walked with a loose gait that made him seem long-legged. His uniform always looked somehow slept in. His neck was too thin for his collar. The crew, among themselves, called him the Camel, but he had a playboy’s aplomb and women liked him. In San Diego he had taken up with a lively girl named Vicky whose father owned a car dealership, Palmetto Ford. She had blond hair, pulled back, and a touch of daring. She was drawn to Kimmel immediately, his indolent glamour. In the hotel room that he had gotten with two other officers and where, he explained, they would be away from the noise of the bar, they sat drinking Canadian Club and Coke.  (6-7)

I was left uncertain as to what sort of atmosphere Salter was trying to conjure here. Are we to think of this as a classy seduction scene, with the Canadian Club the perfect choice of the sophisticated man-about-town? Or is there supposed to be something a bit tawdry about it, with Canadian Club representing the sort of cheap liquor a man uses to get a woman drunk enough for sex? I’m not sure, but the fact that they’re mixing their Canadian Club with Coke makes me lean towards the declassé interpretation.

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