James Salter, Light Years (1975)
James Salter is one of those writers whose books I always start with a lot of excitement, expecting them to be among the best novels I’ve ever read; they start well, and then after about fifty pages I find myself irritated by what seems to me an increasingly mannered and precious style. (I talked a bit about this in the post on All That Is, which also mentions Canada.) Light Years, sadly, followed exactly that pattern. It’s about Nedra and Viri, a couple with two daughters who have what appears to be a perfect marriage and live a fabulous, cultured life in their gorgeous house just outside New York City, on the Hudson River. Salter’s goal here, I think, is to capture the key moments of life, in all their intense beauty or pain, but also to give a sense of how quickly those moments, and life itself, slip past. There are certainly some gorgeous passages, but the book becomes more trite as it goes on, and by the end it completely falls apart — I don’t know if there are words to describe the grating tedium of the last section of this novel.
But to come to the point…
A Reasonable Facsimile of Europe
The most interesting reference to Canada is part of a scene in which Nedra and Kate, the teenaged daughter of one of Nedra and Viri’s neighbours, are arranging to meet:
The elegance of the evening, the dishes remaining on the table, the ease with which Nedra and her husband treated each other, the understanding which seemed to stream from them, all of this filled Kate with a feverish happiness, that happiness which lies within the power of another to confer. She was drenched with love for these people who, though they had lived nearby all through her childhood, it seemed she was suddenly seeing for the first time, who were treating her as someone she longed at that moment to be: one of themselves.
“Can I come and see you while I’m here?” she asked.
“I mean, I really like to talk to you.”
“I’d love to see you,” Nedra said.
One afternoon, then. They would walk together or have tea. She had never set foot beyond the borders, this woman Kate suddenly loved, this woman with a knowing face, not at all sentimental, who leaned on her elbows and smoked small cigars. She had never traveled, not even to Montreal, and yet she knew so well what life should be. It was true. In her heart she carried an instinct like that of a migrant species. She would find the tundra, the deeps, she would journey home. (157-58)
Not even to Montreal! This is a marvellous detail, as it shows that Montreal, as a largely French-speaking city in North America, represents a sort of baseline of sophistication for cultured Americans, as if to say, if you can’t get to Europe, at least go to Montreal. The idea seems to be that Montreal will provide some facsimile of the experience of travelling to Europe, and while it obviously won’t be the same, at least it’s something.
As the novel proceeds, it turns out that far from being some rich girl brought up in luxury, Nedra actually grew up as the daughter of a relatively poor, chain-smoking travelling salesman in a small town in Pennsylvania. The reference to Montreal is an important element in the novel because it punctures the image we have of her and reveals one of the central contradictions of Nedra’s character: her appearance of sophistication despite her lack of any of the experiences or accomplishments that normally confer sophistication on a person.
Flying and Fishing, But Not Necessarily Fly-Fishing
There are a couple of minor references to Canada, which I’ll just note in passing. The first picks up on the reference above about travelling to Montreal, and comes as Danny, one of Viri and Nedra’s daughters, lies in bed with her boyfriend after losing her virginity:
She did not move. I have done it, she thought. The light that came through the windows was wintry. There was a bite to the air, as of coal. High up, faint, the sound of a jet crossing the city, en route to Canada, France. (192)
The way Canada and France are placed together at the end of the sentence as possible destinations one might be flying to from New York seems an odd confirmation of the idea quoted above, that Canada is in some sense an alternate Europe. (In a weird way, the use of the comma rather than “or” almost makes it sound as if Canada is a place in France, like “Paris, France”. If only!)
The other reference is part of a description of a character named Peter Daro:
His great love was fishing. He had fished in Ireland, the Restigouche, he had fished the Frying Pan and the Esopus. (248)
The Restigouche is a river in New Brunswick and is famous for its salmon fishing.
This reference, incidentally, is part of a growing pattern, which we have also seen in John Cheever and Frederick Exley, and suggests that mid-century male novelists primarily view Canada as a place to go fishing.
Neil Young, Of Course
It’s just very difficult to avoid references to Neil Young. In this scene, Viri gets drunk at a party and has an encounter with a much younger woman:
His attention was drawn back to Candis. She was sitting near him and was talking about the first thing men look at in a woman. Someone said it was the hands and feet.
“Not quite,” she said.
Together they found themselves going through the phonograph records.
“Is there any Neil Young?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Look at this.”
It was a record of Maurice Chevalier. They put it on.
“Now there’s a life,” Viri said. “Menilmontant, Mistinguett…”
“The thirties. Both wars. He used to say that until he was fifty he lived from the waist down, and after fifty, from the waist up. I wish I could speak French.”
“Well, you can, can’t you?”
“Oh, just enough to understand these songs.”
There was a pause. “He’s singing in English,” she said. (228)
I quoted a little more than necessary there, I suppose, just so I could include the joke at the end — Salter can be a very funny writer. The point here, obviously, is the generation gap between Viri and Candis — he’s into Maurice Chevalier, she’s looking for Neil Young — and we can just note that, as in Meg Wolitzer and Lorrie Moore, among others, it’s a Canadian who represents the idea of “singer the kids are listening to these days.”
Salter’s Style (Unrelated to Canada)
I was planning to write a long, involved consideration of Salter’s style here, but I find I don’t really have the time or the energy to tackle it, so instead, I’m just going to look at one example. Before I begin, though, I should say that Salter can write beautifully, and if you’ve never read him, he’s worth a look.
But as I noted above, I found his style increasingly grating as I went on, for a variety of reasons I suppose, but I want to talk about what I think we can learn from this passage:
Eve was tall. Her face had cheekbones.
Those two sentences appear at the beginning of one of the chapters in Light Years. Now, far be it from me to quibble with a great writer, but there is something going on here that I find troubling.
I’m not sure how to describe this — is it redundancy? is it obviousness? is it tautologous? is it pleonastic? Of course her face had cheekbones; all faces have cheekbones. But the more interesting question to me is, how does a writer — and particularly a talented writer — write a sentence like “Her face had cheekbones”? My personal theory is that he doesn’t, really; he revises his way into it after first writing a somewhat different sentence, a sentence along the lines of “Her face was distinguished by prominent cheekbones,” but then deciding that that is a cliché, and revising it to something like, “She had prominent cheekbones” — but after a while that, too, seems to be a cliché, and finally the writer, searching for the taut, pared-down, lapidary style that authors of Salter’s generation, all following in the hallowed steps of Hemingway, were always seeking, settles on “Her face had cheekbones.” Clearly this sentence cannot have only its literal meaning, because if it did it would be simply stupid; it must stand in for some idea along the lines of, “She had prominent cheekbones,” but the writer, in his horror of cliché, has settled on this weirdly obvious statement as the best way to convey that — and so has come dangerously close to conveying nothing at all.
This kind of squeamishness is balanced by the other aspect of Salter’s style, which is a striving poeticism that, at its worst, turns into overwriting. (See the beginning of the first quoted passage, above, which reads like a breathless profile of a celebrity couple in a glossy magazine.) I’m all for writing that is beautiful, but when I can feel the author trying to make his writing beautiful, I think there’s a problem. Salter, as a stylist, sometimes feels like a model who can’t stop looking at himself in the mirror.