The American novelist James Salter was a man after my own heart. He took his time when writing, a perfectionist possibly, and it shows in the cool precision of his prose. There are not many words in a Salter story that do not pay their own way. Every effect is intended. Which is why I was struck by a paragraph about half way through his last book, All That Is. At first I thought he had slipped up, when really all that had happened was a reminder of a law that not even he was immune to – in writing or in life.
In my Picador edition of 2013 the passage occurs on page 184. We are being told about the latest stage in the life and career of Philip Bowman, comfortably employed as an editor in a small firm of rather literary publishers. He does the round of work-related parties which are attended by, among others, ‘young women who long to make a life of it in their black dresses and glowing faces’. I doubt if Bowman himself would have approved of that preposition being elided: they might have been ‘in’ black dresses, but are we ever ‘in’ our faces? It doesn’t matter how long Salter slaved over his text, it seems, he was fallible like the rest of us. But that is not my point. What this long subordinate clause lodges in the reader’s mind is the question of how much these anxious-to-please office juniors wanted to get on and what they were prepared to do for it. The world of publishing, we have already learned, was given to casual affairs and slightly mannered adultery. That Bowman, a senior figure with some patronage to dispense, would be a ‘catch’ to someone on the make seems obvious.
This idea enjoys a brief, possibly subliminal existence in the mind of the reader, one of those impressions constantly rising, like scent, from the page before being confirmed, contradicted or simply replaced by the one that follows. The sentence continues: ‘. . . girls who lived in small apartments with clothes piled near the bed and the photos from the summer curling.’ The notion that Bowman sometimes, even routinely, went home with these acolytes gains strength. How else would he, and therefore we, eavesdropping on his existence, know what their rooms were like? How subtle it all is, with nothing having to be said outright (in a book startling for its sudden explicitness and obscenity). Our imaginations, if so minded, linger on the scenes that were acted out. The older man, empowered by gender and seniority but with the curtesy and sometimes awkwardness of a guest having to find where things are; the women sexually obliging but ambivalent or disgusted with themselves; the sense, available to both parties perhaps, of life calling time on their desires, those curling photographs a stroke of genius, a killer.
But this reading depends on one particular assumption: that we are in the territory of free indirect style in which the all-seeing eye of an omniscient narrator has access to the character’s subjectivity, third and first persons somehow combined. That requires a fairly strict adherence to point of view: for the trick to work, the protagonist cannot know something they/we have not experienced or been told. It is, of course, legitimate to play with that convention, to flout it as a matter of style; but not to lapse when in all other respects the rules of the game are upheld.
I cannot speak for the rest of Salter’s work, but All That Is tears up that rule book right from the start. It is part of the expansiveness and humanity that critics have praised. The novel shoots (no, wanders) off at a tangent to follow the lives of secondary and even minor characters, telling us things about them which Bowman could not possibly know. Not because the plot has multiple strands, each consistent with the practice just described, their subjectivity honoured and self-contained, but as what might be called a more democratic, even devolved aesthetic. It takes some getting used to, and each time the narrative’s attention strays from Bowman I find myself having consciously to adjust. But it is a consistent, serious device which is part of the novel’s challenge and charm.
However, the paragraph parsed a short while ago concerning the hopeful girls in their black dresses now takes on a different aspect. The habits of free indirect style being deeply ingrained, I gave it the reading outlined above. But on reflection, our access to the secrets of the girls’ apartments is explicable, not in terms of our leading man’s having been there, but as yet another of the author’s detours into his supporting cast. In other words, the method adopted for the book sacrifices the subtlety that first appeared to be achieved. A discreet, almost averted glance at a series of couplings, with so much implied about everyone involved, is ousted by a generous but passing interest in some walk-on parts’ lives.
As a title, All That Is makes serious claims. All life is here, it seems to say, regarding not just the central character but everyone you are going to meet. And there are benefits to this ambition which the book gracefully, magnanimously exploits. It could even be that Salter wanted it both ways, the more literal inclusiveness of his approach and the interpretative riches of a narrower perspective, presiding like a deity over my weighing of the two. But I prefer to think that in the passage discussed here a basic principle is at work, namely that you must make your stylistic bed and lie in it. Tell me everything about everyone and I have fewer occasions to read between the lines; to indulge in some imaginative empathy; to individualise my response to the book by relating it to my own experience of the world; to work things out for myself.