Monday, May 23, 2011

Review: Light Years (James Salter)

James Salter’s Light Years came to my attention several years ago, when I was trying to write a book by the same name. It sat on my reading list until last month when I finally picked it up, unaware that the Paris Review had declared it to be James Salter month. I would have reviewed it sooner, but my own reactions have taken a long time to crystallize.

As the book opens, Viri and Nedra are a young couple, living in an old farmhouse on the edge of the Hudson River. It is 1958. He works as an architect. She spends money. “I am going to describe her life from the inside outward,” the narrator declares.

I am not sure what he means, but it strikes me that he proceeds to do exactly the opposite. He spends the first half of the book, perhaps more, describing the outer details of these lives: the dinner parties, the shopping trips, the easter egg hunts for their two daughters, “the summer of their lives in which, far from danger, they rested."

In an oblique way, the world of Viri and Nedra is DeLillo-esque. It is our world, but certain features are distorted, distorted ever so slightly that it is hard to put your finger on what is out of place. Part, but only part, is due to Salter’s metaphors. When Nedra lights a fire, the flames beneath it, “soar into life, blooming like those beneath martyrs.” Later that evening, as she pours brandy, she is “like a silver Christmas helix, a foil decoration turning slowly, the dazzle descending only to reappear time after time.”

But where, for DeLillo, distortions are political, a tool to amplify and criticize, Salter uses them to celebrate. It is isn’t that Viri and Nedra are fabulously wealthy, but their pleasures are greater, more poignant. They go to better parties, have better conversations. When Nedra laughs, her laugh is “gorgeous, like applause."

All well and good. Except that for many, many pages, the celebration simply continues. Nothing changes, except that the children get older, Viri loses a little hair. True, Viri has an affair with Kaya, a woman in his office, exhilarating in the fact that suddenly, he finds himself “primitive, firm as a bough”. Nedra has an affair of her own, with Jivan, a thin neighbor boy, “like the boys one sees loitering in plazas of Mexico,” “but with manners, with newly bought clothes.” He makes love to her “in the same, steady rhythm, like a monologue, like a creaking of oars;” in response, she “flings out the sounds of a mare, a dog, a woman fleeing for her life.” But neither of them seems changed by their affairs, or by the obviousness of their partner’s.

Thus, when Nedra finally decides to move out, it is not because of her affair, or his. It is for a host of very small reasons, and so, it feels inevitable. Viri accepts her departure, and they remain friends. Their last days together – a trip to London when they know it is over, a final night together sitting up, listening to Mendelssohn together – are heartbreaking.

Viri misses her, or at least, the idea of being with her. Occasionally he begs her to come back, though he knows it is futile. Eventually, he must find ways of moving on Meanwhile, Nedra tries to find new ways of pursuing pleasure, only some of them successful. There are surprises here, which I shouldn’t spoil for the reader who makes it this far. Suffice it to say, they are beautiful and ring deeply true.

Reviewing Light Years for the New York Times, Robert Towers calls the book “pure Rubaiyat.” This feels right. Salter simultaneously celebrates the profundities of life’s pleasures, and recognizes that we cannot hold on to them except in memories. But this is a sentiment that is perhaps best expressed in poetry, and Salter could have been a poet. Instead, he has left us with this strange book, a beautiful collage more than a novel.

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