Thursday, December 1, 2011

James Salter's Aesthetic Economy

Rodin, supposedly at wits end with the inquisitive Rilke, sent his young charge to the Jardin des Plantes to observe the animals there, expecting him to do so with such intensity until he’d be compelled to do nothing else but write. This is the romantic story behind the poems, anyway. At some point in a writer’s career, perhaps they can’t help but see and draw inspiration from less exotic animals. This might be the case for James Salter, whose short story collections (Dusk and other stories, and Last Night) embody sharp psychological observation translated into sleight of hand prose. To relate more clearly to Rilke, Salter evokes an aesthetic frisson that is hermetic like poetry. If ever there is an example of the sheer power of selective detail for compelling storytelling, Salter has embodied it.
Salter paints with a vivid yet economical palette and daubs in such broad strokes that his work betrays one of the secrets of short fiction: that what is left out is possibly more important than what is left in. This is the modernist approach to the short story that is a close cousin to minimalism. It’s not about the writer conveying a tidy story exactly; an initial disorientation and groundlessness forces the reader into acclimatization. The reader is on familiar ground, trying to establish the narrative’s priorities. Attentiveness rewards. The onus is on the reader to construct from what is there, and to ask the questions implicit in any good story. It is novelistic portraiture in as few words as possible. The omniscient narration suggests a sheen of artifice, since none of the actors in the frame of the story should be so clinically observant. It’s an aestheticizing of reality: the image becomes an ideal perspective on what it is portraying.
Form-wise, the stories disrupt convenient beginning, middle and end, or the multi-part rising action, denouement and satisfying conclusion. The reader gets a sense of looking in on the quotidian, however unusual, and different, that specific quotidian is--interloping. And therein is an artful photographic quality: capturing in a frame what has so far been unseen. Offering the authoritative take, in words that strike with the assurance of a shot bolt, is one of Salter’s uncanny gifts.
Salter abhors the grand statement--though his short stories’ brevity achieves a cumulative stylistic effect. He is a craftsman adding pieces to a formidable oeuvre. Salter’s is such a carefully wrought body of work that the writer’s engagement and commitment to each word, seems essential.
The stories seem to take place just after the war, or preceding it, in that romanticized time as so many writers of his generation have established, a rarified time of civilian life in gritty urban settings. The wide, sun-filled allees of a country village, or soot grimed cathedrals and diesel fogged streets. As in “Dirt” (from Dusk), a farm town in the Midwest:
“Billy lived near the Catholic church, in a room on the ground floor. It had a metal shower. He slept without sheets, in the morning he drank milk from the carton. He was going out with a girl name Alma who was a waitress at Daly’s. She had legs with hard calves. She didn’t say much, her complaisance drove him crazy [...]”
Reading these set pieces--what isn’t left out, essentially--is to become aware of their nostalgic weight.
This is as good as any example of lyricism from the hands of a master. It’s somewhere between the baroque prose of Nabokov, and the terseness of Hemingway--and Salter is an adept student of Papa with regard to tone. Ultimately, for Salter, melodrama is left unexposed; there is no prurient pay-off. In the tragi-comic story “Last Night,” (from Last Night) the protagonist begins fantasizing about life to come with his young mistress, the morning after he has administered euthanizing drugs to his ailing wife (note: I'm keeping with Salter's dialogue formatting, hence the dashes):
They sat at the table drinking coffee. They were complicit, not long risen, and not regarding one another too closely. Walter was admiring her, however. Without makeup she was even more appealing. Her long hair was not combed. She seemed very approachable. There were calls that would have to be made, but he was not thinking of them. It was still too early. He was thinking past this day. Mornings to come. At first he hardly heard the sound behind him. It was a footstep and then, slowly, another--Susanna turned white--as Marit came unsteadily down the stairs. The makeup on her face was stale, and her dark lipstick showed fissures. He stared in disbelief.
--Something went wrong, she said.
--Are you all right? he asked foolishly.
--No, you must have done it wrong.
--Oh, God, Walter murmured.
Just when the reader expects a clever turn, they are delivered the devastation of the wife’s apparent resurrection. The stories’ effects are cumulative as these self-assured characters maintain their dignity in the face of infidelity, accident, abandonment, or shame. Salter conveys their reactions to calamitous reversal with equanimity.
His writing is the art of understatement. The reader finds herself immersed, hanging on the words at service to themselves, to the point. Unadorned:
“If he was not great, he was following the path of greatness which is the same as disaster.”
“Great faces cannot be explained.”
“Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.”
They are characters on a stage:
“It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvelous performance in which everyone somehow had a role.”
“She moved with a kind of negligent grace, like a dancer whose career is ended.”
These are blunt, uncompromising and dispassionate assessments. An accounting of the writer emptying his pockets on the table, and the reader catching a glimpse of something they don’t expect to see.


  1. Reading your take on Salter, yes, I find myself saying. Yes, I say.

  2. Salter once said in praise that Liebling in his memoir throws away a novel on every page. Thanks for stopping by Tin House!

  3. Edward,

    That's a great line. Thanks for reading and for drawing it to my attention.