“She had read no further.”

SALTER - Light Years 02

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of others?

She laid the book down open beside a few others. She wanted to think, to let it await her. She would go back to it, read again, read on, bathe in the richness of its plates.

An astonishingly beautiful quote about reading—although only the first line applies to my experience with the book whence it came. Yes: I have given up on Light Years, after a too-long struggle—brought on by the weight of the book’s reputation and, consequently, the fact that I wanted to prove something to myself. (That, what? I’m enlightened—illuminated!—enough to appreciate this little wonder?) I’m sorry, Richard Ford and all you great writers and esteemed readers who swear by this book—but I didn’t find Light Years and James Salter’s relentless lyrical gymnastics to be worthy substitutes for all that is good and holy in this wee world of ours.

* * *

What makes Light Years such a classic, I’ve been told, is that it best displays James Salter’s status as a formalistic master. This is the book that shows you how it’s done—this is a skillful manipulation of the English language, Sasha. However, Salter’s storytelling is precisely the crux of my problem with his book: His painstaking form rendered his story unreadable. The people in these pages were unformed, never whole to me—just impressions wrought by broad strokes of lush prose.

Oh, there were moments of clarity here and there. That is: Once in a while, the impenetrable shroud that is this book’s language deigns to lift to let this poor reader in. I especially loved—mostly because it made me hopeful!—this scene early on in the novel where Nedra asks her husband if he was happy. And Viri goes: “Was he happy? The question was so ingenuous, so mild. There were things he dreamed of doing that he feared he never would. He often weighed his life. And yet, he was young still, the years stretched before him like endless plains.” But before Viri can respond to his lovely wife, truths about this marriage—about Nedra—hits him:

Her instinct, he knew, was sharp. She had the even teeth of a sex that nips thread in two, that cut as cleanly as a razor. All her power seemed concentrated on her ease, her questioning glance. He cleared his throat.

“Yes, I suppose I’m happy.”

Silence. The traffic ahead had begun to move.

And that’s the kind of volatility—of that ever-fascinating rumble beneath the surface of the seemingly-mundane—that I wanted from this book. That is: I wanted to feel like there was something at stake—like in the scene above. That way, I could commit to the text. I could commit to the story Salter has been at pains to tell me; I could actually know these people I’m reading about. I could actually read as though every page wasn’t a test of my intelligence, of my due appreciation of the art and craft of writing.

* * *

Notes, dated January 10: I don’t know who put this on my radar, but it’s the kind of book I swore by when I was seventeen. I’ve waited years to own this book. When I finally had a copy to call my own, I began reading, only to set it aside, telling myself it wasn’t the right time. That was nearly two years ago. Let’s try this again, shall we?

Notes, dated January 12: I’m about seventy pages in at the moment; already Light Years feels like a bitter reminder of the literary preoccupations I had in college: When I was much younger and, thus, had more promise—when I could write what I wanted to write, and I did it well, I believed so hard that I did it well. James Salter feels now like something I idolized then. (Feel old yet, darling?)

Notes, dated January 14: Have been reading the Salter still, and it’s slow going. The painstaking prose rather feels like Nedra and Viri—and the host of characters that sashay in and out of their lives—are living under glass. Which only estranges them. Maybe I’ve expected too much from this book? I’ll soldier on.

Notes, dated January 16: My relationship with Salter’s book has become quite dismal. I open to the page I left off, and have no idea who the people are. I spend my time with it rereading what I just read, giving up and then hunting for the good parts to quote (oh, and there are many), and then feeling guilty and telling myself to read right.

Notes, dated January 22: Please see what you can do with Salter. You two haven’t been getting along, have you—aside from the occasional turn of phrase plucked from this novel whose prose Ford and many others have touted proxy-goodness? Maybe it’s this book, and maybe it’s me—maybe I’m no longer the kind of reader—the kind of person? the kind of girl?—who falls head over heels in love with writers like Salter and novels like Light Years. Now there’s a potentially depressing thought.

Notes, dated January 23: This is Light Years’ last chance. If nothing happens, it is time to put you to rest. I commit myself to you, tonight, you damned book, and if I am not starry-eyed by midnight, you are retiring to the shadowed corner of my shelves.

[And lines upon lines of beautiful prose lifted from the book, jotted down almost regrettably. That odd guilt in realizing that you’re only reading something to get quotes, never mind that at least you have that one consolation.]

* * *

Basically: I wanted a book. And Salter’s Light Years hardly ever felt that way for me.

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One comment

  1. Reading this now and thinking about the ways by which literature is judged to be good. Maybe your post properly explains why I couldn’t understand the formalist school and the way its followers colonized literature proclaiming that the only way to understand it would be to adhere strictly to form. It takes a lot to tell a good story. Thank you for the notes on Salter. :)

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