Light Years by James Salter


Light Years is a novel about a marriage and about home – home only sometimes the place where the heart is. Salter focuses on a couple who usually have a supporting role in other novels. The kind of restless, disaffected, showy, promiscuous couple who provide an inkling that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Except there’s no Hamlet in this novel, no Gatsby, no innocent who will be undone by the toxins of a culture in decline. Salter puts at the heart of his novel characters who are already fatally infected by the malaise. Viri, the husband, is a feckless sentimental dissatisfied husband. He is an architect but not, apparently, a very good one.  Initially his most successful relationship is shown to be with his dog. He seems no less incapable of opening any door of his own accord than his dog. Nedra, his wife, is acquisitive, equally restless, vain and unfocused. They are both having affairs.

Initially I didn’t think I was going to warm to this novel. Early on there’s a lot of ivory tower writing, very self-conscious “beautiful” writing that rang a bit hollow, a lot of gilding over surfaces to make them glitter which had the effect of keeping the characters very aloof. But I began to realise maybe this was intentional, to show us the rather hollow nature of the stimulants enjoyed by Salter’s married couple. Everything they experience seems skin deep. The response to the sea or a sunset clichéd. As if they are programmed, alienated from the wellsprings of their individuality. It’s as if they are squandering energy waiting for something better to happen. The older the characters get however the more compelling they become, because, crucially, the more interesting Salter finds them. He suggests there’s something banal and cloning about youthful aspiration. As if only through disappointment do we discover who we are, what we’re made of. Salter was fifty when he wrote this and clearly being fifty interests him a good deal more than being thirty.

Salter performs a kind of autopsy on Viri and Nedra’s marriage. He depicts marriage as a melancholy affair, the imagination always straining to break beyond its confines. Both Viri and Nedra live a double life. Marriage doesn’t make them feel as special as they would like. Both are fatally alienated from their home life by this longing for something more. Salter, in fact, suggests home is the place where we hoard ourselves for imaginary future adventures without realising that the establishing of a home is the adventure, the ultimate goal, the centre of our being.

I loved the structure of the novel, its effortless fluidity. Rarely does any scene extend a page. It’s written in the form memories take, fragments of events, heavily seeped in atmosphere. I don’t however buy Richard Ford’s assertion in the introduction that Salter is the best current American sentence writer.  For me DeLillo is in another league to Salter. And so too Toni Morrison. Salter’s prose is more anachronistically beautiful. Mostly he describes stuff that has been described a thousand times before. He does it well but he’s not adding anything new to our understanding of beauty. There’s little in this novel Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t have described. In fact he seems like he was writing at least fifty years before DeLillo or Bellow when they are not far off being contemporaries.

Also, there’s maybe a slight whiff of patriarchal condescension about the ending. A problem I had with the other salter novel I read. I’ve got a hunch Salter wasn’t too keen on the women’s liberation movement, picking up steam when he wrote this novel, and was a bit blind to Viri’s woeful inadequacies as a husband. He was more interested in focusing on Nedra’s restlessness but not very understanding of it. Blaming it on cultural changes rather than the fecklessness of her husband. I also thought it was a bit daft how he made moral judgements about Nedra’s desire to buy nice things and put on a good show for dinner guests. That’s human nature, not some indictment of falling moral standards. download (3)


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