Light Years by James Salter (1975) Vintage (1995) 308 pp
I had not heard of James Salter until I came across a review of Solo Faces on John Self’s Asylum. After looking into him a bit, I realized that once again here was an author I should have read already — let alone heard of. My ignorance is forever on display on this blog! But that’s okay since my ignorance is also lessening — ever so slightly. I have now introduced myself to Salter through Light Years.
The first chapter set my expectations high. With virtuosity Salter moves from the harsh nature of the Hudson (“The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving. A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp.”) to a man in a bathtub — all naturally, with little transition — from myth (“The Indians sought, they say, a river that ‘ran both ways.’ Here they found it.”) to modern New York. Time and space seem to flash by in an instant, and Salter sets up his motifs of light and darkness, time and space, myth and history (“It’s in the darkness that myths are born”).
Here we meet Viri and Nedra Berland and their two daughters Franca and Danny. Much like Revolutionary Road, this book is about the dissolution of a marriage in the outskirts of modern New York. Viri and Nedra (in the beginning) are in their late twenties. Viri commutes daily into the City. Their friends have their own motives. Also, the book references the play The Petrified Forest, which is the play that April Weaver is performing at the beginning of Yates’s book (coincidence?). But Light Years itself is much different than Revolutionary Road. For one thing, where Yates prose is clear and precise, Salter’s prose spits at you, often in oblique abstractions. The sentences are abrupt, short. Transitions are minimal. All of this gives the text an urgency, and time slips by, even when Salter’s slowing the flow down to linger in a moment with the characters.
She is nine. Danny is seven. These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.
Viri sleeps in the sun. He is tan, his fingernails are bleached. On Mondays he goes to the city on the train and returns on Thursday night. He is shuttling between one happiness and another. He has a new secretary. They work together in a kind of excitement, as if there were nothing else in their lives. The isolation and indifference of the city in summer, like a long vacation, like a voyage, cast its spell on them. He cannot get over her niceness, the beauty of her name: Kaya Doutreau.
As can be gleaned from that sample paragraph, the Berlands are not faithful to each other in their minds, and it is not a spoiler to say they are not faithful at all. Though they seem an ideal family on the surface — they are creative with their family activities, they have many friends, and they spend many days at leisure on the ice or the beach — Viri and Nedra are friendly but passionless. Salter has a brutal eye for details that show this side of their life.
“Are you happy, Viri?” She asked.
They were in traffic, driving across town at five in the afternoon. The great mechanical river of which they were part moved slowly at the intersections and then more freely on the long transverse blocks. Nedra was doing her nails. At each red light, without a word, she handed him the bottle and painted one nail.
In Light Years Salter presents a portrait of their life from their late twenties to their late forties — the years of light — in long exposure. In discreet, wonderfully detailed episodes that flow naturally from one to the next — much like life — Viri and Nedra age, break apart, come together, forget their intimate friends who come and go with little fanfare, and watch their children grow into young women about to enter the light years of their own lives.
By far the most compelling aspect of this book, to me, was the unique and effective stylistic method of depicting these lives. Salter must have thought about this technique to a great extent, and while he executes it perfectly he also perfectly and poetically describes it:
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.
Though I’m usually a fan of clear, formal writing in the tradition of Cheever, Yates, and Roth, Salter’s fragmented or runon prose is some of the best writing I’ve experienced this year. At once developing a story, it also develops a philosophy of life. And the style’s impact on me was actually more intense than the story itself.
In fact, the story of Viri and Nedra appealed to me only in sporadic intervals. I never quite connected to them in the way I kept expecting. Despite the almost cruel intimacy Salter gives us with these characters (line taken from James Wood’s idea about Yates) once an episode passed they returned to being blurry characters as the less interesting aspects of their life flashed before my eyes. But even as I write that, and know it’s true, I know it also is not true. I truly felt for Viri when his pathetic emptiness was displayed before me in such sharp light, several times. And even when Nedra, whom I never truly sympathized with, has her face to the floor, there’s some longing there that made me feel deeply for her. This especially became true when she drives across the state to Philadelphia to watch her father’s elongated death (a brilliant bit of writing). Perhaps, in a way, this is Salter’s device. Life is blurry. Some moments — moments of immense emotion — stand out in distinct relief from others. But, in the end, the life dissipates. The light goes out, and the relief collapses in on itself. Even the people who were there don’t quite believe it was real.