Dreams and Work: On ‘Light Years’


James Salter Month

Our Spring Revel is April 12. In anticipation of the event, The Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

I discovered James Salter just late enough, in grad school, at the suggestion of a brooding alcoholic, the best writer in the room, with whom I’d become entangled in a very Salter-esque doomed affair. I was the writer who’d gush about the stylists, steer the conversations from plot and story to diction and syntax, the one who’d make over-earnest pleas about art over mechanics, always to the rolled eyes of the Ivy Leaguers who made up most the program. Most everything I wrote failed on a story level as much as it succeeded on a sentence level, and so this writer-fling of mine one day said, “You should read Salter. Because he does that thing you like. But he also tells stories. He can help you.”

I dashed to Light Years—Salter’s fourth novel, published in 1975—as I did to any of his suggestions. Up to that point, stylists meant maximalists, hysterical realists, the breathless and the sprawling: William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Stephen Dixon. I had never encountered a minimalist I could live inside of. But as minimal as Light Years was aesthetically, it was maximal emotionally. The sentences were sharp and piercing, alarmingly brief, and yet they contained entire lifetimes rendered in stream of consciousness within three-word observations about the seasons. “I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible,” Salter said in his Paris Review interview. I lived for that poet’s spirit in my storytellers. That taut and yet tender surface simplicity was applied to amplifying the elemental in this world destroyed me, as if trees and desks and fog and smoke are their own metaphors in a universe that is essentially figurative:

The trees are naked. The eels sleep.

Life is weather. Life is meals.

Dreams and work.

The mornings were white, the trees still bare.

And other times he punctuates the spare landscapes with nearly proverbial and aphoristic declarations as timeless and true as the sleeping eels and white mornings:

We preserve ourselves as if that were important and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching until there is no one—we are left with no companion save God. In whom we do not believe. Who we know does not exist.

The book was everything I was not. Crisp, distilled, minimal, elegant, somehow patrician in its Hamptons country seasoning and midcentury American bohemia trimming; I was indoorsy, devoutly urban, messy, rambling, broke, Iranian, a blur of black frizzy hair and purple mixed metaphors. In the first several pages, I was highly conscious of my inadequacy; all I could think was how my family of four, the Khakpours—immigrant lower-middle class, adjunct professor dad and accountant mom, grateful for their basic survival in suburban LA—were the opposite of Salter’s family of four, the Berlands—creative upper-middle class, a restless New York architect and his perilously free-spirited wife, who could afford to move just outside the city to the idyllic Hudson, who could afford a certain bourgeois discontentment. But as I progressed, I began to read it as Americans might read foreign writers, for anthropological insights, for their very otherness, for escape to an exotic place, et cetera.  And then a fourth of the way into it—Part II—past the pet pony and shirt fittings and seemingly immaculate dinner parties—I started to forget my own insecurities as they melded into Viri and Nedra Berland’s. I lost myself in a book—a book about marital crisis, a topic that never interested me—for the first time in nearly a decade. It felt like I had discovered a new continent when I found a literature that I thought, against all odds, could reach everyone.

DAYS AFTER I finished it, carrying it much as a child does a favorite stuffed animal, one of my fellow grad students—a woman—looked me up and down, puzzled, and said, “But he’s such a guy’s writer.” It shocked me then, though by now I’ve heard it many times. For Salter has always avoided Hemingway’s bullfights-broads-and-booze virility; he says in his Paris Review interview that “I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.” And one can argue that Light Years is Nedra’s story, though it goes on without her in Viri’s hands. Nedra is as entirely unique and yet universal as any woman—at once hard and extravagant, both old and young, an artist and an observer, creator and destroyer, wanderer and homebody, a mother and the ultimate antimatriarch. Losing yourself in Nedra is dangerous; my experience—nearly a decade since I first read the book—is evidence enough that she can haunt you a few steps ahead of yourself.

I taught the book five years later in an advanced fiction seminar, where all the poets and language writers swooned and a few genre fiction writers protested. “But what’s the story here?” a student of mine kept asking. He also seemed alarmed by the modesty of Salter’s claim that the idea for the novel came from a Jean Renoir quote: “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” “That’s it?” he said, to which another student snapped, “What else is there?” Indeed, dump out its contents and Light Years is just scattered bits of memory, a collage of the surviving instances all in their different lighting. William Dowie, in his 1988 essay, “A Final Glory: The Novels of James Salter,” calls his style, as many have, “impressionistic” in its portrayal of “the cumulative effect of our smallest actions. The pattern of Viri and Nedra’s daily life leads to their ultimate fates, not simply their dramatic acts of un-faithfulness.” The power of the smallest things is everywhere in Salter, in content and in form, but as you hurdle toward the end—past the fifties and through the seventies, into Amagansett and out of Rome, over the rebound and around the lovers—you realize small suddenly means something else altogether.

This book changed my life. Salter would see past the cheap glitter of hyperbole and cliché there—after all, it’s Nedra’s reading of one passage in a book on Kandinsky that marks her most urgent doing and ultimate undoing:

The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark … 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 the lives of others?

Porochista Khakpour, author of the novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, contributes essays to publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, among others, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

See also: Jhumpa Lahiri on Light Years. To read more essays for James Salter Month, click here.