Picador £18.99

Review: All That Is, By James Salter

It would be discourteous to suggest that James Salter's first novel for 35 years could be his last – but it would provide a fine epitaph

If some writers see their pens as a prism reflecting their thoughts on to the page then here, in James Salter's first novel for 35 years, a veil covers the glass. Part Bildungsroman, part elegy for death still to come, All That Is homogenises events and emotionally disconnects its central character, a World War Two veteran who enters a publishing career. The book's tempered language places the profound and commonplace side by side, affording tragedy the same impact as commuters in traffic; failed marriages are described with the regularity of meals.

Richard Ford, in the introduction to Salter's 1975 masterpiece Light Years, praises him for the quality of his sentences, the first three of which, from that novel, are worth reproducing here: "We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind." Since then, such extended rhythms, employing repetition, have become less pronounced. This heightens what Ford describes as a mode of "decrying" against the trivialisation of life and sentimentality. The banal, the incidental, the clichéd, are all included in emphasised realism, not always enjoyable, but often true.

The most arresting writing in All That Is, apart from two key scenes, comes at its beginning and end. Our journey with the central character Philip Bowman begins in the US Pacific war against Japan, where "men were slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees, the horror of the beaches, swollen bodies lolling in the surf, the nation's sons, some of them beautiful". This lyrical combination of the historical and specific is captivating and atypical, if less artistically interesting than the rest of the novel's attempts to mine the everyday. This interest applies both to the reader and to Bowman himself. Later in the book, he is asked: "What has your life been like? ... What are the things that have mattered?". He replies: "The navy and the war." Though of even this he is unsure.

Otherwise his existence – and the narrative with it – extends to the New York and London publishing scenes, Bowman's extensive social circle, his predatory libido and failed relationships. Description functions like an accordion, in which pages can concertina to decades or minutes as the plot demands. There is a tendency to flip between characters of varying relevance. Digressions include the early sexual life of Francis Bacon, whose "eloquence came from his father's coldness and disapproval and the great freedom of finding his own life in Berlin with its vices, and Paris, of course". One man's failure with women causes his suicide, afforded barely more prominence than a presidential assassination. The book's coda is similarly cursory, repeating the belief of Bowman's mother that one's fate beyond death is whatever one wishes for, before the quotidian, inevitably, rises up.

These bookends aside, if anything exemplifies this character's existence – apart from sex – it is the heightened nature of what is usually considered commonplace. To this end, Salter tears up the creative writing rulebook in his dialogue, comparably atonal to Light Years. Platitudes and exposition abound. The writer's economy does not extend to wiping out greetings or conversational asides, for example, which are always relayed neutrally, allowing readers to impose their own interpretation on whatever the speaker may be feeling. There is one scene in which Bowman interrupts a woman's discussion of a relationship to remark on a mouse scuttling across a room. Such confidence feels unique, almost ostentatious. This novel has fewer than 300 pages.

Sadly, it is what Ford called Salter's position in the "writing-about-sex hall of fame" that provides some clunky passages. No amount of character naivety can excuse the sentence: "She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex." Or, "he imagined her a few years older with certain unfatherly thoughts though he was not her father". The seriousness of "he came like a drinking horse", an already notorious line, is questionable. The obsessive coveting and propositioning of other men's wives is relevant in Flaubert but is too prominent here.

The emotional pummelling of All That Is, then, may begin with the capsizing of the Japanese battleship Yamato in 1945 but maintains its sustained assault through a life painted as emotionally grey. If anything Bowman's world is enslaved to the pursuit of women – more honest than Updike or Roth, and also more saddening, somehow – that enables its creator to define the terms of his own immortality. It would be discourteous to suggest that this is this author's final work. As a confirmation of his long-recognised contribution, of his own wish to preserve in text what has "any possibility of being real," as opposed to a dream, as stated in the novel's epigraph, it is both needless and rewards him with the existence beyond death that he so obviously deserves.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen