Writing in the key of grey: James Salter’s “Dusk and other Stories”

Posted on | May 11, 2011

I’ve been reading James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories, a collection of short stories from Salter’s long career as a contributor to high contemporary fiction. This is literature of the “literature genre,” the genre which insists its not a genre at all, but the sine qua non of writing, as if they were artist of the human condition and genre writers merely illustrators.

The New York times positively gushed about the stories in this book, but I went back to the well of the writer: story is telling about a person with a crisis, what he or she is willing to do to overcome that crisis, and how she reacts to the success or failure. In Salter’s book, however, there is no overcoming. Nobody ever overcomes their crisis. They just muddle through, tragically.

Salter likes to tell his tales in glimpses. “Cinema” is about a film company falling apart after a big film utterly bombs, everyone involved knew it would suck, especially the scriptwriter, who knew the director and the actors were all wrong for the words he wrote. Salter jumps around, like a cinema verite director himself, point of view here, then there, then over there, never keeping us in place, making us read frantically and nervously. But what we’re getting is anecdotes: These people made a terrible movie, and they live in denial of the consequences. There’s nothing to overcome. They don’t even want to overcome. The writer consoles himself by sleeping with the director’s secretary: that’s as close as the story gets to coherent response to the crisis.

“Dusk” is about a woman dealing with being 46, as Tom Ford described, “Long past that moment when men stopped turning their heads to look at her.” Her husband left her for a younger woman, her son was killed, and in the story her lover announces that he, too, is moving on, and she is at best second-best. But again, the character never once moves to resolve her crisis. She just muddles through.

“Akhnilo” is about a managing ex-alcholic having a nervous breakdown. The main character follows a hallucination into the night, one that the writer describes with breathtaking beauty. In the final paragraph, the story comes crashing down again as he loses that beauty, and the camera suddenly jumps to his daughter, who in one gorgeous sentence reveals all the fear and heartache a child has when a parent wrestles with those kinds of daemons. But again, it’s not a story.

“Foreign Shores” is an insanely Freudian story about an American woman, her attractive Dutch au-pair, and the woman’s strange sexual notions about the au-pair and her six-year-old son, notions which are hightenend when she discovers, by illicitly reading letters, that the au-pair has been recruited by a pornography filmmaker in Germany. But her crisis is about how this beautiful young woman’s life is so interesting while hers is so dull, and by the end of the story… nothing. She seethes and hates, and changes nothing.

All of the stories in Dusk are like that: sad anecdotes about people seeing the world through lenses of ruin and chaos, the ends of days, of careers, of lives. Nothing changes: they just go on, convincted to their eternal withering. The tales are incredibly well-written, and I’ve taken notes, but if I wanted anecdotes I’d read poetry. Maybe that’s how these are meant to be read: as long prose poems, antipaeans to life.


Comments

Leave a Reply