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Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline 

Wednesday, May 28 2008

I read and I read and I read. I read like Forrest Gump ran, because I didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. He went running. I went reading. Novels mostly. The supposedly dead form. The only thing deader than poetry, or so the joke goes. A friend started me on my reading binge with James Salter’s Solo Faces. This friend and I share a taste for the late, hard-bitten Southern novelist and short-story writer Larry Brown, and he thought I might like Salter, even though there’s little in style or content connecting the two writers.

The protagonist in Solo Faces is Vern Rand, a taciturn, detached, world-class mountain climber. Unhappy and unmoored, he heads off to the French Alps to test himself against nature and better-known climbers. I related immediately. More so to the character’s remoteness than to his mountain-climbing prowess — though some people still talk about the drunken one-day roundtrip I once made to the top of Colorado’s 14,007-foot Mount Holy Cross. See, my wife and I were starting to break up when I began Solo Faces and what Rand and I had in common as I followed him up the cold and desolate peaks around Chamonix, France, was the even-mightier struggle to master the language of human relations. I suppose I also related to the way Rand fled when that language was beyond his grasp. He went to the Alps to climb dangerous mountains by himself. Less heroically, I went to the ocean to surf, the gym to box, the diamond to play baseball. In these elements, at last, we were free from trying to do more than we were capable of.

But for how long, right? Just as I couldn’t stay in the water, Rand couldn’t stay alone up on those mountains forever. Or could he? It’s hard for me to overstate how much of my world turned on this seemingly trite question. But by posing it, or by making me ask it, Salter fastened me in for the whole metaphysical roller-coaster ride that great novels can take you on. He took life and death out of my trembling hands and put them in the hands of Vern Rand. Rand became my surrogate, breaking trail on the edge of oblivion with one foot barely on the ground and the other driving him toward clouds. Through him, all my existential muddling was projected in startling focus onto a canvas more epic and gorgeous than I could ever reach except in my (and Salter’s) imagination. For me, the nail-biting drama wasn’t so much about whether Rand could scale those snowy peaks, but where his feet would finally come together. Would he find the language to talk himself back down to the ground, or would he give up and seek eternity instead? In my own way, I found myself fighting a similar battle, and, as I’ve found can happen with great novels, Salter transported me out of myself while taking me deeper inside as well.

As I read on, I began to see not just me but some of my now ex-wife in Rand. Few of us are driven by the belief that we might be world-class in anything — and fewer still have the guts to test that assumption. But Rand and my ex-wife, a professional dancer, are among those few. Reading Solo Faces, I realized that while she and I had crossed paths on a certain mountain, we were heading in different directions. I was returning to Earth, she was still going for the clouds. Somehow, this understanding helped.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY RONALD KURNIAWAN
  • Illustration By Ronald Kurniawan

That same friend next lent me Salter’s Light Years. Either he didn’t know my situation, or he had a mild sadistic streak. The story, which isn’t so much a story as a portrait, is of the disintegration of the marriage and home of Viri and Nedra Berland. Their home in the Hudson River Valley outside New York was a reflection of their marriage; it was once happily noisy with dogs, children, laughter, smart friends, celebration. In some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, Salter slowly and lovingly unravels the whole thing. Light Years is not a morality play, it’s just life captured and reflected in all its fleeting grace, humbling pain and tenuous temporality. While I was reading this, my own home, which had once been alive like theirs, was being hollowed out. Furniture was taken away, pictures were put in boxes, dishes vanished from cabinets, paintings came off the walls, and when my wife finally left for good, as when Nedra left Viri, much of the light that brightened my dark corners went with her.

So, it was almost surreal to lie there at night in bed in my own carapace and fall deeper into the vertiginous collapse of Nedra and Viri — their home, their friendships, their entire construct — while the same thing was playing out for me just beyond the borders of the small, private space that book reserved for me. At times, I would just have to put it down and howl from inside with the power of recognition. It’s a testament to the beauty of Salter’s prose that I could keep going. In fact, I couldn’t stop, no matter how much I sometimes wanted to. And in the end, there was no happy ending; none especially for poor Viri, who never could find a way to self-generate the light that Nedra shined for him. Nor for Nedra, who blossomed brightly and briefly in her freedom, but was like a comet shooting across the sky, brilliant and terminal.

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