Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Books – All That Is, by James Salter

James Salter’s All That Is was published two years ago. Its story (if we can call it that) roughly follows the life of one man, Philip Bowman. It opens with his experiences in the navy as a young man, and takes us through decades of his life, as he works as a book editor in New York. The novel revolves around his romantic and sexual experiences with various women throughout his life, as love continues to evade him.

Before I begin, let me say sodmething to clear my conscience. I am in general a positive person. I like books, and I like to like books – and even if I read a book that I don’t especially like or that isn’t really my cup of tea, I can normally find something good to say about it. I can distance myself, be objective, point out how it may appeal to others, if not to myself. I in general give brilliant reviews, good reviews, or mixed reviews. I rarely give bad ones.

So I apologise for the fact that I have nothing good to say about this book.
Firstly, I have no idea what this book was supposed to be about. The blurb implies that it is some sort of love story, but in truth the “romantic” relationships are very underdeveloped and I had serious issues with the way relationships and women’s place in them was presented (but more on that later). The novel doesn’t feel as though it has any reason to start or end where it does. Indeed, for the most part the book has very little story or plot. It feels episodic, a step-by-step account of Bowman’s life, in which he scarcely develops as a character and nothing seems to have any cause and effect. I have a feeling that, by writing a novel that lacks plot or drama, Salter was trying to represent the experience of life, but it results in a rather boring and pointless novel. I have no problem with books that don’t have much plot; I don’t require drama – in general I prefer quiet books – but for me, and I think for most people, there has to be something to keep me going. If a book’s plot is not of interest, then surely the characters or the themes must be. There are so many things that can grab you about a book – the characters, the writing, even the humour. Somehow or other, a book has to make you think or make you feel – preferably both. All That Is absolutely did neither.

The writing itself is very dull. In the spirit of objectivity, I should say that I read All That Is for a book club, and while in general the group didn’t like the book, some other members did find the writing quite beautiful. But for me the tone novel repeatedly failed to engage my interest. The novel is told in a detached third person, in a very calm and dispassionate narrative voice. We never have access to Bowman’s thoughts, and so internal drama cannot make up for the lack of external drama. The book rarely changes pace or tone, but feels slow and calm throughout, even when describing events that should be anything but calm. It reads, in fact, as if Salter was as bored writing it as I was reading it.

Most books that span large periods of time take one of two structures: either they skip from scene to scene, missing out years or decades at a time; or they offer overview, a broad scope of a character’s life. All That Is lies somewhere in-between, meaning we don’t get the benefits of either model. We get only half-developed scenes, and we skim, not skip, over time; we neither get any real sense of change over time, nor the powerful feelings of the moment.

The characters are underdeveloped and mostly forgettable. So many people flit through Bowman’s life and the reader struggles to remember which is which because all of them are fairly indistinct. Stranger still is that we don’t always follow Bowman’s life; occasionally Salter’s narrative follows one of these minor characters whose names we can’t remember, and we are given snatches of stories that never fully develop into subplots. For example, we occasionally slip into the life of Bowman’s friend Eddins. We see a few scenes from his perspective that are nothing to do with Bowman – but only three or four, never enough to make Eddins a main character or to make his plot of significance. Moreover, Eddins’s story does not link up in any way to Bowman’s, excepting that they once worked together. I was left wondering just quite what the sections about Eddins are doing in the book at all. In fact, with many of the characters I just can’t work out what on earth their significance is supposed to be. Again, I feel Salter may have been trying to imitate life, but it simply doesn’t work on the page; most of the characters end up feeling forgettable and irrelevant.

Even Bowman himself is not really developed as a character; we never get to see inside his head; we rarely even get a glimpse of what he might be thinking. Nor do we even get to see him work. He’s a book editor, which could prove very interesting – only Salter never delves into this. For a novel about a book editor, there are surprisingly few mentions of books. Nor does Slater delve into Bowman’s reactions; important events happen in his life and we never really see how Bowman thinks or feels about them; we often don’t even see what he does in the immediate aftermath. We never get a real sense of him as a person, and by the end of the book the only thing I felt I even knew about Bowman was that he was a misogynist.

Which neatly brings us to my biggest issue with this book: the misogyny. Philip Bowman both idolises and objectifies women, to the extent that they are denied any form of humanity, expression or even character. His relationships with the various women he is supposedly “in love with” are entirely sexual; for him, women appear to have no emotional or physical worth that is not connected to sex or their bodies. Bowman takes a string of young female lovers, and even when he is in his fifties and sixties, he is still sleeping with women in their twenties (or younger), because he finds them more desirable. The sex scenes are so badly-written and focused on Bowman’s virility and “manhood” that at times the book just reads like the sexual fantasies of an older man.

Yet what I take issue with is not Bowman’s misogyny. There is, of course, a difference between a book about sexism and a sexist book. And there is a very interesting novel to be written about how chauvinistic men interact with women, so long as the author does not partake in the misogynistic tone of their protagonist. As it is, however, the closest Salter gets to acknowledging that there is anything wrong with Bowman’s attitude towards women is to have one female character observe to herself that something Bowman says is slightly chauvinistic. This is one sentence in a four-hundred page novel. More importantly, not a single female character in this book is fully – or even slightly – developed. There are moments when Vivian is almost portrayed as a human being, but for the rest of the novel Bowman moves through a series of women, whose only quality Salter finds worth mentioning is their bodies. They are relatively indistinguishable, and none are given the slightest trace of characterisation or emotional depth. Nor can this be dismissed as us seeing the women as Bowman sees them, for the book is written in third person, and quite a distant third person at that. We are not seeing the women through Bowman’s eyes but through the author’s, and the author clearly does not view them as full human beings. This aspect of the book reminded me greatly of the attitude towards women that you find in many twentieth-century books, such as some works by Evelyn Waugh – and yet All That Is was published just two years ago.

So I do not recommend James Salter’s All That Is. It has very little plot and lacks coherence as a work of art – and nor does any other aspect of the book make up for this. It had no clear themes, nor much perceivable depth. I found the characterisation flat at best, and the writing unimpassioned and dull. Moreover, it is an unpleasantly misogynistic book, where both protagonist and author deny women any form of humanity or real worth. This book is currently rivalling Dracula and Robin Crusoe for the slot of my least favourite book of all time.

Greatest strength: … (This is the first time in over a year of book reviews that I have had nothing to put here.)

Greatest weakness: As I have said, there were many, many problems I had with this book. The aspect of it that most infuriated me was definitely Salter’s presentation of women.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘He wanted to say something but couldn’t decide what it would be.’

Yes. This sums up the book nicely.

Next week: Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee.

Click below for more reviews: 

(These three are books which I feel achieve what Salter was trying to do in All That Is.
They write about ordinary life, if with a twist.)


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