Friday, January 7, 2011

Light Years

I had heard good things about this book, and I was interested in giving it a go. I heard that James Salter was an excellent prose stylist and that this particular novel was Yatesian in its approach, but without the blunt prose that Yates is so famous for.


Nedra and Viri are happily and unhappily married. They have two daughters, a beautiful country house, they are not faithful to each other, and Light Years documents about 25 years of their lives, as they wine and dine, have affairs, travel to Europe, see plays, watch their daughters grow older.

There are aspects of this novel that I loved, and aspects that I hated. Let's start with the bad this time, and maybe end the review on a good note for once.

I hated the cast. Hated them. If I had met these people in real life, I would have trouble disguising my loathing of them. You know that type of person that's always quoting Proust and talking about a certain vintage of some obscure wine? This whole book is populated by those people, those irritating, self-serving, egotistical rich white people who contribute almost nothing to society save for spending vast amounts of cash on nothing. A whole book of that.

A whole book of their annoying conversations about plays and actors and how Europe is so much goddamn better than America. I know it is, I don't need these people to tell me on every page. And on top of these irritating talks, they're extremely selfish and self-centered.

Case in point, Nedra, the wife. She throws away her marriage to Viri because she wants to be free and she wants to travel to Europe. Yes, that's the basis upon which she divorces him. Because she wants to get laid in Europe. And she eventually meets the most annoying American expatriates in Europe and has the most amazing sex ever with them. Ugh.

One of the best friends of the group is mugged and beaten almost to death. He loses an eye and loses the beauty of his speech. He mumbles and stutters now, but his mind is fine. What do all of his friends do? Leave him behind because they can't bear to have the memory of him stained by reality.

Now, you can clearly see where Salter is going with this. These people are not to be envied, but to be pitied. Nedra and Viri are shallow, selfish people who never amount to anything, although Viri shows signs of complexity when he worries about obscurity in regards to his career as an architect.

Both Yates and Bret Easton Ellis kind of do the same trick: they show the utter emptiness of these people and show how utterly small a single person is. The difference between Yates, Ellis and Salter is the style. Yates is brutally honest. Brutally. Nothing escapes his cold hard stare. Ellis distances himself and the reader, as far as he can, creating a disconnection. Salter, however, uses sumptuous, immaculate poetry to describe his world, tricking the audience into thinking these people are good. It's sleight of hand.

Salter's prose is, as I said, amazing. It is poetry. He uses very small phrases, sometimes not even connected but still in the same sentence to get his point across. He's very sensual and erotic in description. Some of the best scenes in the book are when the two daughters are growing up and realizing their potential to be "fantastic in bed" as one irritating lover describes her.

But great style does not equate to a great book. Light Years, while deep in imagery and symbolism is utterly shallow in its theme. Light and the river are predominant images, and Salter's impressionistic structure is on the whole successful.

Light Years was a disappointment. I hated the cast so much as to disturb the rest of the experience, which is a shame, because I did truly enjoy Salter's structure and prose. But Yates did this so much better, with less pages and less fancy in-your-face stylistic quirks. Even Ellis did this better with Less Than Zero. I didn't hate Light Years: there's too many good elements to dismiss the entire book, but I didn't love Light Years. This review is pretty harsh, but lovers of excellent prose would do well to give this a read. Maybe they'll see something that just didn't.

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