All That Is – James Salter.
This book is dotted with praise. From cover, to inner leaf, to even the next page, there are quotes from those institutions which people look to for confirmation on what is good and what is bad. The Times, GQ, The Observer, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, New Statesman Books of the Year – the list goes on. They suggest that this book is ‘Exquisite’, ‘Magnificent’, ‘Effortlessly beautiful’ and ‘Spellbinding’; and that’s only on the cover.
Well, I’m here to say that this is not so. Yes, it is easy to read and the wording doesn’t grate or anger the reader. There are some pretty passages and it maintains a consistent tempo throughout. The blurb on the back suggests that ‘All That Is explores a life unfolding in a world on the brink of change.’ That’s all well and good, but the novel barely recognises any of that change. The novel follows the story of Philip Bowman, who has a very interesting life. At least, on the surface. He serves in the Second World War, managing to survive, he becomes a book editor and works in publishing, he goes to glamourous parties in Europe, he has sex with various people, he’s been married once and never marries again, a woman he fell in love with cheats him of something of value. This sounds like an exciting novel, full of challenging and exciting moments in a person’s life. Yet I come away from this book feeling annoyed and bored. Everything that occurs is told with such consistent pacing that you barely realize something momentous is occurring. Each epoch in Bowman’s life sort of swims into the next and you’re half way through before you grasp that something is really happening, something is really changing.
Salter dips in and out of various people’s lives as well, introducing back stories to some of the more minor characters. This can be quite intriguing and beautiful at times – he explores an incident at a restaurant with a drunk woman of high birth which is one of the few times I really lost myself in his writing and in the story. However, as we move between these characters, it feels like the reader is often left behind. He writes quietly and subtly but this means that the point of everything he is saying and doing is lost. I was regularly perplexed by where we were in the story, having to re-read parts, simply to catch again the name and the character we were now following.
I never felt that Salter was writing for any particular reason. Is this book meant to be a human study, a commentary on a life? If so, why was it so paced? Life has ups and downs and I don’t think Salter captures that. At least, it seems he doesn’t choose to capture that. Is this book meant to follow a life in a world of change? I don’t think so, as there is little analysis or interaction between his main character and the world around him. Bowman does not sit back and wonder at what is going on. Bowman does not tend to reminisce or remember his time in the Navy or worry about the Cold War. He doesn’t even seem to be that upset when he is cheated by a woman he loves. I mean, Salter says that he is, but I certainly never felt like Bowman was really that broken or hurt.
It’s not a bad book. It’s easy to read and well-written. Other than that it is pretty bloody boring.