Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Solo Faces, by James Salter

All great novelists force us to reevaluate our definitions of sanity. That tradition began with the first modern novel, Don Quixote, and continues unabated. Indeed, the problem of sanity—what is it? who defines it? who is or is not sane?—is quite possibly the defining theme of the novel.

In this regard, the novel has always been subversive.

Of course all art is subversive. But the novel is particularly dangerous because of its ability to disguise its menace in the Biblical conventions of storytelling. Consequently, prior to the development of photography the novel has had no rival in the arts to match its ability to appear benevolent, edifying, and traditional while in fact working to provoke, transform, even revolutionize society.

Certainly novels have met with fierce resistance in the West—Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita—but that resistance is usually in reaction to sexual content and is fairly reliably a mark of greatness (novelty). So it's rare.

Given, then, the novel's peculiar advantages for sedition, why has it opted to focus on the problem of sanity?

Because the surest way to examine power in any culture is to isolate that culture's boundaries between what's sane and what's insane. Those boundaries don't only distinguish one culture from another; they also clarify who runs the show.

James Salter has written two masterpieces—which is two more than most novelists—and both of them explore sanity. A Sport and a Pastime contemplates erotic love, which we both venerate as life's highest private experience and proscribe as a kind of irresponsible, obsessive madness. Light Years contemplates domestic family life, which we venerate as the central institution of responsible adult life, as the apotheosis of civilized happiness, yet often experience as a slow, inexorable descent into madness—as, in fact, a form of madness, and of cowardice.

Unlike those novels, Solo Faces concerns itself with the Western obsession with individual achievement. Salter has decided to explore that obsession through mountain climbing, perhaps the most mythical (cliché) metaphor for individual achievement imaginable.

For those who love to climb—who live to climb—his careful depiction of that life will be reason enough to read the book. I'd be surprised if there's a better account of climbing culture and its numerous idiosyncrasies.

For the rest of us, Solo Faces, unlike Salter's two great novels, is not especially noteworthy.

According to William Dowie (writing in his critical biography of Salter), Solo Faces began as a screenplay commissioned by Robert Redford. When Redford rejected the screenplay, Salter transformed it into a novel. As a consequence (I suspect), Solo Faces suffers from narrative awkwardness, especially in its earliest scenes. It lacks the organic coherence of Salter's enduring work.

I'll note two other disappointments: Salter's great strength as a novelist is his evocation of the inner life of women. But Solo Faces concerns itself with the overwhelmingly masculine world of mountain climbing, so reading it is a bit like watching a great hitter play defense. Secondly, the keenest pleasure this book offers is the pleasure of suspense. For this particular reader, suspense is a trivial, even annoying quality in a novel.

Nevertheless, one does find, as always, Salter's philosophical elegance—in this case, as it obtains to the heroism (insanity?) of obsessive individual achievement. That elegance is best captured in this exchange, which comes near the end of the book:

     "I decided to see if I could shock her," Rand admitted. "So I told her the truth."
     "Such as?"
     "I told her I'd been climbing for fifteen years. For most of that, ten years anyway, it was the most important thing in my life. The only thing. I sacrificed everything to it. Do you know the one thing I learned from climbing? The single thing?"
     "It is of no importance whatsoever."

The novel's philosophical interest is plain to see when one applies observations like that to individual achievement generally—including, for example, the achievement of writing a novel.

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