Saturday, December 03, 2005

Showing by Telling

James Salter, Last Night: Stories (Knopf, 2005).

“Show, don’t tell,” is a cardinal rule of fiction writing. If you enrol in a creative writing class, this is likely the first bit of advice with which your instructor will pummel you. It’s a good rule, particularly for beginning writers. But I’ve found that many of the best writers are brilliant tellers. James Salter is a brilliant teller.

In most of the stories in Salter’s latest collection, Last Night, very little happens. They are comprised of brief sketches of scenes and snatches of dialogue. The entire story may unfold within the confines of a single dinner party, or a few hours of after-dinner drinks on a girls’ night out. To begin with, it seems like it’s just surface detail. But the details are so carefully chosen, so sharply delineated, that they serve to excavate all that lies beneath. The inner workings of characters, of relationships, of a whole complex world, are thereby revealed.

Much of what Salter does here exemplifies the phrase “telling detail.” For example, he sets the scene in the first story, “Comet,” with these lines: “Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white…” In “My Lord You,” we see the host of a dinner party “mutter[ing] in profile” and are told: “He seldom looked at anyone.” A drunken guest who’s just arrived late to that party is described thus: “The irrational flickered from him.”

Two particular strengths of these stories are the dialogue and the endings. The dialogue is short and sharp and revealing. Again and again, a few lines of missed-communication dialogue lay bare whole relationships between characters. More than once, the ending of a story surprised me, yet at the same time I felt that the story couldn’t have ended any other way. Salter’s last lines are frequently devastating and perfect, echoing and amplifying everything that has gone before.

I had a few quibbles with Last Night. Salter eschews quotation marks, opting to use dashes instead to indicate dialogue. I found this practice distracting and sometimes confusing. A few repetitions from story to story also distracted me momentarily:

1. Women’s long legs and beautiful backs: Surely other features could have been used to denote female beauty on occasion?

2. Characters whom “everybody liked:” This worked for me as a shorthand descriptor for a certain type of man once, but not twice or a third time.

3. Caviar: Caviar was only on the menu in two stories, but it was two of the first three stories which led me to wonder into what alien world I'd stumbled. That said, it was quickly apparent that the truths that lie beneath this glittering facade resonate far beyond the rarefied existence of Salter's wealthy and sophisticated characters.

As soon as I finished reading Last Night, I flipped back to the start and began again. These are very short short stories but there’s so much roiling beneath the surface that, satisfying though the book is the first time through, it demands re-reading. Last Night is a brilliant book.


Colleen said...

You and I must have James Salter on the brain Kate - I just wrote about his Korean War book, The Hunters, in my blog! Hes amazing, isn't he?!

Razovsky said...

It's been many years since I read James Salter's Solo Faces, his novel about mountain-climbing, but I seem to remember a pretty good balance between telling and showing. Later work became more cerebral and less imagey.

Ella said...

I actually kind of like tellers-not-showers, as long as they're good tellers. I will have to look up Mr. Salter.

Julie said...

Sounds intriguing, despite the dashes!

Robert Ellis said...

I haven't read anything by Salter, but I enjoyed his interview in The Believer Book of Writer's Interviewing Writers. After reading your review, I'm going to add him to my Amazon wish list. Thanks!