This spring, James Salter published All That Is, his first novel in nearly 35 years — and the critics could not have been more excited. Michael Dirda said Salter has "rightly come to be regarded as one of the great writers of his generation." Malcolm Jones for The New York Times said, "If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he'd be there already." He's been compared to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike.
It's not hard to see why. In Light Years (1975), Salter movingly describes the breakfast table of a middle-aged couple about to divorce: "everything, in fact, every plate and object, utensil, bowl illustrated what did not exist; they were fragments borne forward from the past, shards of a vanished whole." This passage encapsulates the monumental sadness that accompanies the end of a relationship — a sadness which hits first thing in the morning. But Salter, so empathetic and observant when it comes to describing kitchen utensils, is less insightful when describing his characters — especially the women.
Salter's women are described over and over again as meals for the male protagonists to enjoy and then leave behind in various western European countries. Take Anne-Marie, the French love interest in 1967's A Sport and Pastime: "She is talkative and happy. The food seems spread around her like vegetables to a roast. She is simply the living portion of the meal, and she smiles at his appetite which embraces her with glances." This is not just creepy; it's also empty, telling us nothing about Anne-Marie. And it's not like the American protagonist, Ivy League dropout Dean, learns much more about her later. Anne-Marie hardly speaks English, so her lines are pretty much limited to oui or non. And when she dares to speak, "her mistakes begin to be irritating, and besides, she seems disposed to talk only of banal things: shoes, her work at the office."
The book is not about a relationship between two people (clearly, one is hardly even allowed to talk), but about Dean's development. Apparently, to develop, Dean needs to fall in love with a beautiful French girl in the equally beautiful French countryside, and then to leave for college, or in his own words, "organize" himself once he's had his fill of it all. Salter could have depicted Anne-Marie not just as an experience Dean has, but also as a person in her own right — and the story would have been that much deeper.
Lest we think Salter's description of Anne-Marie as lunch reveals anything particular to her, in Light Years Salter uses the same image to describe a different love interest: the Italian Lia Cavalieri is like "a meal all prepared" for protagonist Viri, a lost, American, 47-year old recent divorcé. Once again, Salter describes a woman as food — and once again she seems to have nothing worthwhile to say. Viri, after sleeping with Lia, "lay by her side and put his arm beneath her head, drawing the robe over her at the same time as if she were a shop and he were closing her for the night — a shop one had to talk to."
Just as Dean meets Anne-Marie and decides to finish college, Lia is the catalyst that helps Viri begin the second half of his life. After their marriage, he "took stock of himself. He touched his limbs, his face, he began the essential process of forgetting what had passed." He, like Dean, went to Europe to meet a woman and "organize" himself. Lia and Anne-Marie are lunch stops on a man's road to self-discovery, their thoughts no more important to the narrative (and almost as absurd to worry about) as the thoughts of the tagliatelle that Viri actually orders.
Salter's depiction of women in his most recent book, All That Is, is no different, except that it's even more disturbing. The protagonist, Bowman, embarks on a love affair in Paris. He takes his ex-lover's college-age daughter there for a romantic weekend. But, of course, this affair is all about Bowman. When they first sleep together in New York, their sex is questionably consensual: "she moved from side to side and pushed his hand away, but he was insistent. Finally, not without relief, she gave in. She became his partner in it, more or less." In their final sex scene, Bowman realizes he is ready to forgive her mother for leaving him. He sneaks out of their hotel that morning, thinking about not anything she said or did, but rather "the freshness of her, even afterward." Much as you'd remember, well, a meal, though I feel icky just saying that.
I'm not the first to notice Salter's poor treatment of women in All That Is. John Freeman, for The Boston Globe, wrote that the women "listen to men talk and occasionally offer themselves to them, like gifts." Brian Gresko, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, pointed out that "an undercurrent of chauvinism flows beneath the story." And even Tim Sohn, writing for GQ, a publication hardly known for its progressive treatment of women, referred to the book's "slightly retrograde sexual politics."
Of course, our Western canon contains a lot of male writers who write in limiting ways about women. Do writers like Philip Roth and James Joyce treat their female characters fairly? It's endlessly debatable. But at the very least, they do endow their women with human characteristics. In Roth's American Pastoral, Merry is clearly vilified — she's a terrorist, actually — but you can still understand her desire to make her life meaningful through her adaptation of radical politics. Molly Bloom, in Joyce's Ulysses, suffers from an acute sense of penis envy, but her mind is full to bursting of thoughts — jumbled and contradictory, yes, but still assembled into a coherent vision of a person. In Salter, the women are experiences, storefronts, meals, but never people.
It's not that Salter's treatment of women makes me angry, though perhaps it should. Instead, I just find it tired and outdated. In All That Is, Bowman, the protagonist tries to convince his college girlfriend to sleep with him, and she says, "You men are all alike." He retorts, "That's a boring thing to say." And he's absolutely right.
Lidia Jean Kott is an editorial assistant for NPR Books.