And she was unperturbed. She was cold. How did it happen, that something no longer mattered, that it had been judged inessential?
– James Salter, All That Is (220)
All That Is by James Salter concerns the adult life of Philip Bowman. His life, not so much as a search for love but more a drifting, swelling, rip tide, crashing into or reeling from love. All other mundane details of his life, while interesting, are decorative but not essential. Love is water- it’s just the profound weight of it all: the liquidity of love, slipping through your fingers, keeping you afloat, or dashing your heart against the rocky shore, the weight of the water is always there.
“People deceive you,” she said softly.
Sometimes you get caught up in a book, in a story, and it feels like a dream, every pore gets immersed in a world of the other. It’s like the writer creates an ocean, and you swim out to meet the surf. For some books you swim further in than others, and you can never know, just by looking, how far your own stroke takes you and how much the tide of the story is taking you as it would take anyone.
He was not depressed, but was living with the feeling of injustice. (187)
It’s not accidental that I saw myself under water, then swimming at a quick clip, then gasping for breath, as I read the story. Salter begins and returns to the ocean again and again throughout the book. Everything begins in the water.
The other day I swam out to the middle of a lake. There was no one else around. I swam straight out to the middle, I love placing myself in the center of a large expanse of water with the blue sky above…it’s not easy to float in fresh water, but floating may be one of my favorite things to do so I am well practiced. Without the salt’s assistance, I had to arch my head all the way back and let my feet dangle straight down, toes pointing towards the deep. My arms stretched away to let my chest rise, keeping me afloat. The water made a tight circle around my face, and I bobbed there in a sacrificial pose for some lovely minutes. That moment of staying perfectly still in the water, surrendering to the water, breathing, breathing, so as to not disturb anything was exactly how All That Is left me.
She wanted to talk. There were some things she wanted to say, but she did not. She sat silent. (284)
Becalmed, I suppose. The reading. The floating. The heartbreak. It’s a state in which the danger of sinking is avoided, and yet- it’s always there. Under the pull of the weight, heavy and lugubrious, is something mournful, mesmerizing yet out of reach. The water is invigorating and essential. It is also dark, deep and mysterious. And still, we float, seems we shouldn’t, but we do. Salter’s prose quietly touches on, and moves through, all of these elements- some lovely minutes is all that is.