All That Is by James Salter, (Random House, 2013)
““Sorry to be late,” she said. “Forgive me. Have you been waiting?” “No, it’s nothing.” The minutes of his unhappiness had instantly disappeared.”
All That Is is set in America, principally in New York City and follows the 40 year passage of Philip Bowman, a book editor, from youth to middle age. The general gist: Bowman fights in the second World War, gets married, has loads of affairs that never quite work out, everyone (including Bowman) has quite a lot of sex and in between those bits, there’s a sort of literary motif, with irrelevant/fanciful gossip about real life authors.
The overarching story is Bowman’s, but the book trawls through all the lives that make up Bowman’s world. There are innumerable secondary and tertiary characters including his lovers, his publishing colleagues, his in-laws, his writer and artist friends.
I didn’t get on with this book. I didn’t care about Bowman AT ALL. Midway through the story, all that we really know about the character is that that he peppers both his conversation and inner monologue with annoying clichéd “truisms” such as: “all powerful women cause anxiety“. I thought Bowman a boor and a bore.
The insight into the lives of Bowman’s friends and associates didn’t help deepen my engagement with him in any way, as I didn’t care about them either. Towards the end of the book I could barely remember any of their names and started to forget which ones Bowman had married. I found the haphazard structure and garish carousing of the hordes of superficial, stock characters (most of whom were indistinguishable from one another, especially the women) teeth grindingly annoying. Some people might enjoy the undeniably glamorous character vignettes but I found them superficial and unsatisfying.
Reading this I couldn’t help but think of the reality show The Real Housewives of New York – there’s a bit of fighting, a lot of (mildly embarrassing) sex talk, an abundance of physically beautiful women and a fixation with real estate. I love trashy TV and I wanted to like this book. However, All That Is is missing any quality silliness or sensationalism which might have made it a fun, glossy romp through the decades of Bowman’s life and the lack of plot wasn’t redeemed by beautiful writing or interesting characters. I thought maybe I was just feeling negative with it being February and cold and with the tube strike and all, but I subsequently read a non-fiction book (I don’t usually enjoy reading non-fiction) about cats (I don’t like cats) and I loved it, so it can’t have been that.