Suspended in Time

Have you ever carried around a passage of writing by an amazing author and hoped that – maybe, through osmosis – one writer’s craft will meld into yours?

I can dream, can’t I?

I read a passage recently, in James Salter’s Light Years, that made me immune to the sounds of life at my house — kids running around, washer spinning, grandfather clock ticking.

Immersed in the life of a character so unlike me, I hung on each word as the images unfolded on the page.

Her father in distant Pennsylvania towns already had within him the anarchy of cells that announced itself by a steady cough and a pain in his back. Three packs a day for thirty years; he coughed as he admitted it. He needed something, he decided.

‘We’ll take some x-rays,’ the doctor had said. ‘Just to see.’

Neither of them was there when the negatives were thrown up before the wall of light, dealt into place as rippling sheets, and in the ghostly darkness the fatal mass could be seen, as astronomers see a comet.

The usual prognosis was eighteen months, but with the new machines, three years, sometimes four. They did not tell him this, of course. His translucent destiny was clear on the wall as subsequent series were displayed, six radiographs in a group, the two specialists working on different cases, side by side, calm as pilots, dictating what they saw, stacks of battered envelopes near their elbows. Their language was handsome, exact. They recited, they discussed, they gave a continued verdict long after Lionel Carnes, sixty-four years old, had begun his visits to the treatment room.

The Beta machine made a terrifying whine. The patient lay alone, abandoned, the room sealed, air-conditioned because of the heat. The dose was determined by a distant computer taking into consideration height, weight and so forth. The Beta doesn’t burn the skin like the lower-energy machines, they told him.

It hung there, dumb, enormous, shooting beams that crushed the honeycomb of tissue like eggshells. the patient lay beneath it, inert, arranged. With the scream of the invisible, it began its work. It was either this or the most extreme surgery, radical and hopeless, blood running down from the black stitches, the doomed man swerved up like a pot roast (pgs. 126-127).

Just words.

Black print on off-white paper.

Yet, the way James Salter wove them together had me frozen in time.

My husband asked me what was for dinner, so I had to look up from the page. But, the moments with Lionel Carnes, the doctors, and the machine stayed with me.

That’s what I strive for in my writing: storytelling that suspends the reader, and then leaves them with a lasting image long after the book is closed.

Amazing.

***

Salter, James. Light Years. New York: Random House, 1975.

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8 responses to “Suspended in Time

  1. Nice post, Christi. Didn’t you just love letting these words flow from your fingers?

    Light Years may be my favorite book of all time. I have a paperback AND a hardback copy. I’ve read it at least 3 times and had it off the shelf yesterday, rereading a snippet.

    The epigraph from my new novel Between Here and Gone is from Light Years: “Where does it go, she thought, where has it gone? She was struck by all the distances in life, by all that was lost in them.”

    I think you would enjoy this very short post I did on the book in 2008: http://catchingdays.cynthianewberrymartin.com/2008/10/04/life-is-meals/

    • It did feel good to type the words out.

      I’m not finished with the book, yet, but I could read just those passages over and over.

      Something else I find amazing about this book (and James Salter), is how he writes with such strength from Nedra’s perspective on marriage. I write from a woman’s perspective all the time, but when I try to write from a man’s perspective, something is lost.

      How does James Salter do that so successfully and seemlessly?

      I love the quote for your epigraph, by the way. I can’t wait to read your new novel!

  2. I’ve never read Light Years, but between this excerpt and Cynthia’s comments, it’s on the list for my next book-buying frenzy … I haven’t had one since January, so I definitely see it coming before the month is out.

  3. What a lovely post! I know exactly what you mean about writing that makes me stop when I am finished, completely stop, if just for a moment, utterly lost in the words I just read.

    I also do think that the acts of re-typing words and re-reading them and, yes, even carrying them around in our pockets make them part of us and, in a way, make us more able to duplicate their energy and magic.

    Thanks, too, for alerting me to LIGHT YEARS. Off the library I go!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lisa, and leaving a comment.

      I love your thought about holding an author’s words close to my own writing. Just to carry around a drop of James Salter’s magic would be enough!

  4. Excellent writing, I agree. I definitely have my favorite authors whose words carry me off into a wonderful story. Every day, I strive for that. I wish we could have objectivity with our own writing. And thanks for commenting on my blog!

    Laura

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