• Alan Bray

Imaginary Friends

Since writing last week’s post, I’ve been up around three a.m., worrying about what I wrote last time, worrying about the effect of my words. No one has of yet expressed any outrage and/or tearful accusation, but I know that often, people keep such things to themselves. What did I do? Well, I stated that the narrator entity in “A Sport and a Pastime” was imagining the story of Dean and Anne-Marie. I cut the diamond, best beloved. I could have said, “I don’t know if the story’s real or not. I just don’t know.” Shrugging of shoulders. Pursed lips.

But that would have been a lie.

Well, you say, how come, Mr. Big Shot.

The story of “Sport” is about the narrator, looking back on the time he spent in France, remembering the fantasy he created about a young couple. He made up a story in the same way the author of fiction makes up a story, the same way James Salter made up the story about him. It’s a story within a story, about a story-teller.

“But of course, in one sense, Dean never died—his existence is superior to such accidents. One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them…It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess.”

This statement by the narrator occurs on the last page of the story, however, it should come as no surprise. The text is awash with similar statements, going back to early sections. “None of this is true…” There are a number of mise en abymes—stories within stories—that foreshadow the finale of the tale. (Including Dean’s death in a car accident). An example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, concerns the narrator observing a young man in Autun, a sort of louche ladies’ man, and stating that he will emulate him—at least for an evening.

The idea that the narrator imagines the story is not a surprise that comes all at once at the end, a la “He woke up, twitching. It had all been a dream.” It is an integral part of the story.

However, the novel is so beautifully constructed that the truth is quite ambiguous. It is certainly possible to read the story and believe that Dean and Anne-Marie are “real” in the sense of fictional characters being real. After all, narrators can say whatever they want, as can any characters in stories, they can be deluded or just wrong. Of course, I am taking the narrator at his word. He says he made it all up; I believe him. Why?

I think having a story within a story is very aesthetically pleasing, if you will. It makes “Sport” a haunting tale about a lonely man, isolating himself, and creating a whole imaginary story to provide comfort. It is also a story about story-telling. The process of writing involves imagining characters in scenes, plots. I like the idea of James Salter writing a story about a narrator—who may be “like” James Salter—spending a winter in small-town France and imagining, in his loneliness, a whole world of sexual intimacy.

This is an example of a reader (me) co-creating meaning of a text. The first time I read “Sport” I essentially accepted the fiction of the story—that the adventures Dean and Anne-Marie had were “real.” I enjoyed the sexual content (blush). I was saddened when Dean died at the end, and when the narrator has a last meeting with a grieving Anne-Marie. I ignored/denied the narrator’s clear statements that he was making it all up—because that’s what a first reading is like. You want to believe the magic of a story. When you read “Lord of the Rings,” you get seduced into believing in elves and dwarves. You think, “That Sauron is a pretty bad dude. Wow, what would I do if I had to carry that ring?”

“Sport” does quite a job of seduction. It’s as if Tolkien had kept writing things like, “None of this is real. I just feel compelled to keep writing about goblins. Help me.”

It’s only after the fourth reading of “Sport” that I’ve come to appreciate the depth of artistry it contains. The book continues to seduce me, but in an increasingly fine-grained way.

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