Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- All That Is is preceded by an epigraph: "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." In what ways does this enigmatic statement illuminate the story that follows? Why would it be that only things preserved in writing are "real"?
- James Salter has been called "a writer's writer" and praised for the artistry of his sentences. What are the most appealing qualities of Salter's prose style? In what ways does his writing differ from that of most contemporary novelists?
- The novel is told primarily from Bowman's point of view, but the narrative shifts perspectives, and the narrator reveals things that Bowman can't know about. What is the effect of Salter switching between viewpoints and keeping a fair authorial distance from his characters?
- What kind of man is Philip Bowman? What are his most striking attributes? What drives him? In what ways is he both flawed and honorable? Does he change in any essential way over the course of the novel?
- In All That Is Salter eschews a conventional plot in favor of a more episodic, impressionistic, associative structure. What are the pleasures of reading such a narrative? In what ways does it feel closer to the way life actually happens, or is remembered, than a more tightly structured narrative might seem?
- Bowman's proposal to Vivian, which takes place in a crowded bar, is decidedly awkward. "What would you think," he asks, "about living here [in New York City]? I mean, we'd be married, of course." Vivian replies: "There's so much noise in here," and then asks, "Was that a proposal?" Bowman says, "It was pitiful, wasn't it? Yes, it's a proposal. I love you. I need you. I'd do anything for you." Vivian never directly accepts. Instead, she says, "We'll have to get Daddy's permission". What does Salter suggest in this scene, simply through dialogue, about Bowman and Vivian's relationship and its chances for success?
- Why does Bowman's marriage to Vivian fail? Why is he blind to their incompatibilities?
- In the chapter titled "Forgiveness," Bowman has a brief, intense affair with Christine's daughter, Anet, and then abandons her in Paris. "He had forgiven her mother. Come and get your daughter." Why does Bowman exact his revenge on Christine through her daughter? Is his cruelty justified given how Christine treated him? What are the consequences of his actions?
- Enid tells Bowman during their second conversation, "I don't think you ever really know anybody." Does the novel itself seem to endorse that view? What instances in the book demonstrate the inability of one person to fully know another?
- All That Is begins with the final, harrowing battles of WWII, the kamikaze attacks, the bloody invasion of Okinawa. How does his experience of the war affect Bowman? In what ways does the war provide the defining context for the rest of his life?
- The novel is filled with vivid portraits of minor charactersBowman's war buddies, friends in publishing, lovers, in-laws, publishers, etc. What do these minor characters add to the texture of the narrative? Who are some of the most memorable among them?
- How does Bowman regard women? Is he a romantic? What does erotic experience represent for him? What does he love about Vivian, Enid, Christine?
- In an interview with The Paris Review, Salter said "I believe there's a right way to live and to die. The people who can do that are interesting to me. I haven't dismissed heroes or heroism." Does All That Is present an ethos or right way of living? Is Philip Bowman heroic?
- All That Is concludes with Bowman and Ann planning a trip to Venice. "We'll have a great time," Bowman says. What is the effect of this open-ended ending? Are there any signs that Bowman's relationship with Ann will be any more lasting than his others have been?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.