Relevance is Bunk

“I never read fiction.” It could be a PHD candidate who says this. She is busy designing a study testing the heritability of behaviors associated with methamphetamine addiction. It could be a businessman who says this. He is busy learning the tax codes for wine distributors, which are different in every state. It could be some aspiring music producer. He is busy pouring over an Abelton manual, trying to design the right envelope filter for a characteristic bass thump. Each of them have practical reasons for why they don’t read fiction. But, often enough, these people will have another reason, one that cuts across all kinds of different situations. It is this: fiction isn’t “relevant” to their lives. That reason is bunk.

This came to mind as I was reading The Hunters by James Salter. The novel follows Cleve Connell, an Air Force Captain, who flies F-86 jet fighters against Soviet and Chinese MIGs during the Korean War. Although he is an experienced pilot, Connell finds his ability and courage questioned when he fails to shoot down the expected number of enemy planes. Written in spare but vivid prose, the book sharply demonstrates how notions of glory can warp as well as nurture men. It holds a critical eye to the military without the baggage of outright polemicism. Salter, himself a pilot and veteran of over 100 combat missions during Korean War, intimately knew the life he fictionalized.

The Hunters shows how a good stylist can open up an area of human endeavor that would otherwise be closed.  Aerial warfare hasn’t interested me since I was a kid, when I would obsessively watch documentaries about test pilots and WWII flying aces. Reading the book, I remembered how much I wanted to be an aviator. It was also a reminder of how fundamentally unsuited I am for that life. The elitism among the pilots is vividly brought to life. It is the metaphorical air in which they fly. These men are making life and death decisions on the basis of who will get bragging rights. Some prefer downing enemy planes to protecting their own comrades. What a monstrous situation.

There’s an interesting episode halfway through the book. Connell, on leave in Japan, visits a friend of the family in the outskirts of Tokyo. He is a painter by the name of Miyata. In the brief portrait he writes, Salter creates something close of an ideal for an artist and a human being:

They spoke briefly of Korea and then of the past war with the United States. Miyata had been in Japan for its entire duration and must have been deeply affected, but when he talked about it, it was without bitterness. Wars were not of his doing. He considered them almost poetically, as if they were seasons, the cruel winters of man, even though almost all the work he had done in the 1930s and early 1940s had been lost when his house was burned in the great incendiary raid of 1944. He described the night vividly, the endless hours, the bombers thundering low over the storms of fire.

“All of your work?” Cleve said. “It must have been like being killed yourself.”

Miyata smiled.

“One would think so,” he replied, “and I, myself, did at first, but no, it was not. It was finally like being born again, I decided. I started life for a second time.”

Lessons aren’t offered with such style and concision in self-help books. There is no effected chattiness. There are no bullet point summaries. And finally, there are no concessions to what the reader, in 2016, might think of as relevant. Who would have an unprompted interest in the fate of modernist painters in mid-20th century Japan? Who would need a complete correspondence with the historical record (an actual painter, an actual pilot, and actual house in suburban Tokyo) to think of the conversation as significant? The story itself and the manner of its telling are what create the stakes. The fact that scene in question is partially or even wholly invented doesn’t lessen its impact.

What Miyata said, what Salter said, taking on the character of Mr. Miyata, was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. It put me and my sense of relative failure in check.  Starting over in life can be a noble thing. Being able to start over is a gift. But I wasn’t reading The Hunters for inspiration. I was reading the novel because I admired the writer’s prose style. Instead, I got something unexpected, something better. This sense of surprise is why I keep going to back to fiction. It is an indelible characteristic of that mode of expression and one of its chief pleasures. Fuck relevance.

What I’m Reading: Sloane, Harris, Kincaid, Lovecraft, Jannson

At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid: This was easily one of the weirdest books I’ve read in the past few years and all the better for it. I first encountered Kincaid’s work through the long essay “A Small Place” and there are certainly parallels to that book and the autobiographical fiction in this collection: themes of poverty, family relations, and the legacy of colonialism. Kincaid is known as a protest writer but the short stories collected here are much more ambiguous in their intent. The prose is intensely varied from one story to the next, taking radical shifts in register and perspective within the space of a few pages. Boundaries between fantasy and reality, between inner and outer life, are not so much transgressed as they are ground to bits and used as mulch for Kincaid’s imagination.

Free Will by Sam Harris: On a recent podcast, the controversial neuroscientist and moral philosopher said that disbelief in free will was his most strongly held conviction. He would more easily believe in the Abrahamic God of Creation, for instance, than in an autonomous “I” that is the author of each person’s actions. His case is compelling. While the position itself can be traced back to antiquity, Harris brings to bear modern evidence. Experiments using brain scans indicate relevant portions of our nervous system activate well before we consciously decide something. Of course, absence of free will has massive implications for contemporary society. Many of our institutions, including the US legal system, are predicated on its existence. Harris doesn’t supply many concrete alternatives. He does counsel for more compassion towards other conscious beings.  This is wholly consistent with his model of human behavior, in which even the worst person can’t help but be themselves. But it also has the mixed blessing of being generally good advice. If we are really to parse out the implications of what a world without free will should look like, more guidance is needed than what this slim volume provides.

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson: Reading this was a treat. Jannson’s prose is direct, unpretentious but nonetheless incredibly evocative. This short novel relates discrete episodes in the life of Sophie, a young girl who has recently lost her mother. Somewhat reluctantly, she comes to live on an island in the Gulf of Finland under the care of her paternal grandmother. Their relationship, its joys and difficulties, is depicted with a sweetness that never becomes cloying. The island, the changes it undergoes with the seasons, parallels Sophie’s coming to terms with the beautiful and sometimes frightening world around her.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft: One of horror-master’s longest and, I think, best works, this novella follows the title character as he descends into inhuman madness. The trouble begins when Ward discovers that an ancestor had been conducting occult research in colonial Providence, Rhode Island. The young scholar resumes those researches—with predictably ghoulish results. But Lovecraft is more convincing here than practically anywhere else in his body of work. The setting of Providence and its environs, the author’s home town, is brilliantly realized. Lovecraft’s characteristic bigotry and overheated prose style are both present in abundance. But so is an obvious expertise in early American history. Whatever his limitations, stylistic or ethical, Lovecraft could be a disciplined writer when it came to background research.

To Walk the Night by William Sloane: This, along with another novel, The Edge of Running Water, form the author’s complete published works, gathered together by NYRB Classics under the title The Rim of Morning. A well respected writing instructor and editor, Sloan’s posthumous memory survived in the form of the ultimate SF writer’s-writer, as Stephen King explains in his introduction. His fans and publishers needn’t make such a hard sell. Slone’s prose is descriptive yet understated. His characters, particularly the female ones, are vivid to a degree that is sadly atypical in genre writers of the early 20th century. The difference between Sloan and Lovecraft is striking and instructive. The first novel in the collection, To Walk the Night, follows the narrator Bark Jones as he and his friend Jerry Lister investigate the mysterious death of an astronomy professor at their alma mater. The professor, whose body is completely consumed by fire, had been doing research in how to extend consciousness through space and time. The single person who can provide answers is the professor’s mysterious wife, who had wandered into town only days before the death. SF aficionados will probably recognize the tropes and plot twists that drive Sloan’s novel. They’ve been repeated and remixed a thousand times in novels, radio serials, movies, and television shows. It’s the sensitivity to character and place that makes this work special.

“A Shattering Insanity in Heaven” Malcolm Lowry

There is, sometimes in thunder, another person who thinks for you, takes in one’s mental porch furniture, shuts and bolts the mind’s window against what seems less appalling as a threat than as some distortion of celestial privacy, a shattering insanity in heaven, a form of disgrace forbidden mortals to observe too closely: but there is always a door left open in the mind—as men have been known in great thunderstorms to leave their real doors open for Jesus to walk in—for the entrance and the reception of the unprecedented, the fearful acceptance of the thunderbolt that never falls on oneself, or the lightning that always hits the next street, for the disaster that so rarely strikes at the disastrous likely hour, and it was through this mental door that Yvonne, still balancing herself on the log, now perceived that something was menacingly wrong. In the slackening thunder something was approaching with a noise that was not the rain.

From Under the Volcano (1947), the second novel by Malcolm Lowry and the last to be published during his lifetime.

Further Thoughts on Universal Translation

[This post is a continuation of a short essay I did for Asymptote Journal’s blog]

Learning a language is difficult, mediating between languages even more so. Not everyone has the time to think about these processes, much less represent them in a rigorous way. These are rather banal observations, but they should be taken into consideration discussing translation and its fictional representation. Not being gifted with much linguistic talent myself, having instantaneous translation is marvelously for keeping up-to-date on books and culture around the world.

I suppose that gets to the heart of why “universal translation” is such an appealing trope. We can just avoid the intricacies of translation entirely. Linguists and other scholars with a professional can devote time in analyzing language as language—others not so much. Outside of novels specifically on that subject, fussing with the ins-and-outs of contacting an alien civilization tends to bog narratives down, especially in longer works.

While I found Lem’s His Master’s Voice intellectually compelling, the dry, essayistic style made it difficult to sustain interest. Alien languages don’t have to be boring. But it takes an ear for style as well as a technical mind to make the subject come to life. Borges, especially, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” treats linguistic subjects with appropriate concision, and much more vividly as well.

Universal Translation/A Message From Space

First Edition Cover of His Master’s Voice

My newest column is online now at Asymptote Journal’s blog. It’s a short introduction to the subject of translation as imagined through “message from space” novels, a common subgenre concerning hypothetical difficulties in translating a message sent by extraterrestrials. Discussed are works by Carl Sagan, Stanislaw Lem, and an interesting book-length analysis of science fiction by Kingsley Amis with the great title New Maps of Hell.

You can read the rest of my work at Asymptote here.