“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.”
“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.