I recently completed a novel, and after a few rounds of edits have just begun sending it out to agents. During the editing process it occurred to me more than once that fiction, while hinging on reality, while gaining power from the truth of what we already know, needs to be both tidier and more sublime than most of what we experience. Thus fiction walks a fine line, appealing to what we know as possible and shaping it into something greater.
For Christmas, I got Mark Helprin’s latest novel. Helprin is sort of the poster boy of both flaunting and flouting reality, and I am always amused, for example, at the collection of beautiful women flitting through his books. Nearly all of them are extremely beautiful; an alarming number are the most beautiful the protagonist has ever seen. And yet it fits, because the protagonists are generous, adoring beauty in all its forms; living high in the clouds with the speed of their own inventions; stealing gold bricks from the bowels of banking institutions; loving horses, pines, lakes, architecture.
In this latest novel, the protagonist, typical of Helprin, has experienced war. The way Helprin describes him in the first few pages brought to mind several themes in my own novel, although mine are scattered and laid out with less straight-faced nobility:
“Whereas many others long before demobilization had abandoned the work of keeping themselves fit for sighting cross-country and living without shelter, Harry had learned, and believed at a level deeper than the reach of any form of eradication, that this was a duty commensurate with the base condition of man; that civilization, luxury, safety, and justice could be swept away in the blink of an eye; and that no matter how apparently certain and sweet were the ways of peace, they were not permanent. Contrary to what someone who had not been through four years of battle might have thought, his conviction and action in this regard did not lead him to brutality but away from it. He would not abandon until the day he died the self-discipline, alacrity, and resolution that would enable him to strength to the limit in defending that which was delicate, transient, and vulnerable, that which and those whom he loved the most.”
As in my own novel, my first reaction is that this is both true and not true, that it captures and does not capture some essential truth about warriors. Warriors are this, but they are more, and they are less. The sweeping postcard beauty of a human soul exists well in fiction, because fiction would not support the exacting tedium of constant equivocation.