James Wood’s Subtle Subversions

And could his invaluable How Fiction Works incite them to plunge those blades deep? Politics in the novel may be like a gunshot, but in James Wood’s second novel its weak ricochet feels like a dodge from one of our most arresting writers. The Wood caricature being sketched here is that of a cocooned stylist grown soft who is oblivious to and startled by worldly matters. But Meaney is wrong, too. Her younger lover, Josh, obliquely suggests that she may do herself harm. Alan connects with his younger daughter, Helen, a Sony music exec, in New York City, and they journey upstate to reconnoiter. Put differently, what counts, in criticism and in fiction, as political? If Wood is guilty of anything, it is a formal conservatism. Take Wood’s criticism of Edmund Wilson’s “swerve away from aesthetic questions” and turn it around, muah-hah-hah, to reprove Wood for swerving toward those questions. As a novelist, he downplays plot to the point of minimalism. The point of a featured critical voice, theater reviewer Jesse Green writes, is “to let readers navigate by a steady aesthetic star.”
Wood doesn’t ignore politics, but he apportions his political attention according to the work under scrutiny. Morris Dickstein, in a mixed review of The Book Against God for Slate, arrives at an inventive approach: he calls the book “daring” but dings it for being “simply too well-written” (italics his). In Upstate, Vanessa is destined for her own dismal separation, and she too doesn’t have, from what we’ve learned about her, the resilience to handle it. Bunting is headed — if not soon, then eventually — for divorce, and he is pitifully unfit to withstand the sorrow of it. Triple-fie on Wood, then, for he is a critic, a teacher, and a novelist. In the wake of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s death, she has been emotionally fragile. Take Rachel Cooke’s merciless but sincere-sounding pan of Upstate in the Guardian. They stipulate that those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach review. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Meaney writes,
Ten years ago many of the leading critics and novelists in America held Wood in the highest esteem, and several tried to sound like him. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland. Dickstein argues,
Wood’s metaphors too often suspend the narrative flow for descriptive flights of grotesque or distracting beauty. The Boston Globe, after all, once dubbed Wood “the elegant assassin.” Might these rare Wood novel releases occasion payback from protective critics avenging the big-game novelists Wood has hunted — Paul Auster, J. Her dyed black hair was past due — a frozen white stream, the late fee as it were, ran right down the middle of her parting. Even when he’s attacking authors whom a reader admires (among them, in my case, Franzen and Wolfe), Wood’s dissection illuminates the writer’s techniques in a way that provides humanizing glimpses of the wizard behind the curtain. It analyzes tone, diction, pace, point of view, credibility, and the success of evolving free-indirect narrative strategies that triangulate the coordinates of character and author. And in fairness, we too might ask ourselves, is Wood’s vintage style an act of blindness? Still, these narratives are more formally daring than they seem, for there are, in fact, significant turns of plot — only we don’t see them. But so far, this route works better for him as a critic than as a novelist.”
That complaint hits Wood where he lives. Tom Bunting is hyperliterary in a philosophical and theological vein; hypersensitive, particularly to music; and prone to grand, sometimes grandiose, musings. Wood earns his metaphorical flights of beauty, and I, for one, will never see a brussels sprout the same way again. The descriptions of musical notation and organ sounds are lively and perfectly in line with what we know of the character. G. JUNE 5, 2018
HOW DARE the most incisive, independent-minded living literary critic writing in the English language also produce serious novels? ¤
Alexander C. No doubt some critics genuinely don’t like Wood’s fiction. Dickstein concludes, “Wood’s advantage over his character is that he has literature as another source of meaning. Wood lives in his head and so do his characters, and that will never be everyone’s cup of tea. With unmatched consistency, Wood, in each review and essay, combines a close reading with topographical analysis from 30,000 feet up. Alluding to Stendhal, he sums up:
With the New York Critics there was wilder reaching, and less calm. Never mind that Meaney’s nonsensical bullet metaphor itself ricochets, and that Stendhal, in the phrase Meaney refers to, acknowledged the coarseness of politics in literature. That is a problem to which we should all aspire, but Dickstein’s charge is not in jest. — and save for occasional historical-pushpin mentions of the Obama campaign and such, Upstate lacks political pageantry. His cherished free-indirect narrative approach allows for naturalistic flows of memory — the drab, upstanding, stoic working folk of Alan’s postwar youth and the vicissitudes of commercial real estate; Helen’s girlhood musical and love interests; Vanessa’s self-sheltering bookishness. Does rock writer Jon Pareles grab a Gibson and shred with the Foo Fighters? Wood dwells on the qualities where his reading can contribute most — like Kempowski’s “modern epic style.” “The effect,” writes Wood, “is a kind of uncertain omniscience, which allows the novelist not only to move easily among his characters but to blend their thoughts, when need be, into a collective anxiety.”
For Woodian good measure, he notes parenthetically that the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare — a study of whose work you’ll find in Wood’s 2012 essay collection, The Fun Stuff — uses a “similar method.” That’s the kind of aside that makes readers either love or roll their eyes at Wood — or both. This crazy period of ideological demolition derby, Meaney implies, has left the old naturalistic aesthete behind. But for the new critics and novelists now emerging, does Wood matter as much as he once did? Let us consider, however, whether Wood’s sober attention to tone and character in his criticism and fiction might be covertly political — or maybe indirectly political would be a better phrase. For what could be more political in an era of public bullying, greed, fascist leanings, mass shootings, debauched legal maneuverings, and semi-literate bellowings than a sensible story about looking out for and respecting one another, pursuing intellectual and professional passions, and applying the imperfect balms of love and patience to dear ones’ damaged hearts? That’s where Alan’s up state kicks in — his reflexive optimism and his realization that the responsibilities, victories, and travails of fatherhood last, if you’re lucky, unto the grave. It is the entire imaginative process in one move.”
Could Wood be so scrupulous on this point in his criticism and so ungainly in his fiction? With his avaricious pols and bankers and developers, his conniving preachers, his tabloid preeners and the like, Wolfe forecast the Toon Town that the United States has become. Defiance? It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Does dance critic Alastair Macaulay leap onto the stage and perform Afternoon of a Faun? If you’ve read Wood even sporadically, you know that hardly fits. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Rush, Lydia Davis, and Geoff Dyer.)
Or might some critics be envious of Wood’s talents and star turns at The New Yorker, the New Republic, the London Review of Books, and the Guardian — not to mention his professorship at Harvard? She looked a little wrecked […] But everyone more or less his age looked wrecked. The current era, then, puts Wood in a tough position. As Tom Bunting cooks, he enjoys hearing “that delicious steady choking noise as expensive wine blunders like tides into the pot.” He pictures Brussels sprouts as “those funny tattered turbans of green leaves.” His wife, in her music, rouses “flocks of sound from sheets dotted with abstract black collisions.” Churches and cathedrals, the sounds of their organs (“that silver dapple of complicated breath through a thousand mouths”), bring out a riot of metaphor. True to their author’s voice, these are careful works that resist controversy beyond the fact that they exist, show a calm, colorful command of language, and are absorbing to read. (On the flip side, Wood has written admiring reviews of an astonishingly wide range of work from authors as diverse as W. M. What, then, gives James Wood the right to practice the art he’s spent a lifetime appraising? An unassuming, carefully crafted story about devotion and quiet commitment? That’s not what Wood does. In the telling title essay of The Fun Stuff, he fantasizes about writing in the feral, undisciplined, instinctive way that Keith Moon played drums for the Who before he imploded. In this case, what Upstate and Wood lack, Meaney says, is political relevance. But like Vladimir Horowitz’s quirky affection for discotheques, this reverie of Wood’s comes across as the whimsical idyll of a virtuoso technician pining for innocence from the byzantine belletristic rules he has spent a career expertly decoding. A political diatribe in the guise of a novel would be more sand in the wind. In a recent review of Kempowski’s All for Nothing, a novel about East Prussia toward the end of World War II, Nazi and Stalinist forces are the context, not the focus. In 2018, that is subversive. Alan’s business orientation and his flashbacks to a disagreeably bland postwar socialism mark him as a status-quo neoliberal — the horror! Wood the critic, Meaney writes, has staked out an aesthetically grounded role for fiction, a “fealty to the real […] that he sees as fiercely secular.” Ideologies live in certainty while fiction, as Wood puts it in The Broken Estate, “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie.” Meaney argues that in distancing himself from theological certainties, Wood has distanced himself from political certainties, too. But it also examines how a work fits into an author’s overall output and its biographical, cultural, historical, and, yes, political influences. But what could be more seriously American than a little cartoonishness among the Great White-Suited Dandy’s physically and figuratively oversized characters? That may be what rubs Meaney the wrong way. The book is funny from a wide angle, too, because Bunting is Wood’s alter ego: the intellectually overcharged but stalled do-nothing that the super-ambitious and diligent Wood, under different circumstances, might have become. He devotes not just much of his critical endeavor but also a meticulous section of How Fiction Works to the prudent use of metaphor. Does classical music sage Anne Midgette hip-check Emanuel Ax into the concert-hall wings and tear into Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. The novel’s title has multiple associations. In 2007, a financially besieged English real-estate developer, Alan Querry, frets about his eldest daughter, Vanessa, a middle-aged Philosophy professor at Skidmore. Bewilderment? They are extrapolated, a half foot off the end of the story line. No, actually. Thomas Meaney, in a recent Times Literary Supplement review, goes after not just Wood’s new novel but also, while he’s at it, Wood’s stature in the literary universe — it’s big-game hunting of a different sort. The prose is easy and confident, and — amid the references to German philosophy, rock bands, and digital streaming — so too is the dialogue, which is rife with all the worry and tenderness, the grumpiness and wariness, of weathered but thick family bonds. In The Book Against God, a measured argument between Bunting and his wife about birth control and an ill-conceived eulogy at his father’s funeral are about as tumultuous as things get. His late dad was an amiable theologian turned vicar, and it’s evident that the desperate project is directed as much against the father as against the Father. Wood’s fiction is pleasurable, stirring, and often quite droll, so it takes some ingenuity to go after it. Could his wide-ranging, learned, insightful, and accessible books of collected criticism inspire reviewers to unsheathe their daggers? Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, both icons of literary criticism, tried their hands at fiction, but no one celebrates them for that. But is it paranoid to theorize that in a few cases resentments are at play, scores being settled? Meaney’s right. Wood writes, “Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. “The problem for Wood today,” he writes,
is that politics — concerns about the proper shape and priorities of our society — have returned to the contemporary novel with little warning, in ways he could hardly have anticipated on setting out as a critic. As a critic, he’s a regular, even boastful, plot spoiler. A Wood essay or review, whether on Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Orwell, or recent and contemporary authors such as Walter Kempowski or Norman Rush, is the literary equivalent of a high-definition body scan accompanied by a detailed personal and family medical history. In fact, we now find ourselves living in Wolfe’s world. It’s what’s coming that draws our empathy and apprehension. Wood will also remain renowned for his criticism and not for his fiction because his criticism, honed over three decades, is superb, while his novels — The Book Against God (2003) and Upstate, just released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux — are “merely” very good. In Upstate, Wood teases us with relatively minor but foreboding events: a broken arm from a fall that may or may not have been suicidal in origin, a scary but harmless skid-out on an icy road caused, amusingly, by Alan’s aversion to the music of Vivaldi. But in Upstate, Wood pointedly ignores Trump World to stay true to his literary temperament and deliver a somewhat old-fashioned, delicate family drama. 2? It’s not enough for Meaney that Wood does, in fact, review “overtly political” work “such as that by Zia Haider Rahman, Hari Kunzru, Joshua Cohen, or his beloved Norman Rush” because Wood doesn’t review it in an overtly political way. Meaney’s approach is time-tested: blame a book for not being some other book and a writer for not being some other writer, usually one more like the reviewer. Meaney doesn’t come right out and answer his own question, but his guess is clear. Wood’s style lends itself also to an unforced observational mode as Alan experiences American train travel, rural New York’s spare winter landscapes and hobbled, once-grand town centers, or, in this description, a woman flirting with him in his hotel lobby:
She grinned, and he understood that she’d had a few drinks, and that maybe she often had a few drinks. At least not on her own. A Wood review may be more than you want to read, but it’s always worth reading. It is geographically literal, it is a nod perhaps to Edmund Wilson’s 1971 memoir of the same name, and it reflects Alan’s strangely unshakable optimism, which turns out to be a timely and valuable commodity. Those seeking heart-stopping plot turns should walk away. Wood has championed work that resonates with his tastes — tastes, Meaney contends, that are “politically ambivalent, rich in psychology” — and that aestheticism makes Wood’s judgment “appear suddenly narrower.” Tricky that. Hysterical realism has become our daily existence. The novel’s melancholy humor lies in the sad-sack antihero’s navel-gazing inertia, which is wrapped in Bunting’s bunting of metaphysical considerations. Wood has complained that Wolfe’s novels are too cartoonish to take seriously. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe among them? In a notorious 2000 essay for the New Republic, Wood describes modern fiction’s driving force as “hysterical realism”:
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. If that virtuoso approach feels out of step with the times, does that reflect Wood’s narrowing, as Meaney would have it, or ours? Wood’s protagonist, Tom Bunting, is a philosophy scholar who has sacrificed his doctoral dissertation, his mental stability, his relationships, his finances, and his hygiene to an ever-growing atheistic rant called The Book Against God. That hasn’t stopped reviewers from ripping into them. Check the bylaws. Is it inertia? Is it integrity? Upstate displays a master unobtrusively practicing what he preaches. He reckoned her to be five or so years younger than him.