Reviews — From the July 2003 issue

The Critic as Artist

James Wood???s first novel

( 2 of 6 )

Wood’s novel, The Book Against God, begins with a disclosure: “I denied my father three times, twice before he died, once afterwards.” The confessional voice roots us immediately in loamy New Testament soil. And the language makes us lean in, as it were, to hear this confession: Peter too denied His Father three times. To echo, deliberately, Christianity’s first pope prepares us for momentous disclosures, betrayals of biblical proportions, or, at the very least, a clear measure of grandiosity. Wood’s narrator is a youngish Englishman named Thomas Bunting. On two occasions, once to avoid work and once to evade taxes, Bunting wrote letters claiming that his father had died, in a calculated effort to solicit his correspondent’s sympathy. Hardly biblical stuff: just tasteless, creepy behavior. When, later in the first chapter, Bunting relates the third of his denials, he can no longer keep a straight face: denials become “denials.” Bunting’s backpedaling into quotation is a quiet admission that he is both aware of his tendency for grandiosity and unable to avoid it: his pathological prose cannot resist fitting a pretty mask to an ugly lie. His retraction puts us on notice that we should hold tightly to this book as we read, watchful for subtle slips.

Bunting’s self-portrait is the dark heart of The Book Against God. When the novel begins, he is living alone in a rented room over a karate studio from which “yelps of triumph and pain can be heard.” At thirty, he has set himself a task: the literary coming-to-terms with where his life went awry. To that end, he is writing the document we have in our hands, an analysis, of a kind, of himself. But like similar attempts by his forebears—confession narratives by Humbert and Kinbote; Molloy and the Underground Man—the book is prisoner to Bunting’s own distorted perspective. He is like a man who tries to tell if he has a fever by feeling his own forehead. And, for several hundred pages, we are hostage to that febrile consciousness.

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