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July 2003 Issue [Reviews]

The Critic as Artist

James Wood???s first novel

Discussed in this essay:
The Book Against God, by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 272 pages. $23.

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, by James Wood. Modern Library, 2000. 270 pages. $19.

The climate into which first novels are often received is uniquely forgiving. Perfection, for once, is beside the point; there is instead a giddy sense of gratitude for the effort. Conspicuous flaws are tolerated, errors of construction and conception are, if not overlooked, seen as peripheral to the necessity of embracing what the new writer does well. Francine Prose exhibited characteristic sympathy for a first novel’s bright failures when, in a review last year, she wrote: “Such scenes are so virtuosic, so appealing—and, finally, just so much fun—that you hardly care when big chunks of the book start to crumble in the last 50 pages or so.”

Yet a climate of sympathy and forgiveness is not to be expected for the arrival of The Book Against God—a first novel, yes, but one that comes with abundant expectations for its author, James Wood. For many, no doubt, it will also bring with it a certain eagerness to see those expectations dashed.

Wood was born in England, in 1965. In the late eighties, when he was just out of university, he began to write book reviews for the Guardian, becoming that paper’s chief literary critic at the age of twenty-seven. In 1995 he moved to the United States, where he had been offered a job (which he continues to hold) as an editor at The New Republic. He writes frequent reviews for that magazine, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books. Four years ago, he published a collection of critical essays, entitled The Broken Estate.

Wood’s rapid advance is easily explained: His literary criticism has been the most fruitfully polemical of recent years. The judgments it contains are distinguished by their originality and precision, the depth of reading that informs them, and the metaphorical richness of their language. He is passionate in defense of novelistic seriousness and, as such, has been unforgiving of complacency, unsparing of triviality, and unrelenting in his assault on the half-formed or the overwrought.

Similar claims of rigor may be made for the work of any number of literary critics. Severity to the point of cruelty is not untypical of the discipline. Why, then, is Wood written about in The New York Times Magazine (“very smart and very grouchy”), responded to in essay form by the novelists he reviews (“James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called ‘hysterical realism,’” wrote Zadie Smith, “a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own”), and repeatedly tagged as The Best Literary Critic of his Generation?

That some commentators have called him “fearless” may offer a key. Wood has proven himself undaunted by marquee names, whether members of the old guard (Milan Kundera, Philip Roth), brightly hyped new talent (Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith), or Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners (Yann Martel, Jeffrey Eugenides). Now and again Wood will do a piece on a dusty exotic import—a Hrabal, a Bernanos, or a Svevo. But these are snacks amid his steady diet of contemporary big game, be it the lions or their cubs. Of Pynchon: “Readers of Pynchon often mistake bright lights for evidence of habitation.” DeLillo: “If Tolstoy fought superstition with the daylight of realism, DeLillo merely fights superstition with a new superstition.” Colson Whitehead: “Whitehead’s prose seems decidedly a contemporary instance, a prose of the virtual age that is often merely virtual: imprecise, swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant.” And, of course, Zadie Smith: “As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic….It is all shiny externality, all caricature.”

For Wood, the terrain of these writers, however varied, is seeded with an underlying blight: the complacency of the prose. Whether manifested in “shiny externality” or “swagger,” the self-satisfied surfaces of these writers’ efforts—different grades of smoothness—ruffle Wood:

this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Of that externality, that cover-up, Wood has judged Updike particularly guilty. In his 1996 novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike includes an account of a loss of belief undergone by a Reverend Clarence Wilmot. “The reader finds belief hard, too,” writes Wood. Why? Because of what Wood sees as the fatally polished surface of Updike’s prose. As the reverend stands in his study, staring at the spines of theological texts for which he no longer has any use, he deems them “ignorant but not pathetic in the way of the attempts of the century just now departed to cope with God’s inexorable recession.” Wood observes:

Does this sound like the Reverend Wilmot’s language, or Updike’s? It is supposed to be a kind of inner monologue on Clarence’s part. But it sounds as if Updike is reviewing Clarence’s loss of faith for The New Yorker, and writing the review at his desk on a fine calm morning in Massachusetts.

Updike’s language proves “alienating at just the moment we should be drawn in.” Rather than reaching into character, we are “drawn back to Updike himself, to the author’s verbal talents.”

Updike’s miss, Wood has argued, is indicative of a larger problem (and it is worth noting that one of the qualities separating Wood from his peers is his ambition, not to say his ability, to discern a credible pattern behind the flaws he delights in finding). Whether through simple incapacity or by complex design, the depiction of interiority, of character, has become less and less a feature of the modern novel:

Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character…

And, elsewhere, in the same vein:

Zadie Smith is merely of her time when she says, in an interview, that it is not the writer’s job “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

“How somebody felt about something” is precisely what Wood wants from a novel; reaching into character is what he expects. Consciousness is the ultimate freedom, and its honest representation in fiction is what draws us into sympathy with the created, not with its creator. This is the hallmark of the work of those authors—Austen, Bellow, Joyce, and Woolf highest among them—for whom Wood has the greatest regard. But on this shelf of excellence there is, if one can reach it, always more room. In that spirit, Wood has written, “A space may now open…for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.”

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.

Chief among Bunting’s problems are the complications that arise from his peculiar weakness. He lies to his parents, his wife, his best friend; to his parents’ friends and his friends’ parents. He lies to himself. He lies to us.

The habit of dishonesty, he explains, is a sort of counterweight; it developed along with his doubts about God:

That was where the lying began, you see. My instinct was to hide myself, to hide my thoughts about God. A lie was necessary to protect the truth….But really, once you started, there were so many truths to protect that there were hardly enough lies to cover them.

Despite this and other professions of dishonesty, Bunting’s writing glitters with precisely rendered truths. An entrance to an old house features “four stone steps which are depressed in the middle like saddles.” Bunting’s pianist wife, Jane, when he first sees her, is “heavily involved in one of those large, parachute-like concert dresses made of puffy blue raw silk, the kind that only female musicians wear.” A man’s voice “sounded bearded, somehow.” Bunting looks “at the electric fire, at the tangerine grin of its single coiled bar.” Portraits of people deftly sketch Dickensian connections between physiognomy and quiddity:

I especially dislike Colin. His ears are large and on fire with a tiny network of veins, which also cover his nose and cheeks. In some men these veins suggest a life of drink and wasteful pleasure. In [Colin’s] case they suggest a lifetime of studying minute connections and branches of knowledge; the veins are like little paths of rewarded endeavour; it is as if a map of diligence covers his face.

Between convincing portraits of minor characters and the skillful description of telling minutiae, there are moments in which the writing moves conspicuously from revelatory to grotesquely false. Typical is Bunting’s attempt to address his wife’s frustration with all his lies:

People like Jane cannot distinguish between small lies and large lies….Jane treats every lie as if it were asparagus, which, whether I eat one spear or ten, makes my urine smell with exactly the same pungency.

The allusion stinks: it is crass, the stuff of bad sitcoms. It would be easy to dismiss it out of hand as Wood’s fault, to tire of the bad writing, and to turn away. But the badness of the image is conspicuous: Bunting is retreating to the surface. We are left with the impression of his metaphor rather than of Jane’s complaint, perfectly justified, that her husband can’t tell her the truth about anything, which is just as Bunting wants it. Wood is quietly implicating his narrator in blindness to his own vulgarity. Bunting’s language is made to be as inadequate as his arguments.

The plot of the novel thus unfolds on two levels: what we are given, and what we must gather. One thing Bunting is unambiguously providing us with is the chief justification for his miserable existence. In lieu of finishing his Ph.D., he has been exploring “a private project which I call the ‘Book Against God’ (I think of it now as the BAG)”:

In it I copy out apposite religious and antireligious quotations, and develop arguments of my own about theological and philosophical matters. It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life’s work, as far as I am concerned.

Any wise editor, in search of economy of expression, would clip Bunting’s last sentence down to its essence: “It has become my life’s work.” The lingering presence of the qualifying “really” and “as far as I am concerned” are telltale: they signal a man who isn’t so sure, at all, that this BAG is going to offer any more consolation than the last failed abbreviation, his Ph.D., did. Like his namesake, Thomas, Bunting is consumed by doubts. He looks despondently outward for direction:

There was a quality of desperation in the way I consumed books…beginning each in the hope that this was the one which would tell me how to live, how to think; as soon as I realized that it would not, my reading of it began to slow, precisely as if my heartbeat were slowing from its initial race. More often than not, I put it aside.

Even the transit of eyes across a page is too much for Bunting: he is all inertia. As it happens, his best friend, Max, an “intellectually deluxe columnist at The Times,” defined the nature of that inertia in his very first column for the paper. It was ostensibly a political article on England, with references to miners and Thatcherism:

He argued that English history had always oscillated between acts of anger and ideas of melancholy; and that sometimes these opposing tendencies acted against each other at the same time or in the same person. And this is how we British like it, he said. It means that nothing gets done.

Bunting is similarly poised, motionless between anger and melancholy. Halfway through Bunting’s account, Wood has him admit that he neglected to mention a significant result of that inertia to his wife. Bunting has stopped working on his Ph.D. in favor of his BAG:

I wish now that I had attended to that strange look of pure panic that consumed Jane’s face when I told her about the BAG. Pure panic! In that fear lay everything that was to come. I suppose she felt she had suddenly been given powers of prophecy; she could see that the BAG was not going to go away. And in all likelihood, she didn’t believe me when I said that I had not been working on it. Obviously, she couldn’t have known about the “four notebooks,” but she probably had a good idea of what I had been up to.

Bunting’s glib “I suppose she felt she had suddenly been given powers of prophecy” distances him from the emotion of the event, reminding us of the numerous other distancings scattered throughout the novel and informing (for the reader) the “fury” Jane felt, the reason she “cannot distinguish between small lies and large lies.” But in the heart of this admission lurks a grander lie. “Obviously, she couldn’t have known about the ‘four notebooks,’ but she probably had a good idea of what I had been up to.” When the BAG was introduced, Bunting said it had swelled to four large notebooks. As denial became “denial,” four notebooks have become “four notebooks.” Like Bunting’s wife, we have a pretty good idea of what he’s up to. Even the BAG has been a bluff: there is no BAG. It is as empty as Bunting, as empty as his name insinuates: for “bunting” is the cloth of which flags are made, or the word used to describe the swell in a sail full with wind. He tells his wife that, when trying to navigate adverse situations, “you have to be the controller of the wind, that’s what’s crucial.”

Despite this ambition to control, Bunting is directionless, an empty sail, at least until the final pages of the book. Left with nothing—no home, no wife, no best friend, no Ph.D.—Bunting writes “the Book,” the book we have been reading. The nonexistent Book Against God finally exists.

The Book Against God is a small, quiet novel, a piece of music for solo voice. That voice is often unpleasant, all too human, and rarely likable, and Wood’s success is in the degree to which he redeems those very qualities. The redemption is aesthetic as well as moral: Bunting’s unreliability is reliable, and credible, because Wood is consistent, careful, and restrained. Those moments of misdirection, willful or inadvertent, contribute to our sense of his impairment. This suggests a considerable artistic victory, since the danger inherent in such a narrative strategy—unreliable narration—is that the proceedings may collapse under the weight of artifice, making the protagonist a mere patsy, a strawman in the writer’s scorching game. Take this example from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with Charles Kinbote, sociopath, at the helm:

I came home from a very enjoyable and successful meeting of students and teachers (at which I had exuberantly thrown off my coat and shown several willing pupils a few of the amusing holds employed by Zemblan wrestlers) and found in my coat pocket a brutal anonymous note saying: “You have hal…..s real bad, chum,” meaning evidently “hallucinations,” although a malevolent critic might infer from the insufficient number of dashes that little Mr. Anon, despite teaching Freshman English, could hardly spell.

Even the reader who has not read Pale Fire becomes infected by the germs of doubt that issue from the paragraph. By the time we reach his condescending claim that Mr. Anon “could hardly spell,” we have connected, as it were, the dots: the tight wrestling hold, the five suggestive spaces in the incomplete word that could not more clearly spell “halitosis” if they were set in lights. This is extraordinarily gameful writing, as Nabokov manages to keep three independent ideas in the air: Kinbote’s sense of self (Olympian); our sense of Kinbote (delusional); and our opinion of Nabokov (awed). But how can sympathy be possible if we are kept at such a distance? How can we get inside Kinbote if we feel merely superior to him, or inferior to Nabokov? We are relentlessly drawn back to an author’s verbal talents, rather than deeper into the character.

And this distance, this barrier to feeling that self-consciousness can impose, is precisely what Wood has railed against in his criticism (he calls Updike “a fine pupil of Nabokov”). The particular success of The Book Against God is its convincing performance of the risks of such distance, of surface. Bunting, busy with exteriors (whether the abject lies he has told everyone or the tainted truths he is telling us), has alienated himself from all those who care about him. His prose helplessly reflects (to adapt Wood’s phrase), and mimetically imposes, that unenviable distance onto the reader. This is a risky strategy for any author, to cause such discomfort in readers who might be tempted, like Bunting’s friends and family, to turn away. And particularly risky for the author of a first novel who has yet to earn our trust. But this is not a novel that wants to be loved, and a reader who supposes Bunting’s failings to be the author’s would not be taking the book on its own demanding interior terms.

It is no surprise that Wood is making such demands of readers. As a critic, he has made his reputation defending the importance of interior authorial intentions: “A novel always brings its own criteria for judgment with it.” A critic’s job, as such, is to evaluate those criteria for consistency and fidelity. If critics are to have any use beyond expressing subjective preference, they must be able to reveal what we readers might not be able, initially, to see ourselves. If readers of fiction should reasonably expect a novelist to be able to induce sympathy for his creations, readers of criticism should reasonably expect a critic to be able to produce a sympathetic understanding of a novelist’s ambitions. In a recent radio interview, Wood said as much:

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. The greatest compliment that is ever paid to me as a critic…is when writers come up to me and say, “I think the reason I like your criticism is that you see things as a writer does, from the inside. You really look at the language, you’re speaking to me as a writer.” Now, of course I’m flattered by that, but I’m flattered by that because from the very earliest times—I started doing this straight out of university—I always saw this thing I was doing—writing about fiction—as a way of…stealing the goods: studying what I could do to make something fictional out of my reading.

The Book Against God shows signs of that study: as his criticism has been pounding away against the over-upholstered hystericism of much contemporary fiction, lamenting the absence of the novel of character, it is unsurprising that he has produced a novel that is compensatorily austere, a novel of character. But if we have been well served by that apprenticeship in the form of Wood’s novel, it is surprising, and regrettable, how poorly served we have been by Wood’s criticism.

Let us recall his most consistent critical point, one he has been making in various forms since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out nearly three years ago. “Information has become the new character.” For the sake of variety, here it is again, from one more of Wood’s DeLillo reviews, this past April:

Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form. For in what way does this novel tell us something about the world that only the novel form could tell us?

Let us concede the point, if only for argument’s sake. Let us also acknowledge Wood’s observation that DeLillo “has begun to deliver nameable kin.” That in Jonathan Franzen’s writing, “What is retained from DeLillo is the tentacular ambition, the effort to pin down an entire writhing culture.” Let us further accept that Wood is right in his observation of either influence or fellow-feeling in the work of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and still others—all writers whom Wood has gone after, all fish in his nets of “hysterical realism” or novel of “information.” Let us certainly agree that one of the important roles of the critic is to argue, when required, that this is shinola, and that over there is shit. Wood has every right—and a responsibility—to distinguish between the two. But let us ask this: why does he keep reviewing this shit?

It is a question that has been coming up lately with great regularity. Manhattan literary gossip has it that Wood has only been clearing the field in preparation for his novelistic landing. This is absurd, of course, as most of the writers mentioned above are manifestly accomplished and, essentially, review-proof: they either have generations of readers in their pockets, are prizewinners selling by the barrel, or are the rising stars whose publishers’ target audiences will not be affected a whit by a bad review in a weekly magazine with a relatively modest number of readers, most of whom subscribe for the politics. It is also absurd to suppose that Wood isn’t reviewing from his heart, with all his heart. I suspect he reviews these books because he believes they need to be addressed in all their badness.

But why are they being addressed again and again? They do seem to be the antithesis of Wood’s own novelistic ambitions: loud where he is quiet, manic where he is minimal, baggy where he is lean, information-obsessed where he doesn’t give a damn—theirs are multicharacter multigenerational sagas, where his is written from within the blind spot of a single character. It is a curious opposition. At the very least, one can say this: a knowledge of Wood’s criticism makes The Book Against God the novel you would have imagined Wood would write. And Wood’s choices of what he reviews from contemporary fiction are precisely what one would imagine he would review, were he trying to justify the novelistic choices he is trying to make.

“In my case,” Wood said in the interview about the process of writing his novel, “there was a great deal of waiting, a great deal, as I saw it in my own terms, of apprenticeship.” That apprenticeship, though, has had a cost. Reading Wood on DeLillo, one would not suppose that author capable of the humanity and empathy to be found in the version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, in Libra, a book Wood does not mention in his various dissections. Nor would one suppose The Corrections is so successful a book on precisely the matter of character, because of how much space Wood devotes to discussion of the whole social novel bugaboo. For when he does praise that aspect of Franzen’s book—“Franzen is at his finest when…he is examining consciousness and finding, willy-nilly, that consciousness is the true Stendhalian mirror”—he makes it seem, unnecessarily, as though what Franzen does well he does despite himself. Nor would one suppose that John Updike, author of forty books, is an author worth reading at all:

It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book. It is generally thought niggardly or envious to complain about a writer’s abundance (a book a year, roughly, in Updike’s case). Most novelists, it is said, would pant to exhibit such a fault. Or the case is made that it is otiose to complain about the mediocre books when there are so many fine ones; the odd truancy in a record of such inspired application is inevitable, the waterfall has its chilly underside and so on. For every Witches of Eastwick a Rabbit will be pulled from the hat.

It is niggardly, and envious, and otiose, just like the last line’s attempt to call attention away from those qualities, toward the clever critic’s verbal talents. For one does not pull a Rabbit out of a hat: you kill yourself to write as well as Updike did there, to make a book that good, because, as Wood has said of trying to write his one novel, “this is one of those things that just becomes harder and harder to do the longer you put it off.” At the end of his essay on Updike’s depiction of faith, Wood concludes:

I am not requesting that Updike be an atheistic novelist…merely that he be a novelist, abandon himself to negative capability, and depict something he does not like.

Wood’s own novel depicts someone he does not like, and with remarkable deftness. But where the criticism is concerned, his foundation for making requests like the one above has been undermined by the very novel it nourished. He has been writing reviews not as an apprentice novelist, not “as a writer does, from the inside,” but in relation to the novel that has been inside him. Now the novel is out, and so when Wood turns to criticism again, I would ask that he leave his novelistic ambitions aside. I am not requesting that Wood be any particular kind of critic: merely that he be a critic, abandon himself to negative capability, and review more things he does not—a priori—dislike.

Yes, there’s bad Updike. There’s also bad DeLillo, and, inevitably, should Wood continue to write novels, there will be bad Wood. But reading Wood’s criticism, one would suppose there is nearly no good contemporary fiction out there, no writing not foundering in the small critical nets he has cast. One role of the critic is to point and laugh at the naked king, but for a critic as smart as Wood, the richer role is that of the advocate who brings readers to new books, a role at which Wood has failed utterly. By “advocate” I do not mean the mollycoddler of mediocrity—a critic who finds something nice to say, such as that books are “Inherently Good.” But there is an embarrassment of good writing out there for the sympathetic critic to put before us. And many critics do take the advocate role very seriously, their work proving no less serious for it. The criticism of Gilbert Sorrentino, Hugh Kenner, and Guy Davenport is certainly less read than Wood’s, but only because of its insistence on addressing books by authors similarly less read; their choices for review are not limited to the window display at Barnes & Noble. There are so many first novels of character that Wood could have written about in the past few years, instead of narrowing his self-serving intolerance onto a first novel like Cold Mountain (“A solemn fake….like a cemetery with no bodies in it….late-20th-century writing-school style….the great historical novels are always about contemporary consciousness”). You want contemporary consciousness? Why not review Helen DeWitt’s double-barreled, first-person first novel of character, The Last Samurai, a work of genius in an age that has emptied that word of all meaning? Or Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father, which reflects Wood’s “newly dark lights of the age” about as helplessly as one could request of any writer? Or why not peruse Aleksandar Hemon’s_ Nowhere Man_, a weird and problematic but utterly worthwhile first novel of character?

James Wood hasn’t been “clearing the field”; he hasn’t even looked at it. As a critic, he has been keeping himself at an unreliably Nabokovian distance. What is the appropriate distance? What degree of intimacy is required to produce a sympathetic understanding of a work of art? An intimacy equal to the sympathetic feeling that goes into creating one, and that, when successful, transforms experience into a moment of liberation. There is a moment like this in The Book Against God. One week, early in Bunting’s relationship with his future wife, she takes him to hear the Rosenkavalier. A week later, she plays a passage from it on the piano to see if he recalls it. He does. But this will be the only time in their marriage he will prove able to recall a musical theme. Why is he able to, this one time? Because, while he sat at the Coliseum, beside the woman who would become his wife and whom he would lose, “a fat man next to me had shaken with tears during the passage, and had made the whole row of seats move slightly, in sympathy.”

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