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James Wood’s return to fiction

There is only one thing rarer than the critic-novelist: the successful critic-novelist. The inverse tradition is rich. As James Wood—arguably the most influential critic in the English-speaking world, as well as the author of two novels—himself notes in his happy marriage of memoir and critical essay, The Nearest Thing to Life, the advantage the writer-critic has over his academic counterparts is in speaking to literature on its own terms. Coleridge on Swift, Woolf on Dickens, Henry James describing Balzac as “a Benedictine of the actual”: “These writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in their so-called ‘creative’ work.” It is criticism as “passionate redescription,” “writing through books, not just about them,” the writer engaging in a “luxurious squabble,” as Wood puts it in an earlier essay on Woolf, with a fellow artist whose faculty for metaphor she is professionally and temperamentally equipped to examine from the inside. Even as the critical culture at large falls prey to the dwindling of arts coverage and the “emotional egalitarianism,” in Martin Amis’s phrase, of the blogosphere and the Amazon review, the tradition of the writer-critic has persisted, if not thrived, in the side activities of Amis, Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Hofmann, et al.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

The opposing traffic is light to the point of desolation. After selling well on its initial publication in 1946, Memoirs of Hecate County, Edmund Wilson’s sexually frank second work of fiction, was first banned, then critically and commercially obliterated by a far more sophisticated exercise in indecency: Lolita came out four years before Hecate County was republished in 1959. Lionel Trilling’s novel The Middle of the Journey (1947), about a group of communist-leaning intellectuals in Thirties Connecticut, was by Trilling’s own admission not “warmly received . . . or widely read.” He would publish no more full-length fiction; the novelist Allan Massie suggests that he “may have felt in himself a lack of the animal spirits and the powerful will of the masters with whom he wanted to compete.”

“The more books we read,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” Whether or not Connolly’s glum assessment of his own literary style—“either bright, cruel and superficial; or pessimistic; moth-eaten with self-pity”—can fairly be applied to his only novel, The Rock Pool, his reputation rests on two works of critical non-fiction that treat his mediocrity as a fiction writer as a given: both Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave are postmortems of relinquished vocation. V. S. Pritchett, another distinguished hyphenate, wrote of Ford Madox Ford that “he never sank into the determined stupor out of which greater novelists work.”

Perhaps the immersion in literature necessary for great criticism precludes that stupor. More than the average good reader, more even than the novelist or poet deeply versed in the music of his forebears, the critic-novelist, up to his ears in the empirical, can perhaps never quite let go and trust his instincts, be stupid, overly alert as he is to the massed voices at his shoulder, the canon aimed squarely at his head.

Upstate, James Wood’s second novel, tells the story of Alan Querry, a property developer from northeast En­gland, where Wood grew up. Now in his late sixties, Alan might be in the teeth of a late-life crisis were he not constitutionally so robust. The Querry Property Group is faltering, the victim of overexpansion (fancy website, shiny new office in Manchester) and Alan’s insistence on doing business ethically in an industry swarming with sharks and urban planners on the make. He can no longer afford the fees for his mother’s retirement home. His two grown-up daughters, Vanessa and Helen, don’t care much for Candace, their brisk Chinese stepmother. Most alarmingly, news has come through that Vanessa, a philosophy teacher in upstate New York, has either fallen or thrown herself down some steps after a period of deep depression.

Concerned as Alan is, his response is measured: among other things, the “up state” of the title is Alan’s, a rather stolid, Pollyannaish talent for happiness that depends on his distaste for introspection—the same “unreflective En­glishness” he admires in his North­umbrian neighbors. Accompanied by Helen, a successful music executive in London, Alan makes his way to snowbound Saratoga Springs, where Vanessa shares a “charmingly run-down” clapboard house with her boyfriend, Josh, a bright, aimless sometime tech journalist whose “instinctive optimism” quickly gets on Alan’s nerves, perhaps because it threatens to eclipse his own.

Wood’s great strength as a critic is in the simultaneous ardency and precision of his aesthetics. The writing he admires he loves, with an intensity undiminished by his exegetical flair, his often astonishingly acute talent for teasing out the reasons for that love. He is an amorous analyst, a practitioner of red-blooded forensics. For Wood, “the novel is the great trader in the shares of the ordinary,” great because it moves beyond the absolutism of the religious impulse (in pre-novelistic literature) to a liberated, expansive kind of secular doubt, a negative capability that abjures judgment and truth claim in favor of forgiveness, an acceptance of the error and uncertainty of life as it is actually lived. “Everything flows from the real,” as Wood puts it, even if the business of fiction is not quite reality but “life brought to different life by the highest artistry.”

In much of the fiction he favors, the guarantor of this lifelikeness is the free indirect style, the “marvelous alchemical transfer” of perceptual duties from author to character, allowing the former to inhabit the latter’s point of view without moving to explain or correct it. It is a self-imposed tax on authorial omniscience, a stepping-back, even at the expense of stylistic elegance, to give a fictional creation its fair quota of freedom and thus bring it to life.

Upstate puts these principles into practice, moving nimbly between the three main characters’ subtly but scrupulously differentiated points of view while never quite relinquishing a modicum of authorial oversight—that is, irony. Sitting at her dining table briefly after Alan and Helen’s arrival, Vanessa studies her father, reflecting on his “endless, ‘northern’ will” and its ultimate pointlessness:

Now he was just old, like everyone else will eventually be, and soon enough he wouldn’t possess the last remnants of any of it. You swallow the universe like a pill, but then you piss it out, too, it passes out of you, along with everything else important.

How casually the third-person narration absorbs the cadences, the relentless masochistic thinking-through, the disgusted self-loathing (“piss it out”) of Vanessa’s depression. At dinner later the same day, Helen links her sister’s state of mind to her childlessness:

What did Van know about the joy of being a parent? This happiness was intensely private—she and Tom shared it, and didn’t need to speak of it. Joy seemed so much more incommunicable than grief. Grief had tears, the visible signs, the obvious rain of sadness, and in that way was ultimately childish.

Helen is the happy daughter, dynamic and fulfilled. And yet small eruptions of anger from the calm surface of the prose—her husband Tom being “such a shit to her just now on the phone,” the “hideous” stuffed toys Vanessa once gave Helen’s children—run counter to Helen’s upbeat self-assessment. As such, little authorial flourishes (“the obvious rain of sadness”) act as timely reminders of a consciousness outside the characters’ partiality, of the existence of other perspectives, in this instance throwing open to question which of the sisters is, in truth, the more depressed—“visibly” depressed Vanessa or the more occluded Helen. Maybe Helen finds joy incommunicable because there is not much joy in her to communicate. Needless to say, the novel ultimately comes down on neither side. Like Stephen Foster’s classic parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a favorite of Alan’s, Upstate has “the wisdom of its mixtures; the fortifying power of dappled things.”

Or it does in part. For all the novel’s roving sympathies, it is Alan’s perspective that dominates. To the extent that his stubborn cheerfulness, on the one hand, helps him to arbitrate between his daughters and, on the other, frustrates much insight into their differences, he is a useful mouthpiece for the novel’s presiding (and perhaps mischievously misleading) question: “Why did Helen find happiness easy, when her sister found it hard?” Useful, of course, because he doesn’t have a clue, letting the novel itself, its pattern of event and perspective, attempt an answer: Alan’s limitations work as a dramatizing as well as ironizing device.

The problem lies precisely in Wood cleaving so closely to Alan’s point of view. Upstate bears comparison with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008)—a novel Wood admires—for being an outsider’s impression of America, sharing the modest Martianism of the visitor or émigré. But whatever the limitations of Hans, O’Neill’s narrator, he has an eye and a keen intelligence, so he can plausibly be credited with his creator’s transformative feats of seeing: “the molten progress of the news tickers” in Times Square, the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue “grained brightly as beach sand and spotted with glossy discs of flattened chewing gum.” In Upstate we get this: “Alan expressed surprise about all the restaurants and cafés on Broadway: there must be ten at least.” (Broadway in Saratoga Springs, that is.) The novel is full of such tame ­TripAdvisorish noticings, secondhand quips, and mini-essays on screen addiction, supersize portions, American cheese. Clearly, this is a deliberate flattening. The insights are Alan’s, and it’s a measure of Wood’s discipline that he should be so willing to suppress his gift for figurative language. He forgoes his freedom so Alan can have his.

“The novelist’s job,” Wood writes in How Fiction Works, “is to become, to impersonate what he describes, even when the subject itself is debased, vulgar, boring.” Perhaps so, but in the example he cites, a passage from David Foster Wallace’s story “The Suffering Channel,” the “ruined argot of Manhattan media-speak,” debased and ugly as it may be, is electrifying too. Wallace is simultaneously impersonating what he describes and heightening it. (Not to mention that Manhattan media-speak is more urgent, more vivid in its ugliness than the stale repartee of aging En­glishmen.) In Upstate, the mundanity of Alan’s observations is so faithfully preserved that it can’t help but dampen the narration. Much is made of Alan’s lame sense of humor: “It was a family tradition that Alan’s jokes went on too long—like, [Helen] now thought, an alarm you fumbled to switch off in the morning.” And yet we are subjected to his gags again and again, in passages of dialogue that may be true to the family dynamic but quickly become wearing. After her fall down the steps, Vanessa’s arm is in a cast, and Alan insists on clearing up the lunch she has served.

“You’ve only got one bloody arm. Thank God it’s your right one, though. Do you remember, I’m left-handed, but­—”

But in my right mind,” finished Helen. “We remember.”

“I always liked that joke, for some reason,” he said.

“It’s on a par with those others, Dad,” said Vanessa.

My mother-in-law has been on the continent for a week . . . Well, has she tried bananas? Your grandpa loved that.”

Why the insistence? A little of this stuff goes a long way, and the suspicion that the alarm button here lies out of Wood’s reach only deepens when the unfunniness spreads beyond Alan’s POV, making a sort of comic dystopia of Saratoga Springs: there are Josh’s T-shirts (george bush and son. family butchers. est. 1989; chilmark fd keep back 300 feet), smart-ass bumper stickers (the rapture is not an exit strategy), punny business names (a restaurant called Scooby Don’t, a coffee shop called Uncommon Grounds, a computer repair shack called Only Connect), the poster Vanessa has up in her kitchen (keep calm and philosophize on). It’s hard to know what to make of this, other than to submit that the rigor of the free indirect narration also straitens the entire performance, deprives it of air, puts down “the little riot of freedom,” in Wood’s phrase, that constitutes true comedy. Which is to say, Wood might loosen up a little.

The dialogue also suffers from an occasional stiffness and overdetermination. Vanessa hosts a small gathering for her philosophy reading group, which includes a retired GP who Alan has been led to believe is Vanessa’s therapist. When the guests leave, an argument flares. Vanessa denies that the doctor has ever been a therapist, let alone hers.

“Is that true? Really?” He felt foolish. “Why did Helen claim he was your therapist then?”

“I didn’t claim he was,” said Helen. “I didn’t know. I suspected he was.” She was smiling slightly, teeth showing.

“I think you were trying to wind me up, Helen. I don’t appreciate being tricked like that.”

The uncertainty is nicely done. As ever with Helen, we are left with a shaky sense of the depth and distribution of her sympathies: the teeth give a glimpse of her belligerence. But the exchange is wound up far too abruptly and, moreover, explicitly: Wouldn’t Alan’s fear that he had been tricked be more credible if it emerged later, in another scene perhaps, sublimated into some half-spoken resentment? Isn’t that how people behave? If free indirect narration gives a character some measure of freedom from authorial control, then dialogue surely offers even greater sovereignty—and yet here is Wood, speaking over Alan even when Alan is speaking, reluctant despite all his literary principles to let him go.

Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God (2003), is an extended parable of theodicy—a philosophical response to the ace up the atheist’s sleeve. How can a benign God be said to exist when there is so much evil and suffering in the world? The narrator, Thomas Bunting, is the son of a vicar, bunking off his philosophy PhD to write the eponymous book, a collection of rambling atheistic fragments he is confident will be judged “a work of genius, of moral indignation but intellectual composure, with the most delicate and refined transits of language.” Bunting reserves particular scorn for those religious apologists, like Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, who acknowledge the problem of evil and then abscond before mounting a cogent defense of their God:

They stop the direction of their argument, in the same incomprehensible and apparently arbitrary way a spider, wandering across the ceiling, will stop moving at a certain point for an hour or two, or even for good. And watching the insect, we think: why stop there?

Bunting knows more about Kierkegaard than he does about spiders. That aside, his dilemma is being unable to admit his “moral indignation,” or the existence of the book it has inspired, to his loving, quietly pious father, whose influence he can bring himself neither to embrace nor to cast off. In this respect, Bunting is close to an ideal stand-in for Wood, not only because the constant lying demanded by his closet atheism affiliates him with the “world of the book within which lies (or fictions)” are “used to protect meaningful truths,” as Wood puts it in The Nearest Thing to Life, but because his secularism is so steeped in its opposite. Here is Wood on Woolf again, in the introduction to his first collection of criticism, The Broken Estate:

For her, a kind of religious or mystical belief and a literary belief softly consorted—and yet, for her, the novel still retained its skeptical, inquisitorial function. In her writing, the novel acts mystically, only to show that we cannot reach the godhead, for the godhead has disappeared.

Upstate enacts a similar doubleness, albeit one in which the godhead has been replaced by the metaphysics of meaninglessness: the Book Without God. Vanessa’s special area of interest is the synthesis of Anglo-American analytic philosophy with the Continental tradition, something she traces back to an epiphany she had at her Oxford college, lying in bed reading Thomas Nagel’s essay “The Absurd.” If, as Nagel argues, no stable meaning or design can be ascribed to our lives, or to any human activity—if everything can be “put into question”—then we stand on the very edge of the abyss. Vanessa was incensed. Much as Bunting objects to Kier­kegaard’s theological cop-out, what got Vanessa’s goat was Nagel’s “coolly analytical” readiness to deliver such terrible news and then close his argument with a shrug—where Camus, his intellectual antagonist, was passionate enough, human enough, to recoil from the absurd in despair. “Nagel knew how to think; and when to stop thinking.” But “Camus was life.” The danger, of course, of not imposing Nagelian limits on one’s thinking, of living “according to Camus,” is infinite regress:

What if it was hard to stop thinking about pointlessness, to stop thinking about the brevity and meaninglessness of things? What if despair—awful, awful despair—kept on returning, precisely because one could not, like Nagel, put it “into question”?

This is Vanessa’s existential burden, whether or not her fall down the steps was a deliberate attempt at self-harm. Quite why she should have turned out this way, when Helen (at least by their father’s lights) is “naturally joyful”—in Nietzschean terms, “skilled at not knowing”—is a question Wood is content to leave open, or at most only half-answered. There is a moving passage of dialogue late in the book—moving because so direct, so childlike, after all Vanessa’s agonized and recursive metaphysics—in which she relives the pain of her parents’ separation when she and Helen were in their teens:

“We had a family,” said Vanessa, wiping her cheek, “and it was the best one in the world, and then it stopped being the same family and it all disappeared forever.”

It stopped being the same family for Helen too, of course—although I’ve noted Wood subtly undermines Alan’s assertions of his younger daughter’s “natural” joyfulness and immunity to depression. The essential difference seems to reside in Vanessa’s instinctive—and rather writerly—negative capability, taking “no sides” in her parents’ divorce, seeming “to absorb all the consequences of the event” just as, later in life, she is oppressed by her “weakness to see both sides of an argument.” Alan and Helen are rigidly exterior by comparison, although it’s one of the novel’s slow pleasures that it should amount, especially for Alan, to an education in interiority: very delicately, the plot traces an incomplete but telling shift in his allegiances from Helen to Vanessa.

In an essay on Iris Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, Wood criticizes postwar En­glish novelists for their failure to practice what they preach: they “solemnize, in commentary about the novel, the qualities and virtues they most obviously lack in practice. They people their artistic gaps with desiderata.” This is most obviously true of critically or philosophically inclined writers like Murdoch, Angus Wilson, and A. S. Byatt. It is also true of Wood, to an extent. For a critic so finely attuned to the sublimities of free indirect narration, he can fall perplexingly short of his own standards. Which is not to say there aren’t many instances, Alan’s vanilla disposition aside, of the sort of “serious noticing” Wood so admires in Saul Bellow, sharp little authorial insertions that vindicate their temporary abandonment of the character’s perspective by helping us to see the world afresh: “the sadistic achievement of the raked partition” in Alan’s cab from JFK, making “every back-seat traveler a giant in a plastic bath”; Alan’s cherry tree back home in North­umberland, which shed “so much blossom that the air around it seemed to be charged with pink activity.” When Helen and Vanessa were young, “the little kid-glove petals” would cling to their clothes. But it’s on the structural level, in the shifting geometries of familial love and loyalty, and Alan’s faltering movement, as the snow thaws, from blithe detachment to understanding, that Upstate comes into its own, and nearest to life.

is the author of Pub Walks in Underhill Country (Penguin), a novel. His story “Necessary Driving Skills” appeared in the April 2017 issue.

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