James Wood’s Subtle Subversions

By Alexander C. KafkaJune 5, 2018

James Wood’s Subtle Subversions

Upstate by James Wood

HOW DARE the most incisive, independent-minded living literary critic writing in the English language also produce serious novels? Does dance critic Alastair Macaulay leap onto the stage and perform Afternoon of a Faun? Does rock writer Jon Pareles grab a Gibson and shred with the Foo Fighters? Does classical music sage Anne Midgette hip-check Emanuel Ax into the concert-hall wings and tear into Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2?

What, then, gives James Wood the right to practice the art he’s spent a lifetime appraising? Check the bylaws. They stipulate that those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach review. Triple-fie on Wood, then, for he is a critic, a teacher, and a novelist.

Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, both icons of literary criticism, tried their hands at fiction, but no one celebrates them for that. 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. 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.

That hasn’t stopped reviewers from ripping into them. No doubt some critics genuinely don’t like Wood’s fiction. Take Rachel Cooke’s merciless but sincere-sounding pan of Upstate in the Guardian. Wood lives in his head and so do his characters, and that will never be everyone’s cup of tea.

But is it paranoid to theorize that in a few cases resentments are at play, scores being settled? 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. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe among them? (On the flip side, Wood has written admiring reviews of an astonishingly wide range of work from authors as diverse as W. G. 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? Could his wide-ranging, learned, insightful, and accessible books of collected criticism inspire reviewers to unsheathe their daggers? And could his invaluable How Fiction Works incite them to plunge those blades deep?

Wood’s fiction is pleasurable, stirring, and often quite droll, so it takes some ingenuity to go after it. 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). That is a problem to which we should all aspire, but Dickstein’s charge is not in jest.

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. 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. 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. 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.

Dickstein argues,

Wood’s metaphors too often suspend the narrative flow for descriptive flights of grotesque or distracting beauty. 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.

Dickstein concludes, “Wood’s advantage over his character is that he has literature as another source of meaning. But so far, this route works better for him as a critic than as a novelist.”

That complaint hits Wood where he lives. He devotes not just much of his critical endeavor but also a meticulous section of How Fiction Works to the prudent use of metaphor. Wood writes, “Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. 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? No, actually. Tom Bunting is hyperliterary in a philosophical and theological vein; hypersensitive, particularly to music; and prone to grand, sometimes grandiose, musings. The descriptions of musical notation and organ sounds are lively and perfectly in line with what we know of the character. Wood earns his metaphorical flights of beauty, and I, for one, will never see a brussels sprout the same way again.

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. 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. In this case, what Upstate and Wood lack, Meaney says, is political relevance.

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. “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.

This crazy period of ideological demolition derby, Meaney implies, has left the old naturalistic aesthete behind.

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. 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.

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. But for the new critics and novelists now emerging, does Wood matter as much as he once did?

Meaney doesn’t come right out and answer his own question, but his guess is clear. Alluding to Stendhal, he sums up:

With the New York Critics there was wilder reaching, and less calm. 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.

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. The Wood caricature being sketched here is that of a cocooned stylist grown soft who is oblivious to and startled by worldly matters. If you’ve read Wood even sporadically, you know that hardly fits.

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. 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. But it also examines how a work fits into an author’s overall output and its biographical, cultural, historical, and, yes, political influences. A Wood review may be more than you want to read, but it’s always worth reading.

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. 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. 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. 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.

With unmatched consistency, Wood, in each review and essay, combines a close reading with topographical analysis from 30,000 feet up. If that virtuoso approach feels out of step with the times, does that reflect Wood’s narrowing, as Meaney would have it, or ours? Put differently, what counts, in criticism and in fiction, as political? 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.

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. Wood has complained that Wolfe’s novels are too cartoonish to take seriously. But what could be more seriously American than a little cartoonishness among the Great White-Suited Dandy’s physically and figuratively oversized characters? In fact, we now find ourselves living in Wolfe’s world. 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.

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. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence — as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.

The current era, then, puts Wood in a tough position. Hysterical realism has become our daily existence. But in Upstate, Wood pointedly ignores Trump World to stay true to his literary temperament and deliver a somewhat old-fashioned, delicate family drama.

That may be what rubs Meaney the wrong way. And in fairness, we too might ask ourselves, is Wood’s vintage style an act of blindness? Bewilderment? Defiance? Is it integrity? Is it inertia?

In 2007, a financially besieged English real-estate developer, Alan Querry, frets about his eldest daughter, Vanessa, a middle-aged Philosophy professor at Skidmore. In the wake of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s death, she has been emotionally fragile. 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.

The novel’s title has multiple associations. 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.

Upstate displays a master unobtrusively practicing what he preaches. If Wood is guilty of anything, it is a formal conservatism. 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. 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.

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. 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. He reckoned her to be five or so years younger than him. 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. She looked a little wrecked […] But everyone more or less his age looked wrecked.

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.

Those seeking heart-stopping plot turns should walk away. That’s not what Wood does. As a critic, he’s a regular, even boastful, plot spoiler. As a novelist, he downplays plot to the point of minimalism. 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. 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.

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. They are extrapolated, a half foot off the end of the story line. It’s what’s coming that draws our empathy and apprehension. Bunting is headed — if not soon, then eventually — for divorce, and he is pitifully unfit to withstand the sorrow of it. 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. At least not on her own. 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.

Meaney’s right. Alan’s business orientation and his flashbacks to a disagreeably bland postwar socialism mark him as a status-quo neoliberal — the horror! — and save for occasional historical-pushpin mentions of the Obama campaign and such, Upstate lacks political pageantry.

But Meaney is wrong, too. 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? A political diatribe in the guise of a novel would be more sand in the wind. An unassuming, carefully crafted story about devotion and quiet commitment? In 2018, that is subversive.


Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland.

LARB Contributor

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer in Bethesda, Maryland. A senior editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he previously worked as a reporter and editor for Newsday and other newspapers, and as senior press officer for the Brookings Institution. He has written about books and the arts for The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, The Chicago Tribune, DC Theatre Scene, Oxford American, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He has also written three screenplays — Specimen Days, Dali, and Contents Under Pressure — and adapted Specimen Days, about the later years of Walt Whitman, for the stage.


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