James Wood’s The Fun Stuff Reviewed

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I hate that I love to hate reading James Wood—and when I love what he writes I hate that I love it. His take on Blood Meridian absolutely infuriated me, but a stray line from an essay he wrote on Virginia Woolf has informed pretty much every real review I’ve tried to write since I read it. Anyone who reads deeply and earnestly and cares about literary criticism is likely to find themselves shouting at Wood, and then maybe agreeing with him—with reserved qualifications, and then shouting again. (There is an entire blog devoted to pointing out the failures of Wood’s often deeply conservative aesthetic criticism, by the way).

The Fun Stuff, collecting many of Wood’s pieces from The New Yorker (but also elsewhere), is less pretentious than How Fiction Works, Wood’s last book, a polemic hiding behind the guise of literary criticism that faulted pretty much any prose stylist who deviated from a certain mode of 19th-century free indirect style.

I’ve already read a number of the pieces collected in The Fun Stuff, which is finally out in the U.S. in trade paperback thanks to Picador. You might have read them too. His essays championing Lydia Davis and László Krasznahorkai are fine fun stuff, as is his take on the late W.G. Sebald (first published as an introduction to Austerlitz). His appreciative review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road though is in many ways a retake on his review of Blood Meridian—Wood can only view McCarthy’s existential questions through the lens of theodicy.

James Wood is maybe most fun—or most infuriating—when he’s at his harshest. The case file here is his pointed take-down “Paul Auster’s Shallowness.” Here, Wood goes through an Auster plot “checklist”:

 A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist. Hey, Roger Phaedo invented Charlie Dark! It was all in his head.

I’m not a particular fan of Paul Auster, but I imagine those who deeply enjoy his work could feel personally insulted by Wood’s take-down. We get close to the books and authors we love. I think what manifests most in Wood’s criticism here—and elsewhere—is the weariness of someone who once deeply loved literature but who is now perhaps oppressed by it—who has become too aware of its mechanics, its forms, its stale formulations and bad parlor tricks.

Wood telegraphs far more passion and generosity in the collection’s title essay, which is about Keith Moon, the legendary drummer of The Who. He compares Moon’s rhythmic chops to D.H. Lawrence’s sentences:

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. (You can encounter such sentences in Lawrence’s prose, in Bellow’s, sometimes in David Foster Wallace’s.) Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness.

I like how personal he gets here. This essay opens the collection, and the one that closes it, “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” also communicates personally with the reader. Unconstrained by the pretense of a book review, Wood waxes on families and libraries and the meaning of life. When he writes of his father-in-law, whose books he’s sorting through, that “The books somehow made him smaller, not larger,” it’s hard not to hear a strong undertone of autobiography in the note.

Wood’s lyric essays are an unusual standout here (unusual in the sense that if someone had strung together the words James Wood’s lyric essays, I’d probably roll my eyes). They reveal a love of reading that goes missing in his attacks and his quibbling pieces. The serious literary critic is not, of course, beholden to being merely a cheerleader for literature (or worse, a cheerleader for publishing)—but I do think that the serious literary critic should offer something beyond condemnation or unenthusiastic grumbling. The risk the professional critic runs is to see the machinations of art too plainly, to become jaded to the point that experiencing the sublime is no longer possible (Tobias Wolff’s fantastic story “Bullet in the Brain” deals handily with this theme). Wood guides us here to several writers who disrupt, estrange, and resynthesize the tired tropes of literary fiction—and it’s in that strangeness where we can find the real fun stuff.

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“Half Horse Half Alligator” — I Review Charles Olson’s Inimitable Melville Study, Call Me Ishmael

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The classical Greeks understood that literature is a form of competition. The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom folded a bit of Freudian psychology into this insight, describing the “anxiety of influence” that lurks beneath the impetus to write, the motivation to enter into an agon with the history of letters, to Oedipally assassinate—or at least assimilate—one’s literary forebears. To put this another way: What does it take to write after, say, The Odyssey? How does one answer to The Book of Job? The gall to write after Don Quixote, after Shakespeare, after Dostoevsky, after George Eliot . . .

What about Moby-Dick? What are the possibilities of even writing about Moby-Dick? (One thinks here of Ishmael’s own futile attempts to measure whales). How could Melville write after Job? After Lear? After Moby-Dick? How did Melville assimilate the texts that presented the strongest anxieties of influence in his opus? Could Melville survive the wreckage of The Pequod? These are the questions that poet-critic Charles Olson tackles—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and always with brisk, sharp language—in Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville and Moby-Dick.

Here’s one answer to my list of questions. It comes early in Olson’s book:

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up in Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator.

Melville took an awful licking. He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. A beginner. It happens that way to the dreaming men it takes to discover America . . . Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last “first” people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.

This passage illustrates Olson’s forceful, often blunt prose, the kind of language that cracks directly at Melville’s own impossible prose in Moby-Dick. I think here of the critic James Wood’s notation in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” that

The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Olson may generalize as he shows a little plumage to master Melville, cutting through huge swaths of history and making poetic leaps into strange similes, but Call Me Ishmael is ultimately keenly attenuated to detail, to the processes of Melville’s constructions at the historical, economic, psychological, religious, and, yes, literary level. Although a slim 119 pages in my 1947 City Lights edition, Call Me Ishmael nevertheless vividly conveys the sources Melville synthesized to create Moby-Dick.

The book begins with an unsourced account of the whaleship Essex, attacked and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820, a year after Melville’s birth. Olson trusts his readers to connect The Essex to The Pequod. Unlike so much literary scholarship, Olson’s Ishmael doesn’t torture every element of the text into overwrought explications. He provides an overview of the importance of whaling-industry-as-world’s-fuel source in a chapter that reads more like a prose poem than a stuffy history book, and then, in a chapter appropriately titled “Usufruct,” offers up entries from Melville’s own journals as primary evidence of the material that led to Moby-Dick. Olson rarely sticks his nose in here, letting the reader synthesize the selections.

Olson then plumbs Moby-Dick’s literary roots, delving into Shakespeare, particularly Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. He attends to Melville’s own annotations to Shakespeare, and then points out Melville’s literary/political condensation:

As the strongest force Shakespeare caused Melville to approach tragedy in terms of the drama. As the strongest social force America caused him to approach tragedy in terms of democracy.

It was not difficult for Melville to reconcile the two. Because of his perception of America: Ahab . . .

Ahab is the FACT, the Crew the IDEA. The Crew is where what America stands for got into Moby-Dick. They’re what we imagine democracy to be. They’re Melville’s addition to tragedy as he took it from Shakespeare. He had to do more with the people than offstage shouts in a Julius Caesar. This was the difference a Declaration of Independence made.

The Shakespeare section of Call Me Ishmael marvels: Olson’s perceptive powers simultaneously enlighten and make seemingly-familiar territory dark, strange. He then moves into a discussion of post-Moby Melville, a man perhaps crushed by his own achievement—not by any financial success, no, definitely no, but the metaphysical success. Like a Moses, Melville had found the god he so desperately needed:

Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.

When made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”

When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.

Olson agrees with an 1856 journal entry by Nathaniel Hawthorne that he cites at length: Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” In Olson’s analysis, after having found god-in-the-whale, Melville plummets into an existential crisis. He gives over to his inner-alligator, torpid, enervated, numb, but still fierce and potent and monstrous. “He denied himself in Christianity,” writes Olson, linking the downward spiral of Melville’s career and family life to this religion.

To this end, Olson is too dismissive of Melville’s later work; when he can find nothing of the “old Melville” to praise in Benito Cereno, Bartleby, or Billy Budd, it’s almost as if he’s willfully ignoring evidence that contradicts his thesis. These are marvelous books, and if they can’t win a contest against Moby-Dick, it’s worth pointing out that little of what’s been written after that book can.

And yet we can write after Melville; we can even write on Melville. The will and vitality of Olson’s forceful, intelligent prose opens a way, or at least exemplifies a way. At the same time, paradoxically, a reading of Call Me Ishmael seems to foreclose the need, if not the possibility, of reading another study of Moby-Dick. This statement is not meant to be a knock against Melville scholarship. Here’s the thing though: life is short, time is limited, and if one plans to read a book about Moby-Dick, it should be Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. It’s great, grand stuff.

I Review Patience (After Sebald), an Oppressively Overstylized Documentary

Let’s get this out of the way first:

I love W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.

reviewed The Rings of Saturn  and you can read that review if you feel the urge for me to support those claims in greater detail.

Better yet, read Sebald’s book.

Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.

In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic:  “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.

It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.

A few notes on those talking heads:

There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”

Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.

I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.

Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small.  There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.

But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):

Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . .  it’s too much.

Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.

James Wood (Is Wrong) on Blood Meridian

Critic James Wood wrote extensively about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in his 2005 essay for The New Yorker, “Red Planet.” Here’s his lede–

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Wood later details McCarthy’s gift as “one of the greatest observers of landscape”–

“Blood Meridian” is a vast and complex sensorium, at times magnificent and at times melodramatic, but nature is almost always precisely caught and weighed: in the desert, the stars “fall all night in bitter arcs,” and the wolves trot “neat of foot” alongside the horsemen, and the lizards, “their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks,” fend off the world “with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates,” and the grains of sand creep past all night “like armies of lice on the move,” and “the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand like reflections in a lake.”

Wood then goes about attempting to explain his problems with McCarthy the “ham” who produces “histrionic rhetoric” –

[McCarthy's] prose opens its lungs and bellows majestically, in a concatenation of Melville and Faulkner (though McCarthy always sounds more antique, and thus antiquarian, than either of those admired predecessors).  . . .

It is a risky way of writing, and there are times when McCarthy, to my ear, at least, sounds merely theatrical. He has a fondness for what could be called analogical similes, in which the linking phrase “like some” introduces not a visual likeness but a hypothetical and often abstract parallel: “And he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” . . .

The danger is not just melodrama but imprecision and, occasionally, something close to nonsense. . . .

The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders.

So, Blood Meridian doesn’t meet the standard of Wood’s cherished “free indirect style,” where an author subtly shifts into a character’s voice. Wood craves these delicate internal borders. He can’t bear the idea that the towering figure of Judge Holden might come to ventriloquize the novel. It is worth noting here that Wood frequently extols the free indirect styles of Marcel Proust and Henry James–two authors McCarthy dismissed in a 1992 interview with The New York Times, saying “I don’t understand them . . . that’s not literature.”  Wood values a mannered precision of realism that McCarthy openly professes little interest in; rather, McCarthy uses a mythic, amplified, and at times grandiose style in Blood Meridian to explore issues of life and death. And Wood is perhaps not wrong here. At times Blood Meridian edges into bombast, although I believe McCarthy controls his language more than Wood allows. In either case, McCarthy’s language is ripe for parody, as exemplified in this clip from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums

I would be happy to leave Wood’s criticism of Blood Meridian and McCarthy alone at this point. Fine, Wood doesn’t like it when McCarthy goes balls-to-the-wall; whatever. But at the end of “Red Planet” Wood turns to attacking McCarthy’s perceived failure to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of evil. Wood here (and elsewhere, always elsewhere) shows his deep conservatism. Wood necessitates that all literature reveal a platonic center, a stable, beating heart that must also be a platonic good. Here he is, griping about McCarthy’s “metaphysical cheapness”–

Like most writers committed to pessimism, McCarthy is never very far from theodicy. Relentless pain, relentlessly displayed, has a way of provoking metaphysical complaint. . . .

But McCarthy stifles the question of theodicy before it can really speak. His myth of eternal violence—his vision of men “invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them”—asserts, in effect, that rebellion is pointless because this is how it will always be. Instead of suffering, there is represented violence; instead of struggle, death; instead of lament, blood.

If Wood finds only a nihilism in Blood Meridian (and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre) that he fundamentally disagrees with, he should simply say so. Instead, Wood demands that Blood Meridian be a theodicy and then condemns it for not being one. He shamefully attempts to hold the work to a radically subjective rubric that cannot be answered. Put another way, the failure that Wood finds in Blood Meridian is a failure to answer to a version of God–and God’s judgment–that Wood would like to believe in (or, more accurately, be comforted by).

Wood is a bully (of both authors and readers) whose criticisms rarely enlarge the works they seek to address. We see his program at work in “Red Planet,” where his aim is to deflate Blood Meridian’s giant language and not appraise it on its own terms. That the book survives–and thrives–despite Wood’s criticism is hardly surprising; that a critical conversation of Blood Meridian should include Wood is depressing.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.

My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–

Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.

Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V.Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.

James Wood on Virginia Woolf and the Anxiety of Influence

James Wood, writing about Virginia Woolf in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” (collected in The Broken Estate)–

Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a “great reviewer.” The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Wood’s description of Woolf is really Wood’s description of Wood.

Vanity Fair Interviews David Mitchell

Vanity Fair interviews David Mitchell about his new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The interviewer mistakenly (I believe, anyway) thinks James Wood is joking in his New Yorker review when he wonders if the book is “post-postmodernist.” Mitchell’s answer sounds about right.

VF: James Wood in the New Yorker was describing your books and he jokingly came up with the phrase post-postmodernism. If there were such a thing as post-postmodern literature, what do you think that might be?

DM: Oddly enough, I’m not sure if novelists are the best people to ask whither-the-novel questions. For me, it’s a little like I’m a duckbilled platypus and I’m being asked a question about taxonomy. You won’t get much of an answer out of a platypus because they’re busy going about their business digging tunnels, catching fish, and having sex. You really have to ask a critic, or a taxonomist. I feel like I should have a pithy answer because I’m a novelist and you’re asking a question about the future of the novel, but the biggest question I ever get to is, “How can I make this damned book work?” I rarely ever put my head above the rampart and see where this big lumbering behemoth called global literature is going.

(Thanks to the Bored Bookseller for the tip).

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

At some point, almost every character in David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a story. The book teems with storytellers and their stories, overflows with compact bildungsromans, wistful jeremiads, high adventures drawn in miniature, comic escapades, bizarre folk tales, and romantic myths, all pressed into the service of the book’s larger narrative, the story of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutchman in Shogunate era Japan. In 1799, the relative starting point for this massive novel, Japan limited economic trade with Europeans to the Dutch East India Company, who, with a few rare exceptions, were not permitted to touch Japanese soil. Instead, the Dutch were confined to the man-made isle of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki. With its rich cultural mishmash, claustrophobic isolation, and strange hybrid nature, Dejima makes a fascinating platform for Mitchell’s tale.

Most reviews of Mitchell’s new book have squared it against his earlier novels, particularly his experimental opus Cloud Atlas (The Guardian‘s review even begins by asking “Does it matter what books a novelist has written before? Should readers need to know an author’s preceding works fully to grasp the new one?”). The reason for this is plain. By and large, Thousand Autumns is a conventional historical novel, a straightforward linear narrative that combines a forbidden love triangle story with elements of high adventure. There are good guys and bad guys, Enlightened thinkers and scheming crooks, warriors and spies, and even an evil monk who may or may not have supernatural powers. Thousand Autumns (like its main setting Dejima) is richly detailed but hermetically sealed; what leaks from that seal are its myriad stories, its capacity for storytelling. This effusion of stories also marks the novel, I believe, as something more than the conventional historical novel it is purported to be. Even more interesting though is the space the novel is occupying in a current literary debate–is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a postmodern novel or not? The rest of my review will discuss this issue, along with James Wood’s review at The New Yorker and Dave Eggers’s review at The New York Times. The simple answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether the book is postmodern or something else–it’s a very good book, I enjoyed it very much, and you probably will too. I encourage you to read Wood’s precis, which I’ve excised here, and then pick up the book. Anyone else interested in the foolish minutiae of what may or may not make a book postmodern or post-postmodern or something else may wish to continue (or not).

Here’s James Wood, using Mitchell’s oeuvre to dither over the fact that “The serious literary novel is at an interesting moment of transition” –

If postmodernism came after modernism, what comes after postmodernism? For that is where we are. “Post-postmodernism” tends toward an infinite stutter. “After postmodernism” suggests a severance that has not occurred. We might settle for “late postmodernism,” a term that suggests the peculiar statelessness of contemporary fiction, which finds itself wandering—not unhappily—between tradition and novelty, realism and anti-realism, the mass audience and the élitist critic. Thus David Mitchell can follow a “postmodern” novel with a “traditional” comic bildungsroman, and then follow that with a conventional historical novel. It is hard to know whether this statelessness is difficult freedom or easy imprisonment, but the more ambitious contemporary fiction will often blend a bewildering variety of elements and historical techniques [. . .]

Dave Eggers, however, feels no need to look for machinations beyond straightforward storytelling. He claims that Thousand Autumns retains the

[. . .] narrative tendencies [of Mitchell's earlier works] while abandoning the structural complexities often (and often wrongly) called postmodern. This new book is a straight-up, linear, third-person historical novel, an achingly romantic story of forbidden love and something of a rescue tale — all taking place off the coast of Japan, circa 1799. Postmodern it’s not.”

There’s a certain reticence in Eggers’s review to situate Thousand Autumns against anything but itself, including even the rest of Mitchell’s works. In contrast, Wood spends the first half of his review positioning Mitchell’s postmodernism, throughout both his novels (against each other), and as the oeuvre of one author (against other authors). For Wood, Thousand Autumns, because of “its self-enclosed quality [. . .] represents an assertion of pure fictionality.” He continues, arguing that “although the book contains no literary games, it is itself a kind of long game.” Wood would like to see in Thousand Autumns‘s discrete self-containedness a kind of literary gesture, perhaps a sort of conventional historical novel (in scare quotes) that is so conventional as to efface all signs of self-awareness (and thus erase the scare quotes around the gesture). At the same time, Wood recognizes the power of storytelling in the book, asserting that this feature is what makes it a “representative late-postmodern document.” Wood continues:

In place of the grave silence that was the great theme of early postmodernism (or late modernism, if you prefer), language announcing a postwar exhaustion, its own impossibility, as in the work of Beckett or Blanchot, there is a confident profusion of narratives, an often comic abundance of story-making. Never, when reading Mitchell, does the reader worry that language may not be adequate to the task, and this seems to me both a fabulous fortune and a metaphysical deficiency.

These last sentiments are where I strongly disagree with Wood (as perhaps my lede attests)–the greatest strength of Mitchell’s work here is the fabulous fortune of its abundant storytelling. Far from being a metaphysical deficiency, the characters in Thousand Autumns, major and minor, repeatedly transcend their social, spiritual, economic, psychological, and physical confinement via storytelling. Again and again language breaks characters away from their isolation or imprisonment, gives them access to adventure and romance–to spirit. Ultimately, Wood condemns the book for this “metaphysical deficiency,” arguing that “the reader wants a kind of moral or metaphysical pressure that is absent, and that has ceded all the ground to pure storytelling.” (In Wood’s critical body, it is always “the reader,” never “this reader”). I think that the pleasure and power of pure storytelling is its own end, and perhaps it is this recognition that leads Eggers to pronounce of the book simply that “Postmodern it’s not.” And while this declaration is ultimately a more reader-friendly take on Thousand Autumns, it’s also clear to see how the experimental nature of Mitchell’s previous work calls for Wood’s need to place the novel, to situate it against a developing canon (even if Wood chooses ultimately to deny its status).

Wood is perhaps right in his assertion that the term “post-postmodernism” leads to an “infinite stutter.” Still, post-postmodernism ultimately seems more fitting to describe Thousand Autumns than Wood’s “late postmodernism.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet cunningly sets the spiky traps of language and then gracefully leaps over them. Like David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann–two writers who I believe mark the beginnings of post-postmodernism–Mitchell wants to transcend postmodernism’s ironic vision, and storytelling–giving his characters voices–is a means to this end. Perhaps it is Mitchell’s earnestness in conveying the power of storytelling leads Wood to conclude Thousand Autumns “a kind of fantasy [. . .] Or, rather, it is a brilliant fairy tale; and even nightingales, as a Russian proverb has it, can’t live off fairy tales.” If, finally, Thousand Autumns is not a late postmodernist historical fiction but indeed a fairy tale, then it’s worth noting that it’s a particularly enjoyable and nourishing one. Highly recommended.

James Wood Summarizes David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I’m a few hours from the end of the audiobook version of David Mitchell’s new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It’s fantastic stuff so far–engaging, imaginative, complex, and satisfying in its richness. Here’s a summary of the book from James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker, July 5, 2010:

Jacob de Zoet is a pious, pedantic, upright young clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, newly arrived on the man-made island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki. It is 1799. The Japanese, enforcing their policy of isolation, confined the Dutch to their post at Dejima, a kind of floating village connected by a bridge to the mainland, and strictly monitored them. The Dutch were effectively prohibited from entering the landmass of Japan, except for the purpose of making an annual visitation to the shogun, in Edo; religious services were banned, and books of Christian devotion were seized upon arrival. Jacob is quickly involved in two difficult narratives: as an employee of the utmost probity, he is tasked with auditing the company, and purging its corruption (various employees have been fiddling the books and stealing goods); unfortunately, the man who has bestowed that task, Unico Vorstenbosch, the chief of the Dejima trading station, is himself on the take. When Jacob confronts Vorstenbosch about his dishonesty, he is suddenly isolated, without allies.

The second struggle also isolates Jacob: he falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, an unusual Japanese woman who works as a midwife, and who has been taking medical instruction from a Dutch physician and intellectual, Dr. Marinus, long resident on Dejima. It is almost impossible for Jacob to advance his love; he is not even sure that Orito returns it, and, even if she did, how could a red-haired Dutchman and a wellborn Japanese woman form any serious bond? But, before anything might occur, Orito disappears. Her father has died, leaving large debts, and it seems that Orito’s family, in order to settle those debts, has “sold” the daughter into a kind of slavery: against her will, she is taken to a remote rural nunnery, run by a powerful and malevolent warlord, the Abbot Enomoto. Just as Jacob fought to unravel the corruptions of his company, so he now strives to unravel the corrupt potency of the Abbot Enomoto and his cultlike temple. As an English reviewer has remarked, the Abbot’s temple, where the enslaved nuns are drugged and impregnated by willing monks, is reminiscent of the world of Japanese anime.

This summary is really the best part of Wood’s review, which works overtime to find fault in what is a very good book. He spends a good deal of his review dithering over the space Mitchell occupies in the contemporary literary world–is Mitchell a postmodernist? A post-postmodernist? A late postmodernist? It’s all quite silly, and I’ll probably write about it in a later post.

James Wood on Harold Bloom

In his essay “Shakespeare in Bloom,” critic James Wood performs one of the strangest, most backhanded (and yet earnest) defenses I’ve ever read of Harold Bloom‘s aesthetic reaction to (what Bloom has called) “The School of Resentment” — deconstruction, Marxism, gender and queer theory, postcolonial theory, all that good stuff. Wood comes out strong, arguing, that in his prolific output, Bloom “has kidnapped the whole of the English literature and has been releasing his hostages, one by one, over a lifetime, on his own spirited terms.” Wood suggests that “this ceaselessness has produced some hurried, fantastical, and repetitive work,” before going on to throw around words like “garrulous” and “shallow.” Wood then takes Bloom to task over his famous (and improbable) claim that “Shakespeare invented us,” situating the claim against Bloom’s own most famous theory, the anxiety of influence. Wood says–

In truth, Bloom’s word invention is an enthusiastic Wildean necessary exaggeration. It is Bloom’s way of registering our almost religious sense that we live in Shakespeare’s shadow and that he does not simply represent human beings but brings new life, more life, into the world. . . . Bloom’s determination to honor Shakespeare’s godly primacy is a kind of secular theology.

The second section of Wood’s essay should be required reading for all English majors (or anyone serious about literary criticism). Here, Wood provides a wonderfully succinct overview of the history of literary criticism, connecting Freudian analysis and the New Critics to the various theories that Bloom would come to call the “The School of Resentment.” As we bring up the term again, we should note that we consider it a bit pejorative and utterly reactionary, and, to borrow from (and perhaps misapply) Wood, shallow. Wood points out that “Deconstruction brings a generalized suspicion to bear on language and in particular on metaphor (or ‘rhetoric’), which it suspects of hiding something–namely, its own metaphoricity.” In short, literature always metaphorizes, and thus hides, some other impulse, one always politicized. Wood continues: “Political criticism, including cultural materialism, converts Freud’s analytical suspicions into political ones. . . . The poem is read as if it were covering something up, as if it were an alibi that is rather too fluent to be entirely trusted.” It must be interrogated to reveal its secret, the secret prejudices of its age. Wood continues, after a page or two–

This is a long way around to Bloom, but it may explain the venom and desperation of his attacks. For although deconstruction did not intend to, it has produced mutant modes of reading that, when combined with leftish political guilt or ressentiment, seem to threaten the existence of literature as a discipline.

Wood espouses some common sense here uncommon in literary criticism, taking a long view that recognizes–and attempts to step outside of–the fact that it’s not all academic when it comes to how we read our books. History and politics matter, but so does our passion, our love for our books (as silly as that may sound). He defends Bloom’s work even as he calls it an overreaction. He credits deconstruction as having “produced some brilliance and many distinguished readings (no one could deny the acuities of Derrida, of Paul de Man, of Barbara Johnson).” Wood’s essay “Shakespeare in Bloom” is the kind of thing that students and aspiring critics alike should read before they feel the need to draw arms. You can read it in the second printing (the first in a decade) of Wood’s essay collection The Broken Estate, which debuts in June, 2010 from Picador.

Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell; James Wood on Thomas More

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga, Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Cromwell’s greatest foil in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, who is also the subject of the first essay in James Wood’s collection The Broken Estate. I got my review copy in the mail late last week, so it was pure serendipity that I should read “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season” after a full day of listening to Wolf Hall (did I neglect to mention that I listened to the audio book? Sorry). Wood is harsher on More than Mantel; whereas she lets us despise him within the logic and framework of the Tudor court, Wood aims to find a contemporary secular standard from which to judge him. He finds license to do so through the work of John Stuart Mill, citing the influential essay On Liberty. Wood writes:

So it is enough for secular criticism to argue that More should have acted differently, and in asserting only this, secular criticism gives birth to itself. It is enough for the secularist to say that there are categories and modes of being which possess a transhistorical and universal status equivalent to sainthood’s, and by which it is therefore permissible to judge More’s actions.

I think in some ways Mantel’s work performs a kind of transhistorical secularist critique of More, albeit one that steps outside of historical or literary criticism or philosophy, one that remains in the logical limits of historical fiction. Mantel does not ask her Thomases to be something that we in the 21st century want them to be, but by centering on Cromwell, she engenders a sharp critique of More’s hypocrisy, a hypocrisy endemic to his time. Cromwell is a humanist (who does not know that he is a humanist, perhaps) and his complicated view of More forms the thrust of any critique we might choose to find in Wolf Hall. Cromwell admires More’s erudition but despises his arrogance; he respects More as a family man but resents his attitudes toward women. In Mantel’s London, Cromwell works to save More’s life not because he wants to avoid creating a martyr, but because he feels genuine compassion and pity for the man’s family. More’s selfishness is all the more apparent in light of this. Further reflection Wood’s book to come; this second printing (the first in a decade) of Wood’s essays debuts in June, 2010 from the good folks at Picador.

How Fiction Works — James Wood

howfiction

Literary critic and Harvard professor James Wood’s How Fiction Works, new in trade paperback from Picador, argues that “fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.” This thesis is rather broad, and really not so controversial; I’d certainly agree with it. It’s when Wood goes about showing how fiction successfully or unsuccessfully artfully represents reality that I find myself shouting at his text.

Not that I didn’t know that we were going to butt heads (to misapply a metaphor) before I began reading. After all, I was familiar enough with Wood’s aesthetic approach to literary criticism, one that eschews any notions of ideological underpinnings of a novel. In concrete terms, this means that all those discourses so (apparently) fashionable in English departments are out–you know, Marxist critiques, French deconstruction, post-colonial studies, gender readings, all that stuff. How wonderfully freeing for Wood to dispense with the baggage of history and ideology! Of course, certain novelists have felt the need to respond to these ideas, even if Wood hasn’t, leading our critic to deride a whole “genre” of “hysterical realism.” I happen to like a lot of this so-called “hysterical realism”: Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace spring to mind (Wood takes Wallace to task a few times in How Fiction Works, arguing that Wallace’s pseudo-business speak in “The Suffering Channel” is “fairly ugly, and a bit painful for more than a page or two”). Wood’s attack on “hysterical realism” centers on his claim that such novels privilege a (failed) attempt at a global, historical perspective at the cost of intimacy and human communication. The aesthetics here, for Wood, are precisely about how to accurately and intimately portray the world. To this end, Wood, favors writers like Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Chekov, and he spends much of How Fiction Works illustrating how marvelously these writers employ what he calls “free indirect style,” a type of narration where the lines between author’s and the character’s language are perfectly blended.

That Wood spends so much time on Flaubert and James (he devotes five pages to the latter’s ingenious use of the adverb “embarrassingly”) is telling when one considers the authors not represented in this book. While no literary critic should be condemned for not including every writer under the sun, it would be helpful if a book ostentatiously titled How Fiction Works took a look at something besides the work of dead white men. But there I go again, suggesting that ideology has some function in literature. Maybe I’m reaching here–to be fair, if Toni Morrison doesn’t even warrant a mention in Wood’s canon, then neither does Nathaniel Hawthorne (in fact, How Fiction Works is remarkably light on American writers in general–Melville only warrants a passing mention).

More disturbing than Wood’s limited pool of authors is his disingenuous claim that this book is for a common, everyday reader. With a hint of the anxiety of influence, he remarks that his hero Roland Barthes “does not write as if he expects to be read and comprehended by any kind of common reader,” but it must be noted that Wood will have lost anyone not fairly conversant with the history of literature by his first twenty pages.Hopefully, students new to literature will avoid Wood’s book and read something friendlier and more helpful, like Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor.

Did I forget to mention in all of this that I liked reading this book? Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed. I’d recommend How Fiction Works with the caveat that the reader not fall victim to Wood’s forceful rhetoric, to the erroneous assumption that Wood’s aesthetic values somehow trump one’s own. Read this book, but don’t mistake it for a substitute for the real education that great novels can provide. “I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries,” writes Wood in his introduction, but make no mistake, Wood cannot transmit the real in his criticism. It can only be found in reading the sources yourself.