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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New Issue of Asymptote Features David Mitchell, László Krasznahorkai, Fady Joudah and More

The July issue of Asymptote, a journal devoted to literary translation, is chock-full of goodies, including a long interview with David Mitchell, a shorty from László Krasznahorkai translation, and an essay by Fady Joudah with the marvelous title  “Dear God, Your Message Was Received in Error.” Here’s the beginning of that essay:

In Borges’ story, “Averroës’ Search,” Averroës interrupts his long day of contemplating the problem that confronts him in Aristotle’s Poetics (how to translate ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ into Arabic) and joins friends for dinner. The Andalusian philosopher seems to be listening (against hope or “without conviction” as Borges put it) for a solution to his problem in something that any of his guests might say. Maybe the answer is “near at hand” or, as in Lydia Davis’ “The Walk,” right “across the street.”

As the conversation meanders through various subjects about writing, God, and art, one of Averroës’ guests brings up the account of the seven sleepers:

“Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.”

Borges’ mention of the seven sleepers comforts me, perhaps because I know the story from the Koran. Or perhaps because it serves as yet another cornerstone of what translation work can perform: transforming telling into seeing. Telling a story through seeing is also a gesture at what Averroës could not grasp when he encountered Aristotle’s ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’: theatre.

Lots of great stuff–check it out.

 

Eco/Krasznahorkai (Books Acquired, 11.30.2012)

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Satantango (Book Acquired, 3.15.2012)

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Was happy to get a finished copy of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (new in English translation for the first time from the good people at New Directions). From Jacob Silverman’s review at The New York Times:

As in much of Krasznahorkai’s work, a sense of hallucinatory conspiracy is in the air. People speak ominously, if vaguely, about what lies ahead. They see visions and hear bells they can’t place. “If they read the papers properly,” one character says, “they would know that there is a real crisis out there.”

But there is also a shared belief that things aren’t as they appear. Some mistake must have been made; things can’t be as bad as they seem. And so the residents “are waiting. They’re waiting patiently, like the long-suffering lot they are, in the firm conviction that someone has conned them. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps.” (This repetition, with its gradual slathering of metaphoric detail, characterizes Krasznahorkai’s style.)

I started the ARC I got of Satantango (mistitled on the spine; see below), but got sidetracked with epic books by William Gaddis and William Vollmann. (Blame the Bills). I will give the book my full attention in the nearish future.

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Books I Didn’t Read in 2011 (And Books I Will Try to Read in 2012)

Okay. So obviously a list of the books I didn’t read in 2011 would be, y’know, long.

This post is about the books I set out to read, tried to read, wanted to read, abandoned, neglected, acquired and thought looked interesting, etc. It’s also about what I want to—what I plan to—read in 2012.

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A reasonable starting place: I wrote a post in early January of this year detailing the books I would try to read in 2011. I actually read most of the books I named in that post. But:

I failed to read past page 366 of Adam Levin’s incredibly long novel The Instructions, although I think I was a bit too harsh in my semi-review. Chalk it up to exhaustion.

I failed to even begin to try to read William Gaddis’s incredibly long novel JR. (But I swear to read it one year. Not next year, but maybe the year after?).

I failed to read past the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

I read most of the Tintin collections I picked up last year, but I didn’t get to volumes 5 or 6.

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Moving beyond that early post, books that I recall abandoning (although I’m sure there must be more):

I abandoned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian romance The Marble Faun after about 30 pages.

I abandoned 334 by Thomas Disch after about 50 pages. Somehow simultaneously dense and loose, it struck me as intensely imagined and sloppily composed.

I abandoned John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing after the first chapter; it was a great opening chapter, but I thought it was going to be, I don’t know, more like Blood Meridian.

I also abandoned Chad Harbach’s big book The Art of Fielding (after 100 pages) because it was lame (notice it’s not pictured above because I traded in that sucker), but I had a nice dialog with some readers who responded to a post I wrote about abandoning it, so that was a plus.

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Books I bought in 2011 that I aim to read in 2012:

Correction by Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a repeated suggestion from readers in the aforementioned Harbach post/rant, and he was apparently a huge influence on W.G. Sebald, so, yes, looking forward to this.

The Reivers by William Faulkner. I read A Light in August this year and reread most of Go Down, Moses. My plan is to read one Faulkner a year for the next ten years.

Ferdydurke by Witold Gambrowicz. I struggled to make it through Gombrowicz’s bizarre jaunt Trans-Atlantyk, but once the novel taught me how to read it, I was enchanted by its strange humor and frenetic syntax. Over some beer and wine, I had a conversation about Ferdydurke with my father-in-law’s priest who is Polish. His pronunciation of Ferdydurke should win an award for charm.

I will read Georges Perec’s big book Life: A User’s Manual.

I have already promised to read William Vollmann’s Imperial.

There are many, many more, of course (too many, really).

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Books people sent me to read and review that look really cool that I will be reading and reviewing at some point in the very near future:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai: I will read this and review this in the very near future.

The Funny Man by John Warner: Comedy, drugs, celebrity culture.

The Book on Fire by Keith Miller: This one is about a biblioklept. It’s been at the top of my stack for a few months now, but I keep letting myself get distracted.

Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov: Apparently this novella about a maimed alcoholic war vet is funny. (I hate the cover).

Mule by Tony D’Souza: Middle class man sells marijuana cross country. (I love the cover).

Various titles from Melville House’s Neversink line: I’ve got a few in the stack.

Also: I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I actually stayed up really late last night reading free public domain books from Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson; I’ll read a contemporary novel on it this year—Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, perhaps? Suggestions welcome!—and try to review both novel and the process of reading the novel on a warm glowing machine.

And: I’m sure there are a ton of novels that will come out in 2012 that I’ll want to read; I’m already primed for Dogma, Lars Iyer’s sequel to Spurious.

So: What are you guys looking forward to reading in 2012? What did you fail to read in 2011?

Book Acquired, 12.06.2011 — Or, I Photograph My Reader’s Copy of Satantango in the Cheap Showiness of Nature

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Damn. Check this out. László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, the title of which does not apparently include diacritical marks in its new (first published!) English translation.

Publisher New Direction’s description:

Already famous as the inspiration for the filmmaker Béla Tarr’s six-hour masterpiece, Satantango is proof, as the spellbinding, bleak, and hauntingly beautiful book has it, that “the devil has all the good times.” The story of Satantango, spread over a couple of days of endless rain, focuses on the dozen remaining inhabitants of an unnamed isolated hamlet: failures stuck in the middle of nowhere. Schemes, crimes, infidelities, hopes of escape, and above all trust and its constant betrayal are Krasznahorkai’s meat. “At the center of Satantango,” George Szirtes has said, “is the eponymous drunken dance, referred to here sometimes as a tango and sometimes as a csardas. It takes place at the local inn where everyone is drunk. . . . Their world is rough and ready, lost somewhere between the comic and tragic, in one small insignificant corner of the cosmos. Theirs is the dance of death.” “You know,” Mrs. Schmidt, a pivotal character, tipsily confides, “dance is my one weakness.”

New Directions has a fantastic record when it comes to lit in translation, and Satantango has been long anticipated by English-reading audiences, due in large part to Béla Tarr’s movie (which is more like seven and a half hours, which I meant to watch this summer but couldn’t because I want to watch it with no interruptions, but I have kids and a wife, so, hey).

I got into it a bit last night, and, I don’t know if it’s just the advance reader copy I got or what, but there are no paragraph breaks, which is a grueling rhetorical technique, a big dare to readers, really (see also: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (note: Sebald blurbs Satantango)). The advance reader copy also has a delightful typo on the spine, one that makes the book sound like, I dunno, if Santana made a tango record. Or maybe Santa n’ Tango for ever (Cash will no doubt be jealous). More to come.

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