“Death in the Comic Tradition” — Tom McCarthy on Heroism and Authenticity

A passage from Simon Critchley’s new collection of interviews and meditations, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in which author Tom McCarthy (Critchley’s partner in the International Necronautical Society) talks about the question of an authentic, heroic self—

. . . in the heroic tradition in literature, which pits the self against death in a way that produces authenticity, you find a hero that runs into death like a fly slamming into an electric field, and which goes out in a tremendous spark of authentic apotheosis. There’s a lot about that, aesthetically, which is very seductive. However, we at the INS strongly reject that. Instead, we feel more seduced by the comic tradition in which the fly can’t even reach the electric field. It keeps tripping over its legs, or becomes distracted by something — dog shit, for example. So death in the comic tradition is not that of authentic self-mastery, but rather of a slippage; it’s about the inability to be oneself, and to become what one wants to be. And we think that that kind of tradition or logic is much more rich and fruitful.

How Fiction Works — James Wood


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.

An Intellectual Seed Crystal Dropped into the Supersaturated Solution of American Motorsports

Of all the David Foster Wallace obituaries and appreciations floating around the internet–many of them moving and insightful–today’s feature at The Onion, “NASCAR Cancels Remainder Of Season Following David Foster Wallace’s Death” strikes me as the strangest. The conceit of the piece, that NASCAR drivers are keenly attuned, even motivated by the literary world, is frankly some of the basest, dumbest, most obvious irony ever, and possibly the kind of contrived situation at which Wallace might’ve cringed. Yet there’s something sweet in The Onion elegy’s clumsiness. Consider this analysis of Infinite Jest they attribute to Greg Biffle:

I first read Infinite Jest in 1998 when my gas-can man gave me a copy when I was a rookie in the Craftsman Truck Series, and I was immediately struck dumb by the combination of effortlessness and earnestness of his prose. Here was a writer who loved great, sprawling, brilliantly punctuated sentences that spread in a kind of textual kudzu across the page, yet in every phrase you got a sense of his yearning to relate and convey the importance of every least little thing.

Well said. Or Jimmie Johnson‘s beautiful critique of DFW’s style:

David Foster Wallace could comprehend and articulate the sadness in a luxury cruise, a state fair, a presidential campaign, anything. But empathy, humanity, and compassion so strong as to be almost incoherent ran through that same sadness like connective tissue through muscle, affirming the value of the everyday, championing the banal yet true, acknowledging the ironic as it refused to give in to irony.

And so well here we are then–an ironic piece acknowledging Wallace’s ability to acknowledge and yet resist irony in his own work. The Onion simply can’t unpack the thoroughly Wallacian conundrum that results. But what I think they do is better–they eulogize a writer I think they love in the only way the mission of their site allows. And unlike their previous jibes at Wallace, “Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter at Page 20,” and the Weekender edition pictured above, it seems that The Onion staffers are too sad to make the piece funny–which, I think, is appropriate.