For the junior reviewer trying to make it in the world, reading James Wood can be a profoundly depressing experience. For one, she is usually reading him on the slippery, talismanic pages of The New Yorker, a publication which, she freely admits, represents to her the zenith of Taste and Quality. Wood likewise seems the living embodiment of these virtues, with his Cambridge First and remarkable career. When Wood writes about even the very latest in fiction, forbidding names from the past—Johnson, Hazlitt, Xenophon—spring forth to prick the reader’s conscience like decrepit cobras. The Fun Stuff, 25 of this man’s essays arrayed one after the other, prophesied morning commutes suffused with defeat and feelings of low personal worth.
I was pleasantly surprised by the first, eponymous, and most fun essay in the compilation, a piece on Keith Moon that appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. To read Wood being erudite about Conrad or Hardy, one would hardly imagine that he harbors a deep, formative fondness for The Who. It’s an auspicious beginning; people are never more charming than when they are revealing an encyclopedic and hitherto unrevealed knowledge about a private passion. Talking of the band, his own childhood experience of both “a traditional music education” and the “inspired vandalism” of Moon’s drumming, Wood endears himself to equally circumspect readers: “drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body forgets itself, surrenders its awful self-consciousness.”
Wood’s writing has nothing to do with the rehashed press releases that are called book reviews and appear even, or especially, in the pages of major newspapers. He writes Criticism, situating every book that crosses his desk on a map of literature. (Moon, too, is so situated, with John Bonham, with Glenn Gould, even with Gogol.) One of the reasons that reading Wood can be depressing is that his map seems so much more detailed than your own: A book by László Krasznahorkai features, according to Wood, “the kind of supporting cast you want in Central European comic novels.” But everyone who reads and writes about literature has, like Keith Moon, a peculiar set of drums. What is fascinating, if not exactly fun, about The Fun Stuff is seeing more clearly the components of Wood’s kit, how they fit together to produce his own particular kind of racket.
Wood’s astonishing literacy is a major part of what makes his criticism intimidating. But there are several authors and set pieces that appear with such regularity in his work that they are obviously keystones, fundamental to Wood’s perception of literature and the world. (In some ways, this is a truism forged in the literary pamphlet wars of the last decade. In 2004 the editors at N+1 said of Wood: “His lodestars were invariant, Coleridge and Hazlitt, Tolstoy and Flaubert—not just because they were on his school reading list, but because Wood seemed to want to be his own grandfather.”) Wood invokes King Lear throughout this collection—in essays on Cormac McCarthy, Aleksandar Hemon, and V.S. Naipaul—but reading The Fun Stuff reminded me of another Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus, which is to me the most vivid demonstration of a world defined by the stories it knows. I don’t mean what Shakespeare knew, but what his characters knew, everyone referring to the same tales endlessly on a closed circuit, Ovid determining how they will behave.
The disapprobation of Wood’s naysayers cannot be founded upon a difference of maps and methods alone; it suggests a more fundamental problem of cosmology. But there are grandfathers and grandfathers. Who’s in Wood’s pantheon? Tolstoy and Flaubert, yes; and Conrad and Bellow; Sebald and Bernhard; Rousseau and Lawrence; Naipaul and Orwell and Shakespeare. There are others, too, and surely a different combination of his essays would showcase them to varying degrees. In The Fun Stuff, Tolstoy in particular seems fundamental to Wood’s frame of reference, with his oft-cited technique of “estrangement, or the art of making the familiar unfamiliar.” In Wood’s essay on War and Peace, this estrangement is laid out in several examples, notably Tolstoy’s depiction of the battle at Austerlitz, wherein the bullets sound like spilled nuts and barking dogs. Wood refers again to this scene in his treatment of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although here Tolstoy serves to say what McEwan is not, rather than what he is (the inheritor of Orwell and Greene). In both the War and Peace essay and a piece on Orwell, Wood makes us notice the “mysterious pointlessness” of Tolstoy’s doomed man adjusting his blindfold, Orwell’s Burmese man avoiding a puddle en route to the gallows.
There are grandfathers and grandfathers. Wood’s lodestars might be “invariant” (as is their wont), but his cosmology is continuously enlarged in the exercise of his profession, with minor and major deities added to the pantheon. Wood makes room for Aleksandar Hemon, for Lydia Davis, for Kazuo Ishiguro (well, some Ishiguro—he was famously unkind about The Unconsoled). His enthusiasm for Flaubert does not preclude an appreciation for writers like Ben Lerner, born in 1979. Wood’s lodestars often seem signposts for his own reference, rather than cudgels for brandishing at the kids on his lawn.
It’s hard to argue with a critic whose frame of reference is twice the size of your own (in an essay on Norman Rush, Wood mentions Naipaul, Greene, Céline, Philip Roth, Robert Stone, Didion, Ford Madox Ford, Joyce, Shakespeare, Flaubert, and Milton). I don’t know what sort of cast a Central European comic novel should have, and I haven’t read Bernhard or Sebald. I’ve never finished War and Peace, and my favorite George Orwell novel, Burmese Days, is literally the only book Wood does not mention in his exhaustive treatment of Orwell’s “very English” brand of revolutionary sentiment. What, then, is there for me to dispute in Wood? These are differences of signage and experience, not opinion.
Wood is fond of parodies; in The Fun Stuff he demolishes Paul Auster and more gently mimics Hollinghurst. But Wood’s work itself sometimes screams for parody, particularly his habit of inserting a semicolon and “this is very good” after some choice phrase. If I have any beef with Wood (other than Burmese Days), it is his occasional tendency to underestimate the reader’s ability to comprehend the specialness of a given passage. In an essay on Ismail Kadare, Wood quotes a passage describing a girl’s murder: “The partisan looked down at his own tattered moccasins…She writhed tight against her father as if the bullets had stitched her body to his.” Wood informs us that “there is the humble detail of the partisan looking down at his (doubtless worn through) moccasins, and the way this detail is picked up and repeated by the extraordinary image of the bullet ‘stitching’ the daughter to her father,” adding quite needlessly, “(the bullets like needles, but also a beautiful image of how much the daughter wanted to attach herself, sew herself, to her father).” (Thanks chum; I think we get the position.)
But mostly, Wood’s extraordinarily close reading is a boon for the reader. I have read a fair amount of Hardy, who gets his own essay in The Fun Stuff. I’ve read him, but until I read Wood I don’t think I ever understood the compelling weirdness of his language, his mixed metaphors singularly deployed: “The morning had been windy, and little showers had sowed themselves like grain against the walls and window-panes of the Hintock cottages.” In an essay on Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch, Wood’s attention to Alter’s attention makes the reader ponder again those old familiar lines. From Rush to Wood, “Hellmouth” has entered my lexicon (keeping company with John Irving’s “Under Toad”). And now that I have read Cormac McCarthy’s style described as “blood fustian,” I’ll never think of it any other way.
I most enjoyed Wood where he was the most personal—“The Fun Stuff” and the final essay, a kind of eulogy for his father-in-law (Wood’s wife is the novelist Claire Messud). Although lives are more singular even than literary cosmologies, it’s always more interesting to hear about a life you haven’t lived than a book you haven’t read. Despite my smaller frame of reference, though, I found that Wood’s interpretations swiftly asserted themselves in my reading. When I finished Wood’s collection I began reading Zadie Smith’s NW, a disorienting novel, in which I often struggled to get my bearings. One short chapter begins:
Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell were 28 when the first emails began to arrive. Over the next few years their number increased exponentially. Photo attachments of stunned-looking women with hospital tags around their wrists, babies lying on their breast, hair inexplicably soaked through. They seemed to have stepped across a chasm into another world.
These aren’t photos from Chechnya, some humanitarian disaster; they’re new mothers, procreation perceived by alienated female protagonists in the Internet age. It seems unfair to use Wood to understand Smith, given their fraught critical relationship (Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” when writing about White Teeth), but that’s just how it happened. “Estrangement,” I said to myself, thinking of Wood, and Tolstoy’s spilled nuts and barking dogs.
There’s a new drum in my kit.