- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF:

ON LAUGHTER AND THE NOVEL

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 312 pages

REVIEWED BY KEVIN DRISCOLL

In his first book of essays, “The Broken Estate” (1999), James Wood wrote that “[t]he child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical.”

Mr. Wood knows whereof he speaks. Having broken at an early age — and decisively — from the evangelical Christianity into which he was born, he nevertheless has maintained an inherited “suspicion of indifference,” and has put it to good use. First as literary editor of the Guardian newspaper in England and now as senior editor at the New Republic, Mr. Wood has established himself as perhaps the most incisive literary critic of our time.

That Mr. Wood’s incisiveness derives, by his own admission, precisely from the evangelical origins he has so forcefully disavowed, only makes him all the more intriguing as a critic. It also makes it difficult to take him at his word when, in the introduction to his second collection of essays, “The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel,” he expresses the hope that the book “might come to seem like the secular reply to the more religious proposals” of his first collection of essays.

For among the “more religious proposals” of “The Broken Estate” was Mr. Wood’s assertion that literature itself is, at bottom, a matter of belief — that the greatness of fiction turns upon the writer’s ability to fashion a “reality” sufficiently realized as to make the reader believe in it.

Once a critic has so defined his quarry, it is perhaps unsurprising that he will find himself regularly punching through the outer limits of the secular sphere and picking his fights with the divine. And so it is with Mr. Wood, as his powerful essay on “Dostoevsky’s God” in the present volume clearly demonstrates.

Nevertheless, Mr. Wood claims “comedy” as his overarching theme in this collection — a term that he acknowledges (in the very first sentence of the introduction) “is often awarded the prize of ineffability.”

Perhaps realizing the multiplicity of his subject matter, however, he concedes that he “want to avoid overassertion” and that “[t]here are many kinds of comedy.” These are truisms that give the lie to his assertion that “this book of essays was planned as a collection with a number of repeating themes.”

These essays may have been planned as a collection — and there are indeed some “repeating themes,” in the broadest sense of the word — but the only theme that matters is Mr. Wood’s keen sensibility.

Indeed, Mr. Wood’s inherited “suspicion of indifference” makes him that rarest of contemporary quantities: a critic whom the reader can simultaneously learn from and argue with, and both in great measure.

On the first score, Mr. Wood offers explorations of rich but (for most American readers) unfamiliar terrain, devoting essays to writers ranging from the merely under-appreciated (Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel, and J.F. Powers) to the wholly overlooked (Giovanni Verga, Bohumil Hrabal, and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin).

In traversing this ground, only rarely does the author’s erudition lapse into pedantry — as when he lets fly with a sentence like “Hrabal’s obvious model for these buffeted heroes is the Czech soldier Svejk, Jaroslav Hasek’s comic simpleton who finds himself entangled in the First World War.” Surely (and at the very least), Mr. Wood could have dispensed with the “obvious” in that sentence.

The rare slip-up, however, is more than counterbalanced by the fact that Mr. Wood knows when to stand back and let the objects of his criticism, the writers and their texts (even — indeed, especially — those unfamiliar to most readers) speak for themselves.

We are informed, for example, that the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal kept as a prized possession “a dry cleaner’s receipt, which read: ‘Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.’”

In another essay, Mr. Wood describes Joseph Roth’s fiction as “highly patterned,” but notes — powerfully — that “each sentence is a discrete explosion,” before providing a string of memorable “explosions” from Roth’s novels.

To cite but one such “explosion,” a disagreeable character from “The Radetzky March,” Roth’s greatest novel, is described thus: “Small, ancient and pitiful, a little yellow oldster with a tiny wizened face in a huge yellow blanket … he drove through the brimming summer like a wretched bit of winter.”

While Mr. Wood’s collection covers lesser-known novelists like Hrabal and Verga, the volume also includes chapters on canonical writers such as Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes and Leo Tolstoy, as well as contemporary novelists like Saul Bellow, J.M. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie. And it is in his treatment of these perhaps more familiar writers that readers are likely to find themselves not merely learning from Mr. Wood, but also arguing with him.

In a wide-ranging review of the critically acclaimed novel “White Teeth,” by London writer Zadie Smith, Mr. Wood decries what he terms the hysterical realism not just of Miss Smith, but also of much of contemporary fiction, including works by Mr. Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they drive themselves on,” he trenchantly observes. “The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked.

“Appropriately, then, one’s objections should be made not at the level of verisimilitude but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality — the usual charge — but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up but a cover-up.”

Quite so. But why, then, when Mr. Wood cites Miss Smith’s statement (in an interview) that “[i]t is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works,” does he rather patronizingly describe the statement as “gently, modestly put”?

Indeed, Mr. Wood goes even further, baldly (and even more patronizingly) asserting that “Smith may not actually believe what she says.” Come again? Is it not, after all, the overweening desire to “tell us how the world works” that leads novelists like Miss Smith (as well as Mr. Rushdie, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Pynchon) into the “cover-up” of “hysterical realism”?

Mr. Wood’s efforts to save Miss Smith from the pitfalls of her own authorial intent are all the more jarring when he then turns on a dime and, two essays later, takes Tom Wolfe out behind the critical woodshed.

“The kind of realism called for by Wolfe, and by writers like Wolfe, is always realism about society and never realism about human emotions, motives, and secrecies. To be realistic about feeling is to acknowledge that we may feel several things at once, that we massively waver.”

So Miss Smith doesn’t mean what she says when she denies it is her task to “tell us how somebody felt about something,” but Mr. Wolfe comes in for some of Mr. Wood’s most devastating criticism for essentially doing the same thing.

Does Miss Smith get a pass because she’s got fewer novels under her belt than the more experienced Mr. Wolfe, or on some other basis? One wonders.

With the possible exception of his essay “J.F. Powers and the Priests” — written with a kind of anticlerical zeal one might expect from a lapsed evangelical — Mr. Wood’s treatment of individual writers is almost unfailingly insightful and humane. Any disagreement with his broader conclusions takes a back seat to the reader’s admiration for his unabashed willingness to make critical judgments and to back them up with a depth and breadth of reading — sensitive reading — that is unsurpassed in contemporary criticism.

Kevin Driscoll is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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