The critic James Wood is part of the British literary invasion that brought us that verbal adept, the late Christopher Hitchens, and glam editors such as Tina Brown. So it seems fitting that Wood should launch his latest essay collection with a salute to a member of that other British invasion, the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon.
In “The Fun Stuff,” he compares Moon’s playing to “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.”
Moon’s serious riffing, his artistic exuberance, provides Wood with not just a title for his collection, but clues to its methodology and themes. The quote underlines his interest in paradox and obsession with language. The essays that follow, packed with erudition, allusion, and close textual analysis, provide an often brilliant, occasionally frustrating survey of Wood’s views on postcolonial fiction, the art of translation, the manipulations of postmodernist narration, and other literary issues large and small.
In a culture that exalts strident amateur blogs and so-called citizen journalists — one in which professional criticism is indisputably under attack — Wood has become an iconic figure. Educated among the elites at Eton and Oxford, he sharpened his critical teeth at the Guardian, wrote for the New Republic (where I first encountered his work), and is now a staff writer at the New Yorker and a visiting lecturer at Harvard. The title of his best-known book, “How Fiction Works” (2008), suggested a certain unassailable authority (that other critics, naturally, were only too happy to assail).
The new collection brings together essays previously published in the New Yorker, New Republic, and London Review of Books. It deliberately inhabits the space between literary journalism and academic criticism, a borderland that is Wood’s homeland.
The emphasis is on contemporary fiction — American, British, and European — with Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst, and Ismail Kadare (among others) all given their due and occasionally chastised. But there are also forays into the past, sometimes inspired by new editions or translations.
So Wood is able to pronounce judgment on George Orwell (who “feared what he most desired: the future”), Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (a great favorite), the novels of Thomas Hardy (both “fantastical” and “grimly realistic”), Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch (about which he raves), and Edmund Wilson (whose “grand, all-seeing approach” to criticism he finds lacking).
Wood’s reaction to Wilson is telling. Though he admires what he calls the “beautifully restrained and classically elegant expository prose” of Wilson’s books, he finds the critic occasionally “reductive,” misled by his radical politics, and too willing to forgo the close reading that is Wood’s passion.
Wood’s own ideologies are a bit tougher to tease out. But it’s clear that, for him, great language — originality, wit, metaphor, the avoidance of cliché — is the first, best hope of novelists. His essays are nonlinear and not always elegant in form, but they invariably model verbal richness and showcase the depth and breadth of his reading.
No fan of Paul Auster’s, Wood uses Keats to blast an Auster character for being “half in love with easeful cliché.” He suggests, via Yeats, that Hardy casts a “cold eye on class and social mobility.” In an homage to the somewhat obscure (but, to Wood, highly deserving) Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, he summons up Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” to describe rage that “goes on, can’t go on, must go on.”
When Wood steps back from his examination of voice and language, he is most likely to focus on themes such as the relationship between the colonist and the colonized. In “Beyond a Boundary: ‘Netherland’ as Postcolonial Novel,” he praises Joseph O’Neill for his skillful symbolic deployment of the game of cricket as “an immigrant’s imagined community.” In “Wounder and Wounded,” Wood ventures into biography to discuss V.S. Naipaul, awash in shame over his Trinidadian heritage and famously brutal to the women in his life. “In his writing, Naipaul is simultaneously the colonized and the colonist,” says Wood, leaning on the sort of paradoxical formulation that he loves.
It’s fair to say that the more one knows of a particular author or novel, the more rewarding are Wood’s readings. So the experience of this collection will vary with one’s own literary background. For me, Wood’s comparison of Alter’s biblical translation to the King James version and his discussion of Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road” — as a “clever and passionate rewriting of ‘Madame Bovary’ ” — were particular favorites.
But the final essay, “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library,” resonated most strongly of all, because I had recently faced a similar task, with my late mother’s books. Wood muses over the relationship between one’s library and one’s identity. He painstakingly catalog s a part of the collection, but also imagines the books as ruins. In the end, he finds, as I did, “that no one really wants hundreds or thousands of old books” — an ironic coda to the enterprise in which Wood and his readers have been so fruitfully engaged.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.