In the New Yorker , James Wood retraces the steps from his youthful secret atheism in a devoutly Christian home to his discovery of the pure freedom of fiction:

“My anguish about death was keen, because two members of my parents congregation died at an early age, of cancer. One of them was a single mother; I played with her children. Prayers were uttered when she fell ill; prayers were unanswered. But then my parents told me, ‘God has called Mrs. Currah to be with Him in Heaven,’ and I wondered whether God, in some mind-bending way, might have been answering our prayers by failing to answer our prayers. So inquiry was welcomed up to a certain point, but discouraged as soon as it became rebellious. Job could not become Captain Ahab . . . .

“This illiberality, coupled with my sense that official knowledge was somehow secretive, enigmatic, veiledthat we dont know why things are, but that somewhere someone does, and is withholding the golden clueencouraged, in me, countervailing habits of secrecy and enigma. I would reply to their esoterica with my esoterica, their official lies with my amateur lies. They believed that this world was fallen but that restitution would be provided elsewhere, in an afterlife. I believed that this world was fallen and that there was no afterlife. As they kept the actuality of their afterlife a kind of prized secret, I, too, would keep my revelation that there was no afterlife ?a prized secret. I became a formidable liar, the best I knew, accomplished and chronic. Lying went all the way down: you started by withholding the big truth, your atheism, and ended by withholding small truthsthat you swore among friends, or listened to Led Zeppelin, or had more than one drink, or still had the unedifying girlfriend.”

In this setting, the discovery of fiction was the discovery of carnival. Wood recalls the “adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as utterly free spaces, where anything might be thought, anything uttered. In the novel, you might encounter atheists, snobs, libertines, adulterers, murderers, thieves, madmen riding across the Castilian plains or wandering around Oslo or St. Petersburg, young men on the make in Paris, young women on the make in London, nameless cities, placeless countries, lands of allegory and surrealism, a human turned into a bug, a novel narrated by a cat, citizens of many countries, homosexuals, mystics, landowners and butlers, conservatives and radicals, radicals who were also conservatives, intellectuals and simpletons, intellectuals who were also simpletons, drunks and priests, priests who were also drunks, the quick and the dead.”

One cannot help a “what if?” moment here: What if Wood had been allowed to give his Joban complaints free rein?

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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