by James Wood
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 339 pages, $27
In a recent interview promoting his latest essay collection, The Fun Stuff, critic James Wood sighed: “It’s tiresome after a while just to hand down judgments all day, all night.” English-born and Cambridge-educated, he made his name as a critic working for the New Republic, where he became known for some loudly negative reviews.
But he did more than make noise. He enlivened the American literary scene, and we are still enjoying a certain literary revitalization thanks to his early essays covering all the major English-language novelists from Jonathan Franzen to David Foster Wallace to Zadie Smith, as well as his considerations of figures like Melville and Dostoevsky.
This revitalization has happened not least because Wood reintroduced the religious sense into American literary discourse. In our country, religious talk quickly becomes ethics talk, about values or issues or whether religion is “good for society.” Wood’s is that rare voice who weighs the ways in which religious belief, or religious questions, have an influence on aesthetics, specifically in fiction.
Wood has approached this influence in more than one way. In his first book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, he distinguishes the aesthetic “novelistic impulse” from the “broken,” “religious” one, arguing that the former has overcome the latter in Western culture. Religion claims its stories to be actually true, Wood argues, while the novelistic impulse invites us into the realm of the “as-if,” making universal claims about human experience within an imaginary world. Whatever is true about fiction, he writes, “is proved by what it discloses” about life.
This rigid distinction, however, is not consistently held after that early book. Elsewhere, the distinction between art and religion becomes more porous. An agnostic who was raised in a devout, low-church Evangelical family, Wood appears haunted by the fact that, although belief has left him, the old longing remains. If the religious impulse is able to break even into the life of an unbeliever, then perhaps it is an impulse rooted in something deep and universal.
This insight behind perhaps the most beautiful statement Wood has made about the religious impulse appears in his second book, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, published nine years ago. Wood admires Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections but criticizes the parts that read like a “social novel,” showing off medical jargon and listing cultural markers that aim to capture the cultural moment and the modern predicament.
“We are not uniquely doomed by modern conditions,” Wood declares. “If we are doomed, then we are doomed in rather old-fashioned ways. . . . We are doomed because humans always flow over their targets; their souls are gratuitous and busy, dogged with aspiration and desire.”
The soul has a perennial desire to rise above its finite condition or be delivered from it. This desire is the fuel of fiction, and it could properly be called “religious.”
But now Wood wants to do something else. Reading The Fun Stuff, one can see why: His critical work has become repetitive. He remains the best critic in America when it comes to analyzing literary technique. But as far as his aesthetic interests go, in many of these essays, we see Wood shift from a concern for the ways in which religious questions live within the novelistic impulse to an almost purely philosophical interest in those questions in and of themselves.
Discussing Kazuo Ishiguro’s science-fiction allegory Never Let Me Go, which describes a group of human clones marked as organ donors who will die by age twenty-five, Wood asks, “Why do we persist in the idea that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose? Why is sheer longevity, if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?”
Wood spends most of the essay examining the techniques of allegory, and this philosophical flourish appears near the end, when he must consider just what the novel might be an allegory of. The novel forces him into a theoretical register: “Without a belief in God, without metaphysical pattern and leaning, why should our lives not indeed be . . . death sentences? Even with God? Well, God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it: The writing may be well on the wall anyway.”
According to Wood, Ishiguro’s story is powerful not because the clones’ lives are shortened but because their condition illuminates our own: Even a full life is somehow not “enough,” or not self-evidently meaningful. This, he alleges, is what those proponents of the “culture of life,” who have praised the novel, don’t understand.
But a proponent of the culture of life arguing that human life is an intrinsically valuable good isn’t arguing that a long life is more meaningful than a short one, but that life is meaningful, full stop. What this meaning is, however, is not self-evident or easily grasped; it must be personally sought after, in fear and trembling.
The proponent of a culture of life would merely say that, to seek after life’s meaning, we must first respect its inviolability and assume that it has intrinsic value. Nor would arguing that life has intrinsic value mean that finite life is somehow “enough.”
The indefinite extension of earthly life would amount to what the theologian David L. Schindler has called “bad infinity,” something terrible, not satisfying. If Wood is serious about moving from aesthetic analysis into the realm of religious philosophy, he’s going to need to pay closer attention to the theories.
Most of the essays in The Fun Stuff are either among the last that he wrote for the New Republic or the first that he published in the New Yorker, whose staff he joined in 2007. His more meditative efforts are intermixed with routine ones: an assessment of Edmund Wilson’s career, a physiology of Ian McEwan’s plots, and a vicious takedown of Paul Auster’s novels, perhaps to show that Wood’s still got it (“accidents attack the narrative like automobiles falling from the sky”). The analyses of technique in most of these essays, however, would be valuable to any aspiring writer.
But the most important essays are those in which the technical discussion leads to a philosophical one. Evaluating Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic fantasy, The Road, Wood finds that McCarthy’s stripped-down prose is appropriate for the type of world he is trying to describe: “Short phrasal sentences, often just fragments, savagely paint the elements of this voided world.”
Yet McCarthy’s style isn’t fitting for the scenes where his savage characters discuss theodicy, for while “his reticence and his minimalism work superbly at evocation . . . they exhaust themselves when philosophy presses down.” An apocalyptic novel necessarily leads to questions about God, yet McCarthy’s style cannot render the way his nomadic, stunted, fearful characters would express those questions.
While he succeeds in depicting his characters’ daily lives, he fails at evoking their religious longing. A style—and perhaps a genre—ought to be appropriate for its subject matter.
In Wood’s final essay, the beautifully told “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library,” he tells about his futile attempts to sell or donate the books of his deceased father-in-law. He then considers whether collecting the books in the first place was already an exercise in futility. “Isn’t a private library simply a universal legacy pretending to be an individual one?”
Wood’s father-in-law was a businessman whose academic career was aborted but who continued to read and travel throughout his long, restless life. (His thousands of tomes are “neatly systematic, proudly comprehensive.”) The lesson Wood learns from him is to “resolve not to leave behind such burdens for my children”—i.e., a library. But I wonder: Isn’t this essay about the futility of libraries really an essay about the futility of life?
Why an essay on the futility of libraries as the coda to a work that evinces a great love of books? Why a memento mori as finale? In this book, many crucial questions are evoked but not actually asked.
Santiago Ramos has written for Image, Commonweal, Traces, and the Pitch, a Kansas City weekly.