The Critical Imagination

The Critical Imagination

James Wood, the ferociously intelligent critic whose reviews appear regularly in The New Republic and the London Review of Books, has single-handedly done a great deal to improve


James Wood, the ferociously intelligent critic whose reviews appear regularly in The New Republic and the London Review of Books, has single-handedly done a great deal to improve the literary atmosphere in the past few years. With their extraordinary intensity, Wood’s literary essays are like nothing else being written today; he seems to be a man who couldn’t live without literature, and for many of us, his example has been inspiring.

Wood is one of those rare critics whose discernment is so strong that he helps us to become better readers of fiction. More than that: He’s one of those rare writers who can enrich one’s own engagement with life. In a brilliant appreciation of Saul Bellow, for example, Wood showed how Bellow is alone among contemporary writers in his power to make the reader see–and after reading Wood’s demonstration of where Bellow’s greatness lies, one came away feeling that one’s own ability to see had been magnified.

Most book reviews are just plot summaries with a few adjectives thrown in; Wood is rare among contemporary reviewers in that he has a considered idea of what a good novel should be, and he’s confident enough to make his premises clear. Wood believes that the special magic of fiction lies in the writer’s ability to create “characters out of nothing”–and when he finds fault with a novel it’s often because he believes that the novelist has avoided the hard work of trying to bring fully imagined characters to the page. Reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, he writes that “Its characters exist to dispense lessons, ideological or philosophical. Although they have a certain alluring liveliness, they do not quite exist as people.” Of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, he writes that “the paranoid vision incorporates a certain restless despair that makes the creation of rounded individual characters impossible.” And of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, he writes that she “is so besotted with making poetry, with the lyrical dyeing of every moment, that she cannot grant characters their own words…. Morrison loves her own language more than she loves her characters.” Wood is an advocate of literary realism, but his idea of realism is wide enough to embrace Kafka and Gogol–because however fantastic the worlds they place their characters in, the characters themselves are imagined with a frightening vividness. Gregor Samsa, antennae and all, is indelibly real. In an essay on Iris Murdoch, Wood refers to her belief that “we judge the great novelists by the quality of their awareness of others…for the novelist this is at the highest level the most crucial test.” His discussion of Murdoch is nuanced, and I’m not sure he explicitly endorses her formulation, but I think that a similar view is at the heart of his notion of what good fiction should be.

In one of his best essays, “Half-Against Flaubert,” which is included in his collection The Broken Estate (2000), Wood contrasts Flaubert with Chekhov in a way that underlines the values he prizes in fiction: “If Flaubert disliked his characters from afar, Chekhov loved his closely; if Flaubert’s people are all mistakes, Chekhov’s, even the fools, are always forgiven; if Flaubert turned style into a monkish fetish, Chekhov made of it a worldly devotion.” Beneath the demanding intellectuality of his essays lies a foundation of old-fashioned humanism.

Wood has his flaws as a critic. The most glaring one is that he rarely lets a work of fiction breathe. When some critics approach a work of literature, they spend a few paragraphs or a few pages getting the lay of the land, trying to meet the work on its own terms–Edmund Wilson comes to mind as a critic who excelled at this. Wood, by contrast, usually declares his verdict within a sentence or two, and spends the rest of the review making his case. He rarely writes a sentence that doesn’t have a judgment in it; sometimes it feels as if he reads with his teeth clenched. This isn’t a problem when one is reading him in a magazine, but when his essays are collected in a book, his relentlessly polemical style can seem airless. The writer whom Wood resembles most in this respect is F.R. Leavis, the formidable English critic who wrote The Great Tradition and founded the journal Scrutiny. But Wood is finally better than Leavis. Leavis was all too happy to let his prejudices and irritations substitute for a detailed engagement with the work at hand; Wood, even at his most prosecutorial, clearly gives each case a great deal of thought.

A second flaw, though one he indulges in only intermittently, is that although he’s fair to the books he reviews–fair, for example, in the sense that when he criticizes a writer’s prose style, he quotes generously from the writer’s work, enabling readers to test his judgments against their own–he allows himself many little unfairnesses along the way. In the essay on Saul Bellow mentioned above, Wood sneered, in passing, at Stanley Elkin, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone, Brian Moore, Norman Mailer, Cormac McCarthy, Gore Vidal and William Gass. Henry James once wrote an essay in which he mentioned an English critical journal that “disposed of a famous writer by saying, in a parenthesis, that he had done nothing but write nonsense all his life”; James went on to commend Matthew Arnold for never “passing judgment in parenthesis.” Wood seems to be comfortable dismissing a writer’s life’s work in parenthesis. These little spasms of meanness are unworthy of him.

Wood has now published a novel, The Book Against God. The title might lead one to assume that it’s an audacious novel; one imagines Wood throwing down the gauntlet in front of all other novelists, living or dead. For better or for worse, the book turns out to be more companionable than that–homier, less grand.

Thomas Bunting, its protagonist, is the British equivalent of a schlemiel. In his early 30s, he has been working for seven years on his PhD thesis in philosophy, which is nowhere near completion. In recent months he has neglected it entirely, having turned instead to a project that he calls his “Book Against God,” a critique of religion consisting mainly of quotations and scraps of philosophical argument. Formerly a part-time instructor on the fringes of the academic world, Bunting now keeps himself together through odd jobs and unemployment insurance. He is married, but his wife, Jane, has recently left him. He is a habitual liar, and Jane has told him that she won’t take him back until he has proved to her that he has turned himself into an honest man.

The book is constructed on the thinnest scaffolding of plot. The conceit of the novel is that Bunting is writing a sort of private memoir in the months after the death of his father and the departure of his wife. The pages we read represent Bunting’s attempt to understand his own life.

The Book Against God is a rather elusive novel. Bunting is an enjoyable character, but it isn’t clear what Wood wants us to make of him. His struggles with questions of faith seem genuine enough: “I don’t believe that a God exists who created the world we live in…a place of horror and pain,” he says. “Either God doesn’t exist, or if He exists He is not a creator worthy of worship, love, or even comprehension.” His reasons for rejecting religious faith, in fact, overlap with the reasons Wood gives for his own rejection of religion in the title essay of The Broken Estate. Yet Bunting seems intellectually cramped, as Wood himself is not. Wood, by his own account, clearsightedly thought his way out of religion while he was still in his teens, while Bunting remains trapped within his quarrel with religion, paralyzed. Of course, a novelist has no obligation to make his characters as formidable as he is, but I fail to understand what the novel gained from the nervous, defensive quality of Bunting’s thought. (If Bunting were purely a comic character, none of this would be a problem, but if I’m reading the book correctly, Wood wants him to be more than that.)

In his day-to-day life, Bunting is a buffoon–telling lies both petty and large, giving a humiliatingly self-regarding and rambling talk at his father’s funeral and, during his marriage, sneakily taking advantage of his wife’s generosity. (He would sit at home pretending to push ahead with his thesis while Jane, a gifted pianist, supported them both by working as a teacher, putting in such long hours that she had no time left to practice her art.) The only large thing about Bunting is his faculty of self-deception. Seeking to account for the breakdown of his marriage, he concludes that his unfinished PhD thesis “is clearly to blame. It forced me into an unnatural and weak position with my wife. Her husband had no income, no power, and no status. All he did was sit at home trying to finish the unfinishable. The more I look at it, the more I see the Ph.D. as the reason for everything bad in my life.”

It would be absurd to criticize Wood for not being Dostoyevsky, yet in reading The Book Against God one can’t help contrasting Thomas Bunting with one of his literary forebears, the most formidable God-denier in the history of the novel, Ivan Karamazov. Karamazov’s war against God was attended by epic nightmares (a visit from the Devil, a vision of an encounter between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor) and by the highest of stakes (Smerdyakov, Ivan’s self-appointed disciple, carries Ivan’s revolt against conventional morality to a grotesque destination by committing murder). There are no nightmares, no visions in The Book Against God. And, as far as I could see, there are no high stakes. Although the future of Bunting’s marriage is in doubt, Bunting is such a childish husband that we’re not sure whether to hope that he and Jane get back together or to hope, for Jane’s sake, that they don’t. And in any case it isn’t his atheism that drove Jane away but his dishonesty. (Bunting makes an attempt to connect the two, but it isn’t very persuasive, and the novel doesn’t pursue it very far.)

The main source of narrative tension in the book is the friction between Bunting, with his intellectual, bitter, tormented disbelief, and his father, Peter, a village priest with a small parish, a man with a cheerful, tolerant and easygoing religious faith. Wood draws the contrast between the two men artfully, but here too it’s hard to see what’s at stake. Their difference of opinion only fitfully flares up into anything resembling an argument, mainly because Thomas has spent most of his life laboring to conceal his disbelief from his father. And Peter is represented as so tolerant and good-humored that it’s hard to believe that their disagreement, even if it had come fully into the open, would have resulted in anything more than a momentary rift. To this reader, it seems as if there’s more at stake in Wood’s essays, which feel as if they needed to be written, than there is in this novel.

If Bunting has a true literary forebear, it might be Tommy Wilhelm, the evasive and ineffectual protagonist of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. But the differences may be more significant than the similarities. Bellow wrote about Wilhelm from the outside, in a third-person narrative, so that he was able to bring all his astounding rhetorical powers to bear in the telling of Wilhelm’s story. Wood writes about Bunting from the inside, in the first person, so that although we admire the performance, we’re rarely transported by the narrator’s perceptions or his prose. And Wilhelm, as petty and befogged as he is, is granted a revelation at the end of Seize the Day, in the form of a moment of fellow feeling that overwhelms the dams of his ego. The climax of Seize the Day–in which Wilhelm wanders into a funeral parlor and finds himself weeping for a stranger–can be criticized as forced, willed, imposed on the story rather than springing from it organically, but it is a climax. I couldn’t find anything comparable in The Book Against God.

In giving my account of the book, I’ve slighted its many pleasures. The novel’s prose is pungent, witty and precise. Wood’s criticism is occasionally marred by a weakness for “fine phrases” that don’t quite mean anything; there’s none of this in The Book Against God. Peter is a memorable and attractive character. He seems a more thoughtful descendant of one of Tolstoy’s peasants, a man who can’t prove the existence of God through argument but whose life itself constitutes the strongest argument one can imagine. Jane is also vividly drawn (although, in his descriptions of her, Wood perhaps asks her ponytail to do too much work). Most important of all, Bunting himself feels authentic: He’s funny, pathetic and exas-

perating, and his unfitness for daily life, his inability to master the ways of the world enough to find a comfortable place in it, come to seem like an endearing, cockeyed form of integrity. He’s a fully imagined character, and in that sense Wood has passed his own test. He has submerged himself entirely in this character, in this story. Wood never lets down his Thomas Bunting mask to reveal his own face, never invites his readers to mark the contrast between the confused character and his brilliant creator.

The most refreshing thing about The Book Against God may be its unpretentiousness. In the past ten years or so, many prominent writers have put out six- or seven-hundred-page novels not because they have 600 or 700 pages’ worth of anything to say, but because the writing of this kind of hernia-inducing tome has become a required career move, an obligatory gesture of literary machismo. The Book Against God isn’t one of these strained affairs. It doesn’t feel like a career move; it feels like a novel.

The Book Against God is not a masterful novel. Does its modesty point to some flaw at the heart of Wood’s criticism? I don’t think so. The work of a great critic is not invalidated by the shortcomings of his own creative efforts. The art critic Meyer Schapiro was also a painter–a painter of no great significance, but this doesn’t diminish the interest of his essay on Cézanne’s apples. Edmund Wilson’s I Thought of Daisy is a forgettable novel; Wilson’s studies of Dickens, Joyce and Hemingway remain unforgettable. We read Norman Mailer’s articles on boxing with fascination, without imagining that he could have stepped into the ring and knocked out Muhammad Ali.

James Wood, the critic, is one of the few living practitioners of his craft who will be read fifty years from now. James Wood, the novelist, is a talented beginner. My hope about his future novels is that while retaining the playful spirit that animates this one, he will allow the full blazing light of his mind to be more fully in evidence. In this novel, Wood stoops to fit inside his harried and self-deluding protagonist. At the same time as I admired the performance, I would love to see Wood standing up straight, and giving us characters who are as large and many-sided–and as brilliant–as he is.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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