"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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November 15, 2008

The Domestic Agenda

In my last post, I dubbed James Wood “The Restorationist” for arguing that Monica Ali’s deeply conventional realism in Brick Lane represented something more genuinely new and adventurous than what we might find in DeLillo, Pynchon, or Franzen.  The Restorationist wants to steer the besotted, benighted adherents of faddish “Hysterical Realism” towards the wan, sober glow of a resigned domestic realism like Ali’s.  This shouldn’t surprise us, because domestic fiction, it turns out, is really James Wood’s default setting.  It’s especially in his reviews of writers from the US and the UK – where we can also see his criticism take on a more prescriptive edge – that this fact becomes apparent.  In his time Wood has had to issue a disclaimer or two that he’s not an advocate for domestic fiction, maybe because something in his reviews has given readers the forgivable impression that he’s, well, an advocate for domestic fiction. 

Listen to what he singles out as the best thing in Underworld (and no, it’s not Pafko at the Wall):

Only in one great, long passage, the 120 pages which beautifully draw DeLillo’s childhood Bronx, does DeLillo relax his clench, and write about nothing so important as human consciousness.  Here he writes fiction as it should be:  a free scatter through time, unpressed, incontinent, unhostaged, surprised by the shock of its unhindered passage through frontiers it, and not history, has invented. 

Elsewhere in the review Wood arraigns DeLillo for what he sees as strained and pretentious in his prose, yet it is the critic’s writing at this key point that wins the laurels for strained, silly, and downright incontinent preciosity.  It’s sheer misdirection, in order to distract his readers from the utter banality of the novel he’s really calling for:  A kid growing up in the Bronx!  What a story that would be, eh?  The old neighborhood, the crazy Italian-American family . . . Yes, that’s the book DeLillo should have written!

And it’s all eerily similar to what the Restorationist writes about The Corrections.  First he takes Franzen to the woodshed for mixing together too many fashionable genres and styles (in a passage that itself confuses genre and style, but we’ll let that go):

. . . there is domestic realism (a midwestern family); there is social and cultural analysis (a nasty Philadelphia biotech company straight out of DeLillo); there is campus farce; there is the broad Dickensianism which has decayed into crudeness in too much American fiction; there is ‘smart young man’s irony’ of the kind familiar to us in Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace (riffs on corporate gardens, on the politics of cuisine, on the Lithuanian black market); and there is, at times, an easy journalism of narrative style. 

But then he singles out one mode for approval and only tasks Franzen for having attempted to graft anything else onto it.  See if you can guess which one! 

But to be fair . . . there is also considerable grace, power, comedy, and beauty, and these qualities appear most reliably when Franzen is cleaving to the human, when he is laying bare the clogged dynamics of his fictional family, the Lamberts.  I do not mean by this [disclaimer coming!] the anti-intellectual faint praise that Franzen is at his most affecting when merely ‘telling a story’, when eschewing the theoretical or ambitious.  I mean that he is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul, when he is examining consciousness and finding, willy-nilly, that consciousness is the true Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the random angles of the age.

Ah (cue crashing – or is it tinkling? – cymbals):  consciousness, the soul!  And in its best setting, too:  the family!  For, as Wood goes on to rhapsodize, “what is larger, as a subject” – another crescendo?  This is positively Wagnerian! – “than the eternal corrections of the family?”  Ta-da!  The eternal soul!  The eternal family!  The eternal correctional institute of the Restorationist’s imagination!  And once again, the style at its most bombastic when the argument at its most banal. 

So The Corrections has a sweet warm chewy center after all, those wacky Lamberts.  Franzen even gets a pat on the head for offering a more human “correction” (get it?) to the cold and “coerced” intellectualisms of DeLillo (arch-nemesis in the comic book of the Restorationist’s imagination).  Wood can’t praise those Lamberts enough, and in very revealing terms:  “Alfred is the kind of adamantine patriarch”; “Enid is the kind of noisy, bursting mother”; “the Lambert children, like many of us, are really only honorary adults, ex officio.”  Yes:  Authors, show us what we already know!  Readers, demand what you already know!  The family, home of . . . the familiar!

“Family is the great determinism” enthuses the Restorationist. “One of the subtlest and most moving aspects of Franzen’s often distinguished book is the way he develops the idea of ‘correction’ as a doomed struggle against this determinism . . . This dream of correction is chimerical, of course, because family determinism tends to turn correction into repetition.”  Doomed struggles, chimerical dreams – hmm, what politics, literary and otherwise, do you think is being insinuated here? 

My last examples come from Wood’s review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.  The critic gives this novel an overall very positive review, yet one feels that it has been selected primarily for polemical reasons and only secondarily for literary ones.  Middlesex bears many of the features which might mark it as belonging to the dreaded bogey-genres of ‘postmodernism’ or ‘Hysterical Realism’ or the big, overstuffed ‘social novel’, but the point of the review is to show us that it really, after all, has acceptable domestic values, and so we need not be alarmed if we find women and servants reading it: 

Much of Eugenides's comic charm resides in, and flows from, his loyalty to his Greek-American background. If he has a curiosity that seems sweeter than the average postmodern writer, the run-of-the-mill I.Q.-with-an-iBook, it may have something to do with a willingness to let his ethnic material speak for itself. Certainly, although his novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and he is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact, Eugenides has a simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices.

And, a little later:

Yet once again Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism. One can put it this way: a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite comes to seem largely routine, as if Calliope were simply rather fat or tall. A fact that might scream its oddity, and that might have been used again and again heavily to explore fashionable questions of identity and gender, is here blissfully domesticated.

Take it from the Restorationist:  where domestication is bliss, it's folly to be postmodern.  And all we have to do to be blissfully domesticated is to be “loyal” to our roots, the way Eugenides is loyal to his roots.  Presumably DeLillo’s would have been a better book to the extent that he stayed “loyal” to his Italian-American background, Franzen’s a better book if he had been more consistently “loyal” to his Midwestern background, etc.  Speaking of Restorationists, there really is something Burkean to Wood’s aesthetics, isn’t there?  With domestic realism his ancien régime? 

But kitsch-Burkean, and kitsch ancien régime. 


Steven Augustine said...

Quite right, EC. It still astonishes me that Wood "got away" with working on Underworld with his rusty saw, wearing that cocked funnel on his head (like an esteemed doctor out of Bosch). Or should I compare Woody to Joseph II, in the Forman film, complaining that something by Mozart contains "too many notes"? The only problem with that last comparison being, of course, that if JW resembles any character from "Amadeus", it's Salieri.

I don't begrudge the man his right to earn a living, but I think things are very wrong with the state of littracha when any one critic's mere *opinion* on any given book/school/writer is taken, by default, as the best, or most stable, version. He's become the designated reader for a lot of otherwise-intelligent people who haven't taken the time to read the books (or read them very carefully) themselves.

Read carefully... take apart (and strip the decorative citations from)... any number of JW's flagship/claim-staking sentences and you end up with something akin to something out of *The Tao of Physics* on your hands.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Augustine, I have to object to that comparison. It’s very insulting – to Salieri. (I’ll let Tao of Physics fend for itself, though).

I’ll have more to say about Wood’s own style in some future posts, but you’re right that it’s fustian disguising pseudo-profundity. You’re too modest to mention the matchless parody you’ve done of Wood’s style, so I’ll take the liberty; readers should go here (immediately!):


Or rather, all should go except someone who can tell me how to embed links in my comments.

Steven Augustine said...


Hmmm... forgot about that one... oh dear...

becca lee said...

Flyp media has an interesting video interview and article with Jeffrey Eugenides in it's online magazine. Check it out!


Jim H. said...

Jim H. of http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot. com sez "like this":

< a > http://wisdomofthe west.blogspot.com < / a > sans the spaces.

Will visit "Sir Steven" anyway!

Jim H

Frances Madeson said...

I simply cannot believe that Steven Augustine "forgot" about his mock-review of genius hilarity. It is seared on my neurons on a par with the movie "Ridicule." Wild fun. More, more, more!

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thank you for the code, Jim H.

Steven Augustine said...

Jim H:

...That was a useful tip for *this* Luddite, man! Many thanks.


Well, I enjoyed writing it, but I certainly didn't expect anyone to enjoy *reading* it. It's been cooling off over there (at that wretched side-blog of mine) for *months*...