In a previous post I argued that James Wood’s programmatic misreading of a passage from Joyce showed how the “reality” that lay behind the critic’s notion of realism was nothing other than “a concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology.” It’s interesting to go from there to his review of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, which was published originally in the New Republic under the title “Making it New” and reprinted in his collection, The Irresponsible Self, with the title, “Monica Ali’s Novelties.” These titles are tendentious; the review appeared in the wake of Wood’s heroic struggles to rescue the Common Reader from the spurious novelties of Hysterical Realism. What is new about Monica Ali’s novel is how it “dares” – for Wood, anyway – to be so deeply traditional.
Wood opens his review by noting the increase in Europe and the United States of contemporary fiction by writers from immigrant populations. He tells us that
“this new material has [a] . . . momentous service to perform, which is to return fiction to its nineteenth-century gravity. This it does by re-importing into the Western novel traditional societies, with their ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty, and pressures of propriety -- and thereby restoring to the novel form some of the old oppressions that it was created to comprehend and to resist and in some measure to escape.” *
Whew, there’s a swerve at the end – oh, and by the way these were oppressions! We’re glad he makes that disclaimer, because otherwise throughout the review he sounds pretty nostalgic for those “old oppressions.”
Wood acknowledges the way these writers introduce new content into their novels, but, he goes on, “the novelty of Ali’s world is also a restoration, for it allows her, quite naturally, to inhabit a fictional realm in which prayer, free will, and adultery all have their antique weight.” Really! Free will flourishes in realms of clitoridectomy and bride abduction! Ah, the “antique weight”! How bracing it all is! Or was, anyway, because unfortunately times have changed: “Adultery has withered as a fictional theme because it drags such little consequence behind it nowadays,” Wood acquiesces glumly (take a moment to appreciate the dying fall of that nowadays . . . ). This is James Wood as Restorationist, Wood in his High Restorationist mode.
In the name of “novelty,” he spends the bulk of the review applauding the traditional family values he finds in Ali’s novel:
- “Ali’s most daring decision may be her bestowal of what amounts to semiliteracy upon her heroine.”
- “Yet even when Nazneen has learned something, Ali takes care to show how her knowledge is framed in ignorance.”
- “Nazneen’s marriage is at the heart of this book, and Chanu, her husband, is its other leading character.”
As it bloody well should be!
And the kicker: “The power of Ali’s book is the way in which it charts its heroine’s slow accumulation of English, her gathering confidence as a mother and wife, and the undulations of her marriage to a man who she eventually learns to respect and perhaps even to love.”
Yes, this is realism: the inexorable movement towards compromise with “the real,” with social reality, that concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology. This is the “traditional” novel’s big trade off, in which characters get to enjoy the supposed autonomy of their priceless interiority as the consolation prize for being good wives and mothers and respecting their husbands. (See Franco Moretti’s excellent The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture for an extended analysis of this of foundational novelistic emplotment and its concomitant ideology).
And this is what makes Wood’s review so superficial, at best, and suspect, at worst. Even if some of the “old oppressions” that supposedly gave the nineteenth-century novel its traditional “gravity” are things of the past, its deep structure of ideological compromise and accommodation is alive and well and available on the display tables at your nearest Barnes & Noble. The most notable thing about Wood’s review of Brick Lane is how uncritically the critic reproduces this underlying narrative ideology, its cheesy uplift as much as its compromises and consolations. Of Nazneen’s husband, Chanu, he writes: “As Nazneen’s affection for him develops, so does ours.” Wood kneels and kisses the rod of accomplished fact and urges his readers to do so, too.
But the undulations of Wood’s argument can’t hide the fact that, aside from the surface exoticism, there’s simply nothing novel about Ali’s novel. It’s a well-written and deeply conventional work of Establishment Literary Fiction, dishing out some you-go-girl affirmation and uplift in the context of a lot of compromise. It’s an ideal book-club book, its topics for discussion so blatantly obvious in the narrative itself that the questions at the end of the paperback edition are redundant.
* Like most of Wood’s forays into historical explanation, this is an intellectual muddle. Wood is somehow suggesting that “the West” in the nineteenth century was a “traditional society.” No serious historian, anthropologist, or intelligent person thinks this; the only people who do are . . . journalists and politicians.