"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

March 31, 2009

A Reader Points Me the Right Wray

First-time reader, first-time caller here; just discovered your Contra James Wood blog and really enjoy it. I've had issues with Wood ever since a particularly pompous English lecturer I had in college -- a very limited aesthete, who used to devote whole sessions to reasons why Dickens shouldn't have had the third-person narrative in Bleak House, for example, because he found it gaudy and tiresome -- held him up as THE model of fine criticism. I think your points are sound and your mission very welcome, and I hope that your blog is a bellwether of where Wood's reputation and influence is heading. (One thing I do wish you'd talk more about is what a poor stylist he is: his locutions (awkward and unnatural) and metaphors (somehow both banal and outlandish) render a lot of his readings indecipherable, bizarre given his reputation for fine points and attention to detail, and I can't think of another critic who writes this poorly in quite this vein, which is like 10th rate Stephen Dedalus or something, all elliptical riddling with little philosophical subtlety and a frankly baffling deafness to the register and feel of individual words.) 

Since I don't want Wood's defenders to have any easy targets, however, I wanted to correct what I think are a few mistaken assumptions in your most recent review of John Wray. First, Wood is actually doing a good job of 'participating in the literary culture of his time' by reviewing this book, and he may well be ahead of the pack on this novel. Wray has written two very good books that didn't command a broad audience because they suffered from a lack of narrative force / compelling story, but he won a number of awards and was tagged by better critics than Wood as a promising young writer. With this book he's finally found something that can showcase his gifts as an author while telling an engaging story, and as such his publisher (FSG) has decided to push the book: he's already done a couple of fun, stagey readings in Manhattan, and 'Lowboy' is Amazon's book of the month for March 2009. From a publicity standpoint -- if not a literary one -- the decision by the publishers to recall Trainspotting in the book design and advertisements is wise, given how much cultural attention that book got, and I think/hope Wray gets his due here: this is one of the more interesting new books I've read in the last two or three years. 

Second, you seem to take Wood at his word that 'Atmospheric Disturbances' is superior to 'Lowboy', which I think couldn't be further from the case. (Wood's notion that 'Lowboy' breaks no new ground is way off.) The fact that Wood champions 'AD' should actually be good fodder for your contention that he's 'posturing' -- trying to appear balanced and broad-minded by praising an experimental, postmodern novel. He comes off as a pretty careless posturer here, in my view, as 'AD' is a very contentional, derivative, ultimately worthless book that essentially borrows a premise from "The Echo Maker", a plot from Muñoz Molina's "En Ausencia de Blanca" and everything else from Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49". The funny thing about 'AD', given Wood's obsession with narrative accuracy, is that the gaping discrepancy between the voice of the putative narrator and the voice of the author -- it is just too obvious that a 35-year old urban female/literary careerist wrote this thing, not the middle-aged male Jewish psychiatrist who supposedly narrates it. Lots of knowing references to Borges, static literary devices, and this particularly obtrusive prose poetry (lots of silky metaphors and use of very specific colors ('cornsilk blond hair', 'a little russet dog', etc.)) that reminds me of those first-person male cowboys in Annie Proulx's work who compare sunsets to shades of mascara, then ponder precisely which mascara word is most beautifully true. I'm more flexible on credible voice in a narrative than Wood is, but even I found Galchen's clumsiness unbearable, and could hardly read the book. Anyway, for further proof that most sensible readers seemed to just not like this book, check the customer reviews at Amazon, the non-professional (read: non-compromised) reviews at Goodreads, the skeptical dismissal at the Complete Review, and the best review, by a favorite reviewer of mine, Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Lots of the negative reviews come from fans of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, which seems to show that people more sensitive to postmodernism than Wood think this book is a failure, making his advocacy of it particularly head-scratching. Probably has more to do with the fact that she teaches at Columbia and is 'in' with NY literateurs; shades of Wood's dedications to Bellow and Norman Rush. 

That's it from me. Keep up the good work!


Christopher Guerin said...

Idiocy. Not to be able to see originality in "Atmospheric Disturbances" is intellectual blindness. Yes, a first novel, but a novelist of great promise. Let's talk in 10 years, when Galchen rules the roost. Also, btw, why such bitterness? Because she's a woman?

Edmond Caldwell said...

I hope it's clear that the post you're responding to is not by me but is rather a letter from a reader who wanted to defend the John Wray novel I discussed in the previous post (Wood thought Galchen's novel, while on a similar topic, was better). I haven't read Galchen's novel and for all I know she will be, as you suggest, the next Tolstoy. Your charges of sexism, though, are completely patronizing to women who happen to be authors -- should they be immune from criticism because they're women? I'm sure Galchen, if she's as formidable as you make out, can take good care of herself.