So James Wood has returned to the pages of the New Yorker after a hiatus of almost three and a half months. Perhaps his employer had been keeping him at a discreet distance for the duration of the official John Updike obsequies (with a little DFW grave-robbing thrown in). Whatever the case, Wood has resurfaced at an opportune moment, coinciding with the appearance of two important literary works (one controversially so): Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones and the first volume of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence. So what book has Wood chosen for his auspiciously-timed return?
Lowboy, a novel by John Wray. Or as his name is alternately spelled: W-h-o?
Of course I’m always willing to admit when I’ve been unduly nasty, and I’ll do so right here: What I just wrote is unnecessarily mean to John Wray. But I did it, like I always do (my barbs are never gratuitous), to make a point. You would think that a reviewer of Wood’s ostensible stature would want to participate in, and try to shape, the literary culture of his or her times. That’s what an actual critic would do, and indeed that’s what Wood himself tried to do with his misguided and incoherent diatribes against so-called “hysterical realism.” If these had the feel of a media-manufactured “moral panic,” that’s because that is basically what they were: Wood created a peril and then rushed to our rescue. Wood also bravely championed W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño when everyone else in the profession was either ignoring or dismissing their works, single-handedly bringing those authors to the attention of grateful readers from a lonely perch on his bandwagon of one while his book-reviewing peers and the whole publishing industry howled in derision or turned their backs. In light of these past heroics his current choice of Wray’s novel can only look like hesitation, or timidity.
It’s a modest review of what Wood concludes is a modestly accomplished work. Wray’s story of an escaped paranoid schizophrenic riding the New York subway breaks no new ground, and Wood himself acknowledges having recently reviewed a better book – Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances – that takes up similar themes. So why review this one now – because it turned up in the in-box? Instead of convincing us of the necessity of this particular notice, however, Wood ends up lamenting the book it might have been, and it’s here that the review takes on its most characteristically Woodish convolutions. Commending the way that Wray subsumes his non-fiction sources in the creation of his protagonist, Wood writes:
Yet those sources also unhelpfully remind one of the novel’s weakness, which is precisely that it is about “a paranoid schizophrenic,” explicitly flagged as such by the publisher, rather than about someone who is losing his mind, as, say, Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Thomas Bernhard’s “Concrete” are about people losing their minds. Books like Hamsun’s and Bernhard’s exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable. “Lowboy” is exceptionally tender and acute, but it is at times in danger of falling into the legible stability of case history, in which the reader might check off recognizable symptoms, usefully assisted by the subject’s mother, who is on hand to provide the necessary background information, and validated by the acknowledged medical sources. John Wray is a daring young writer, highly praised for his last two novels (both historical, and both unlike each other), and yet his third novel is, for all its boldness, also a bit conventional. An early review quoted on the book’s cover likens it to Dostoyevsky, but “Lowboy” lacks the bountiful inefficiency of “Crime and Punishment” or “The Devils.” The book is less bold, less playfully demanding, than Rivka Galchen’s recent novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” which explores a similar mental deviancy from what Galchen wickedly calls “a consensus view of reality.”
Instead, “Lowboy” performs a strange two-step: whenever Will is at the center of the novel, the narration vigorously stretches itself; but the alternate chapters, in which Violet and Lateef give chase, squeeze the book back into conventionality. These scenes are elegantly done, and are often moving, but they seem, by comparison with Will’s experimental story, unchallengingly realist.
Along with this passage’s mention of Hamsun, Bernhard, and Dostoevsky, Wood elsewhere makes comparisons to Kafka, Murakami, and Harold Pinter. In such a short essay it’s a rather pressured assembling of major figures with anti-realist street cred, and it would border on non sequitur if the agenda weren’t hovering so near. Wood’s approval of Lowboy is staged in the shadow of writers who “exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable,” and by comparison Wray’s book is taxed with being too “conventional” and “unchallengingly realist” in places, and insufficiently “experimental.”
This is posturing, and it should call to mind the disinterred 1994 Guardian list (discussed in my previous post) that Wood’s pet rocks were holding up a few weeks ago as some kind of definitive demonstration of the breadth and variety of the reviewer’s tastes (“Pynchon! Barthelme! DeLillo!” panted Mark Sarvas). As I said at the time, what counts is not the citation of this or that name but the way of reading the critic or reviewer deploys, and nothing in the actual track record of Wood’s reviews shows any fundamental sympathy with the kind of fiction these authors wrote; in fact what we find is antipathy. The same holds true for the reviewer’s current citation of Thomas Bernhard: there just aren’t that many points of contact between the aesthetic protocols articulated in How Fiction Works and Bernhard’s annihilations of the novel.* In Wood’s review of Atmospheric Disturbances he acknowledges Galchen’s debt to Bernhard, but ultimately reads her novel not as an “exultation” in “the unreadable” and “the indecipherable,” but as “a novel of consciousness,” i.e., yet another ratification of his cookie-cutter humanism. Figures such as Kafka and Dostoevsky (whose The Devils is, if anything, “hysterical realism” avant la lettre) have the sanction of time; they are canonical, and Wood’s readings of canonical figures rarely challenge their status. If it’s Pynchon he’s writing about, we learn that allegory is unacceptable in the novel; if it’s Melville, allegory is suddenly OK. Similarly, “paranoid vision” and the novel-form are inimical when DeLillo’s Underworld is on the stand, but Dostoevsky and Kafka (no “paranoid vision” in those two, right?) enjoy an unconditional amnesty. And when Toni Morrison is under review, magical occurrences in fiction are out of bounds and even “a moral problem,” but when Gogol does it it’s different, because he’s, er, well . . . Gogol.
But for the moment let’s take Wood at his word, because he rarely postures without purpose. He says he wants a more “experimental” and less “conventional” novel than the one that Wray, in parts, has produced? Something more along the lines of, say, Knut Hamsun? Well then, let’s turn to Wood’s 1998 essay on Hamsun, later reprinted in The Broken Estate, and see what he has to say there. Although Hamsun’s characters "are tissues of fictionality," Wood asserts, “they are not tediously weightless, or unreal, in the way that we know from the nouveau roman or other avant-gardisms. They would never say, ‘I am fictional, I was created by Knut Hamsun’.” In this deeply philistine remark whole swathes of unconventional, “experimental” literature are dismissed with a truculently populist wave of a hand. Not only dismissed, but misrepresented: That particular type of “I’m-the-fictional-creation-of-author-X” narratorial self-consciousness is hardly representative of the work of the main exemplars of the nouveau roman, of Sarraute, Simon, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor. To me it sounds more like a strain of U.S. metafiction from the sixties and seventies (although even then an unfair caricature), but I suppose that’s close enough for the intellectually perspicacious Wood. For what he is really relying on in this typically sloppy amalgam is not his readers’ knowledge (“as we know…”) but their ignorance and their prejudices (Nouveau roman? Avant-garde? Just who do those snotty French think they are, anyway?). Most importantly: Is this the sort of statement that inspires trust in a critic’s pronouncements on “experimental” and “unconventional” writing, or on writers who “exult in the unreadable, the indecipherable”?
Wood goes on to situate Hamsun as an innovator in character and narration, but he defines that innovation in deeply conservative and traditional terms. Hamsun, he writes, is “virtually the inventor of a certain kind of modern fictionality,” and also “the great refiner of the stream of consciousness, that mode of writing that is in some ways the culmination of novelistic realism, of the novel’s traditional devotion to human beings, that represents the soul’s stutter. His heroes are souls, not fictive figments.” The novel’s traditional devotion to human beings – that reeks of ideology and polemic, especially when followed by the pious insistence that human beings are “souls.” And so we have traveled in a kind of loop: Wray’s novel Lowboy needs to be less “unchallengingly realist” and more “experimental,” like the novels of Hamsun; Hamsun’s novels are radical and experimental because they extend traditional realism and affirm the human "soul." This is typical Wood: When “experimentalism” is acknowledged at all, it is immediately assimilated back into the traditional, doused in treacle about "the soul's stutter." Wood’s main device is thus the obverse of the Russian Formalists’ defamiliarization – it is refamiliarization.**
The existence of the Wray review in the context of the other works available for reviewing – Littell’s The Kindly Ones and Beckett’s letters – functions as a test case for Wood’s professed desire for more “experimental” and less “conventional” fare. Instead of issuing such protestations in a weak-tea review of a weak-tea book, Wood could simply have chosen to review one of these other, and certainly more challenging, volumes (to say nothing of the stream of interesting, vital fiction being issued by publishers such as Dalkey Archive Press). The objection that Wood was laboring under editorial constraints is weak; certainly he did not trade up from the New Republic in order to be told what to review, and – unless he is on his way out again – he could certainly have expressed a preference with every expectation of its being accommodated. But instead we have the New Yorker contemptuously dismissing The Kindly Ones in an unsigned "Briefly Noted" capsule review and the Beckett correspondence covered, dully and dutifully, by movie-reviewer Anthony Lane ("compelling," he calls it). Of course there will be other Wood reviews in the coming weeks and months, and no doubt some of them will be on important or challenging or even “experimental” books. And then we will see to what extent his way of reading them departs from “the consensus view of reality.”
* This is a rather different thing than the question of whether or not the reviewer subjectively “enjoyed” Bernhard’s Concrete or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or whatever. What counts are the aesthetic and critical protocols that are brought to bear in the essay or review, even in criticism that is as close at times to the merely affective as James Wood’s.
** I'm not denying, I want to underscore, Hamsun's status as an innovator. The point is that Wood invariably casts such innovations in tendentiously backwards-looking terms. An early post of mine shows how he does this, for example, with a passage from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist.