"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

January 27, 2009

Critic, Run: On James Wood & John Updike

Given the incredibly narcissistic and self-serving eulogy that James Wood came out with on the occasion of David Foster Wallace’s death, we can only imagine what kind of wreath he’ll show up with, uninvited, to lay on the tomb of John Updike.

With the DFW eulogy, Wood was doing a bit of damage-control, since in his own recently-released etiquette manual, How Fiction Works, he had derided the future suicide’s fiction as, among other things, “the whole of boredom.”  Thus Wood felt it necessary to assure us of his great respect for Wallace as a writer and of how much he had looked forward to each of his books, especially since Wallace had been showing promising signs of “maturing,” i.e., becoming more like James Wood.  To round things out, Wood also used the occasion to respond to a negative review of HFW by dishonestly misrepresenting what the reviewer had said.  

In the wake of further high-profile negative reviews of How Fiction Works and other assaults on his critical reputation, however, Wood felt the need for an additional public relations move to “humanize” his image or at least make people feel sorry for him and lay off a little.  Therefore he or his publicist released a home video of the reviewer doing a little kitchen-table finger-drumming routine, in which he gives evidence of the speed he had needed to type his way so swiftly to the top of his profession as well as the flexibility he developed doing so much of that typing for Marty Peretz.  It is truly Wood’s best performance, and if nothing else succeeds in demonstrating that he missed his true calling (and an honest living) as a back-up studio percussionist for radio promotions and so forth. 

Before HFW, Wood had never spilled much ink on DFW, typically lumping him into amalgams with the other usual suspects of so-called “hysterical realism” when castigating this or that imagined infraction of literary good breeding.  But Updike is, so to speak, another story; Wood’s opposition to Updike and to the sort of hollow aestheticism that Updike’s prose represents has been a touchstone of his reviewing.  It has also motivated some of Wood’s most withering snark:  “It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book,” begins one review.  At least now Wood won’t have to worry about any more books.   

Wood has always been a deeply calculating literary professional and has picked his fights accordingly.  Shrewd strategic sense alone would have dictated to an ambitious young critic a course of action that included setting himself up as the opponent of: 

1) a popular and preferably leftish tendency in contemporary fiction (“hysterical realism”)

2) a major establishment novelist (Updike), and

3) a major establishment critic (George Steiner) 

Wood’s savaging of Steiner is especially revealing when it comes to charting the critic’s career-building moves – it appeared in December 1996, the very same year that Wood dumped the dowdy Guardian to trade up for the much sexier New Republic.  By a remarkable coincidence, Wood’s new employer, Martin Peretz, also happened to be virulently hostile to George Steiner because of the latter’s reasoned and humane critique of Zionism (Peretz’s preferred brand of Zionism is somewhere closer to Meir Kahane’s).  It would have been too obvious for Wood’s hit-job on Steiner to appear in the pages of TNR, of course, so it ran instead in Prospect magazine.  But, midwifed by Wood’s flexible fingers, the article nonetheless achieved its purpose. 

This is not to say that Wood’s antipathy to Updike’s work is insincere – I’m sure it makes him as uncomfortable as his writing about it suggests.  Nor is it to say that his antipathy is unfounded; Updike is indeed a purveyor of fatuous drivel dolled up in pretty stylistic confections.  But so is Wood, and the terms Wood uses to criticize Updike are easily applicable to the critic himself.  The preacher's son saw himself reflected in the grandson of another preacher, and didn’t like what he saw.  It’s been obvious for a long time now that Wood is a classic hysteric, and one well-known symptom of hysteria is the projection of what is unacceptable in one’s self onto a host figure whom the hysteric proceeds to excoriate and exorcise – always in very revealing terms. 

I’m thinking in particular of Wood’s essay “John Updike’s Complacent God,” in The Broken Estate, which was originally a review of Updike’s 1996 novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies.  Take any number of sentences in that review, and substitute the name Wood for the name Updike, and the word critic for the word writer, and you’ll see what I mean.  Here’s one:  “Surely John Updike is one of the least tragic of major writers; and of all theological writers, one of the more complacent.”  This can be rewritten as, “Surely James Wood is one of the least tragic of the major critics; and of all theological critics, one of the more complacent,” and the only thing inaccurate about it would be the word “major.”  Wood is far too lightweight to be a tragic critic (unlike, say, George Steiner), and he is very much a “theological” critic.  Although he never passes up a chance to bore us with the story of the sophomoric bout of theodicy that supposedly deprived him of his faith, Wood nonetheless retains all the categories of a bland, backwards-looking Christian humanism in a nominally secular form.  Which leads us to our next quote from his Updike review:  “Meville was a truly metaphysical writer.  Updike is only a theological writer,” becomes, “Coleridge was a truly metaphysical critic.  Wood is only a theological critic.”  Now try it yourself with these examples:  

  • “Updike is not, I think, a great writer, and the lacuna is not in the quality of his prose but in the risk of the thought.”
  • “Updike seems to mock excitability itself, to close it off, to drown it in perfect language.”
  • “This is, in fact, lyric kitsch, something Updike’s prose descends into too often.  This kitsch is sentimental and false.”

What better description could there be of Wood’s own vaunted style, “lyric kitsch,” sentimental and false because founded on a vacuum of thought, a narrow and even demagogic view of fiction, and a complacent (to say nothing of opportunistic) acquiescence in the world-as-it-is?  Yet even people who are wise to a lot of Wood’s limits still seem to fall for the received opinion about what a wonderful writer he is, what with those gaudy candy-floss metaphors and all.  Like the other received opinions about Wood (that he is widely read, that he is prodigiously intelligent), this one holds up only if his words are read with the same quality of attention that a tired middle-manager is able to devote to them while flipping through the New Yorker on the crowded subway-ride home.     

Then again, if our hypothetical reader happened to be taking the tube home and passing the time reading Wood's critique of Updike's story collection Licks of Love in the 19 April 2001 issue of London Review of Books, she might have encountered the following: "Updike is unduly fond of a certain literary register - that of the mandarin essayist - and certain gauzy words . . ."  Punting a leaf, anyone?

But to return to the essay in Broken Estate, I’ve saved my favorite quote for last:  “Updike, unlike Beckett or Bernhard, never appears to doubt that words can be made to signify, can be made to refer, to mean.”  For Wood to have written this is either breathtaking hypocrisy or a jaw-dropping lack of self-knowledge.  Wood’s aesthetic sympathies and commitments place him as far as possible from writers like Beckett and Bernhard; he has never demonstrated the least capacity to genuinely appreciate or even really understand them.  Nor does the fact of a few such disclaimers scattered sparingly here and there throughout the many pages of his reviews really convince us that Wood has ever, in any serious way, doubted “that words can be made to signify, can be made to refer, to mean.”  See his objections to Barthes in How Fiction Works – Wood, like Updike, is a linguistic positivist for whom the word is a window, even though he’s canny enough to realize that he should hedge his bets now and then. 

It’s possible that Wood’s strange secret-sharer relationship with Updike will somehow prompt him to hold his tongue on the occasion of the latter’s death.  On the other hand, it’s probably also true to say that it seems easier for James Wood to stifle a yawn than to let an opportunity pass for airing his amour propre, in which case we have only to wait for the eulogy in which he tells us that, whatever reservations he may have had about Updike’s work, he always had the profoundest respect etc. etc. etc. etc.  

January 16, 2009

Colson Whitehead's Payback

“We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word. How you arrive is immaterial. What is important now is that you forget all that and learn to read anew. In my literary criticism, I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.”

From Colson Whitehead’s parody of James Wood, “Wow, fiction works!”, in the February issue of Harper’s.  Apparently it is excerpted from a longer piece, “James Root on How to Read,” part of a talk which Whitehead delivered at the Tin House Writer’s Conference last summer.

This is payback for Wood’s 2001 review of John Henry Days, an incredibly patronizing performance in which Wood calls Whitehead’s novel “an African American version of Don DeLillo’s [Underworld]” and spends a number of paragraphs teaching Whitehead how to write proper English.  Wood’s reviews of Colson Whitehead and Toni Morrison are scaly specimens indeed, although it’s the Morrison review that represents Wood’s real Sistah Souljah Moment.

I'm not trying to imply, however, that Wood has a problem with writers of color.  Of the 93 books discussed in How Fiction Works (see the list in HFW's endpages), a whole three of them are by non-"white" authors (four if you count Pushkin - a stretch but I'm trying to be helpful), and one of them is actually an African American!  As Wood says in a preferatory note, "I have used only the books I actually own - the books at hand in my study - to produce this little volume."



[I had planned on posting about Wood’s Whitehead and Morrison reviews at a later date, but given the topical interest I’ve gone back into my notes and drafts in order to present the Whitehead section now.]

James Wood’s review of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days devotes a number of its paragraphs to the novelist’s style, or more specifically to correcting the novelist’s style, because this African-American writer, Wood suggests, doesn’t know how to write in Standard English.  “Whitehead writes what might best be called interesting prose,” he snidely asserts, the scare-quotes around “interesting” so loud that typing them would have been overkill, “extraordinarily uneven, and sometimes even barely comprehensible, not to mention smutted with inexplicable solecisms.” A solecism is a nonstandard or ungrammatical usage – get the drift?

Combining in his person the roles of bull-necked cop, prosecuting attorney, judge, and all-white jury, Wood piles the charges on Whitehead’s prose and finds it guilty on all counts: “imprecise, swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant.”  Notice how Wood’s adjectives are subtly tailored to echo certain unsavory stereotypes, where Black males speak “barely comprehensible” Ebonics full of “solecisms,” and they “swagger” instead of exhibiting self control.  And from what depths of suppressed yuppie hysteria did that “dense, grossly abundant” come from?

But the really telling sentence occurs a couple of paragraphs into this part of the review, where Wood pronounces: “Error is sewn deep into the prose here, and is not easily unpicked.”  Note how the ostensible flaws in Whitehead’s writing go beyond separate slips to become a general condition.  It’s almost like some kind of eugenic birthright, bred in the bone.  Yessir, it’s even easier to straighten hair than prose like this!  But Wood, with missionary zeal, will undertake for several substantial paragraphs, if not to “unpick" the Error, to at least make sure a representative sample of Error’s individual transgressions are pointed out and properly chastised.  Of course we’ve seen this reviewer go on before about the positive or negative qualities of an author’s style, but this particular review has an entirely different quality to it, because on this occasion the author’s style is not simply infelicitous, hackneyed, trendy, wooden, or cartoonish, but wrong.  It amounts to an astonishingly patronizing lecture on ‘correct’ usage in Standard English by a critic rhetorically arrogating to himself the position of – no better word for it – mastery.  Indeed James Wood persists digging in this vein for so long and in so cringe-worthy a manner that we almost suspect him of being comic, of having concealed from us – admittedly for many years and many, many pages of reviews – an actual sense of humor.  But by the time we reach the punch-line – “T.S. Eliot once praised Lancelot Andrewes for having a style that exhibited a mastery of ‘relevant intensities’” – we realize that, alas, it’s just Wood being Wood and helping to keep literature’s bloodlines pure for the Common Reader. 

January 11, 2009

The Best-Dressed Books of 2008

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – yes, it’s the season of those tiresome, compulsory Best of! and Top Ten! lists, including, alas, ‘literary’ lists.  These bullet-point bonanzas are the expression of a marketing sensibility, which means that book-lists bear the same relationship to literature as a Hallmark Valentine does to love.  Yet participation in this annual ritual serves to reinforce certain ideological practices that are crucial to the reproduction of the current culture.  Here – for your post-holiday pleasure – are the top five ideological practices these lists reinforce:

  • the fashion-system (obsession with small differences in the context of a large but unregarded  sameness; the importance of being “up-to-date,” of knowing what the “trends” tell us about our irresistibly fascinating selves, etc.)
  • the star-system (which items are common to most lists? which item will “win”?)
  • the construction of a social and personal identity as the sum of market choices
  • manifest populism (anyone can do it – it’s fun!  What’s your list?)
  • latent elitism (the last word goes to the cultural arbiters)

There’s a spectrum, however, and some types of lists are more honest about functioning in the above terms (Best Dressed/Worst Dressed, for example) while others are more dishonest about it (Best Books lists).  Generally, the higher up the scale of cultural “quality,” the greater the dishonesty.

James Wood has issued his “Ten Favorite Books of 2008” in the New Yorker, but I’m more interested in a consideration of how his own release of the past year, How Fiction Works, fares in these year-end lists.  Here are two timely items from the web, which give us a snapshot of Wood’s place in our culture.

The first item comes from a post on “Book Group Buzz:  A Booklist Blog,” dated January 2, 2009.  Book Group Buzz advertises itself as a “blog about all things book group,” whose purpose is to help book-group coordinators by “talking to you about books that worked well (or books that bombed) and providing organizational tips [and] . . . pointing you to Web sites that offer book club ideas, reading guides, and other useful stuff.”  In other words, something from a rejected scenario for a low-key Christopher Guest-style mockumentary along the lines of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. 

One of the site’s bloggers, professional librarian Neil Hollands, posted the following on the topic of this year’s crop of “Best of” lists:

As each year ends, I compile a list of the best books from the lists published by the various newspapers, publishing journals, and other reviews. I use the list to create displays and distribute it to the readers in my library. This year, I’m getting more exact, using a spreadsheet to track how many votes different books receive. It’s important for book group leaders to watch these lists as well, as most of the books on them will be reprinted in paperback during the upcoming year and thus become prime fodder for selection by your group.

Here’s a preview: In literary fiction, the big winners are David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Joseph O’ Neill’s Netherland. Richard Price’s Lush Life leads the pack of mysteries and thrillers, Jo Graham’s Black Ships is pulling ahead in speculative fiction, and several books are vying for the historical fiction crown. In nonfiction, the leaders are Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution and James Wood’s How Fiction Works.

A spreadsheet and “prime fodder,” i.e., accountancy and cud – I couldn’t think of two more apt symbols for the industrial reality behind the sheen of “literary fiction.”  Hollands’ précis gives us a glimpse into the whole factory farm:  from the media megaconglomerates (what used, quaintly, to be called “publishers”), to the their list-making mouthpieces and shills (sometimes referred to as “critics”), to the libraries and book clubs, and from thence to the . . . consumer.  

Among the fiction bests that Holland has compiled we can see two of the novels that James Wood gave props to in the past year, Price’s high-end (well, sort of Business-Class-of-the-airport-novel) police procedural Lush Life, and O’Neill’s turd-in-treacle Ninnyland – the latter of which has the additional honor of being the first title mentioned in Wood’s own list of 2008 favorites (see my earlier post about how such a nominating process simultaneously constructs and dissimulates "literary fiction" as a marketing category). 

Among the nonfiction titles, we find Wood’s How Fiction Works neck in neck with Entertainment Weekly-writer Mark Harris’s book about five movies that changed Hollywood.

Let’s pause here for a moment of reflection.

Moving along, our second item comes from a January 4 article in the Books section of the Providence Journal online, called “Our reviewers pick their favorites for 2008, Part II”.  I am taking the liberty of reproducing the entire five-item list of one of their reviewers – you have to read through the whole thing to really get the flavor:

PANIC IN LEVEL 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science, by Richard Preston (Random House, $26). Through six essays in separate disciplines, Preston honors the scientists working to solve pressing scientific puzzles — a mathematical formula for Pi, species-jumping parasites, DNA, the Ebola virus — in prose clear enough for the novice to partially grasp.

SUPREME COURTSHIP, by Christopher Buckley (Hatchette Book Group, $24.99). As David Lodge is to Academe, Christopher Buckley is to Washington. Here he provides a hilarious take on the Supreme Court nominating process, the one we all suffer through when a justice dies or steps down. It’s astonishing how Buckley anticipates a magnetic frontier woman who bolts onto the national stage.

HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Wood (FSG, $24). Wood, book critic for The New Yorker and professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, has produced a book for those seeking to upgrade their skills both as readers and as writers. The first chapter will pull you in where Wood finds a point of comparison between Henry James’ What Massie Knew and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

MY THREE FATHERS, AND THE ELEGANT DECEPTIONS Of MY MOTHER SUSAN MARY ALSOP, by William Patten (Public Affairs, $27.95). At 47, Patten learned that his biological father was not the man he knew and loved, but in fact the British diplomat, Duff Cooper. Patten is no crybaby and made much of the life he was given, stumbling along the way like the rest of us. This memoir depicts a rarified and glittering era that has all but vanished, and Patten, ever forgiving, does not regret its departure.

GOSSIP Of THE STARLINGS, by Nina De Gramont (Algonquin Books, $22.95). Far and away my favorite novel of the year, De Gramont tells a coming-of-age story involving three privileged girls. With exuberant and sparkling prose, much like the adolescents it describes, she builds excruciating suspense as these alluring alpha girls flex their magnetic power with naive abandon.

The reviewer’s name is – Mandy Twaddell.

January 1, 2009

Gutless Realism: James Wood’s Housebroken Bolaño

There are times when James Wood indulges his professional vanity in so blatant a fashion that one is tempted to feel embarrassed for him.  Fortunately these moments occur in pieces the rest of whose contents remove the temptation – let him go ahead and embarrass himself!  How Fiction Works, for example, is dedicated to novelist Norman Rush and Rush’s wife, to telegraph the idea that Wood is on intimate terms with – and even taken seriously by – real writers.  Just in case we missed the point, however, on page 4 he writes, “W.G. Sebald once said to me . . .”  More recently we have the example of his review of Patrick French’s V.S. Naipaul biography; Wood opens the article with the story of his own encounter with the forbidding novelist, which reads very much like something out of Paul Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, writ small.  Ostensibly intended to illustrate a consistent duality in Naipaul’s personality, the anecdote’s subtext – in screaming neon – is that the young critic’s literary intelligence had more than met the novelist’s exacting standards. “The Naipaul who took me to lunch that day was different from the horrid interviewee. Stern father had become milder uncle. ‘It’s a buffet system here. Don’t pile everything onto one plate’ . . .

As luck would have it James Wood didn’t meet Roberto Bolaño before the latter’s death in 2003 (I imagine the prodigiously retentive reviewer having to use up an entire bottle of antiseptic hand-gel in such an encounter’s wake), but Wood still manages to come up with a self-serving personal aside to buttonhole us with in the first paragraph of his 2007 New York Times review of Savage Detectives:

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño's reputation, in English at least, has  been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, "The Savage Detectives," will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño's name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño's extraordinary novella "By Night in Chile."

Did you catch that?  I am not a bandwagon jumper, he declaims from his perch atop the bandwagon (now, thankfully for critics of Wood’s ilk, a hearse), I know the top-secret handshake, I was in the word-of-mouth loop . . .

It’s a curious review.  With his Saramago piece, at least, one got the feeling that Wood, in some baffled way, genuinely admired the Nobel laureate’s books, even as his personal biases and professional blinders compelled him to misread and misrepresent (or, to use Saramago’s own words, “to dilute and obscure”).  The Bolaño review reads a little more like an assignment, and Wood lets us know early on that in his opinion Bolaño’s best work isn’t Savage Detectives but rather the novella that his lodge-brother from the anecdote lent him, By Night in Chile, a book whose protagonist, writes Wood, “comes to emblematize . . . the silent complicity of Chilean literary establishment with the murderous Pinochet regime.”  This is sheer brazenness coming from the establishment figure who was the New Republic’s lead reviewer in the years when it was pounding war-drums on behalf of a regime many times more murderous than Pinochet’s, and one can imagine Wood smiling as his dancing fingers tapped the line out on his keyboard.  It’s just a bit of context, after all, to help set up the quotation from By Night in Chile that is the centerpiece of his appreciation of Bolaño, whom he sees as a practitioner, along with Saramago, Sebald, and others, of the contemporary long-sentence form.  Wood unpacks a formidable example from the novella and even feels stirred to offer one of his trademark “fine writing” metaphors in response:  The musical control is impeccable,” he enthuses, “and one is struck by Bolaño's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence — impossibly, like someone punting a leaf — image by image.”  There’s more to be said about that leaf-punting metaphor, but for now it will suffice as an example of Wood’s showiness, as if the image had occurred to him at some time in the past and he had been waiting, like a bore at a party, for just the right time to spring it on a group of listeners, even if he must strain to steer the conversation in the right direction.  For it is one of this review’s curiosities that the metaphor-bedizened run-ons of By Night in Chile turn out not to be as prominent a feature of Savage Detectives as Wood’s treatment suggests.  This is not to say that long sentences are absent from Savage Detectives – some of the novel’s first-person testimonials make use of them, others do not, depending on the speaker – but reading Wood’s review by itself would leave one with the mistaken impression that the entire book had been spooled out of examples as rococo as the flight of fancy quoted from the novella.[1]  Once Wood turns his attention to Savage Detectives proper, however, the enthusiasm he showed for the earlier volume becomes more tempered; the best he can muster is a candidate blurb for a future paperback reprint – “wildly enjoyable!” – and the fainter praise of pointing out how Bolaño courts yet ultimately avoids various postmodern pitfalls that other writers (by implication the so-called hysterical, rather than visceral, realists) would have pitched headfirst into.  

So what is going on in this odd review?  Wood esteems the earlier By Night in Chile and manages to find things he likes about the more recent novel, but it is clearly not love that has prompted him to the labor of a Bolaño review.  In several earlier posts I have been developing the argument that James Wood’s reviewing often works by domesticating novels that are not examples of domestic fiction to begin with, and that is certainly the case in his review of Savage Detectives.  It is almost as if Wood needs to respond, not to Bolaño’s work, but rather to his reputation, his growing popularity.  There is a contradiction at the heart of the rise of Roberto Bolaño in the English-speaking countries that has been nicely outlined by Ilan Stavans in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Witnessing Bolaño's canonization in academe has been fascinating. Barely a few years ago, he was a don nadie, a supreme nobody; now The New Yorker puts its imprimatur on him with a review, he's a household name at symposia, and he's taught as a refreshing perspective, a kind of Jack Kerouac for the new millennium.


And why Bolaño now? Because once again, literature in the West seems to have grown complacent: It isn't so much written as manufactured. The genres dictated by mainstream publishing are suffocating. We're in need of a prophet — or an enfant terrible — to wake us from our slumber.

Of course, the way to neutralize a prophet is to tame him through acclaim. Bolaño would have laughed in particular at his arrival in Spanish departments. His mordant tongue frequently attacked the holy cows: He described writers like Octavio Paz, Isabel Allende, and Diamela Eltit as complacent, solipsistic, and tedious. With Borges, he built his own parallel aesthetic tradition, a rebel's gallery of outlaws and pariahs. And yet he is now moving steadily to the center of the curriculum.

“To tame him through acclaim” – yes.  But when it comes to the actual mechanics of such a procedure, more than sheer acclaim might be necessary.  This is where professional domesticators such as James Wood come in.  If there’s no way to stem the burgeoning Bolaño tide, then the effort must be made to direct it into the proper – safer – channels.

We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature.  It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.  Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel.  Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.”  In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things.  Wood, you see, likes a book with a healthy “message” – it needs to be “about” something that will keep children and servants in line with middle-class morality.  And if the book is not really “about” that at all, then like any good media pundit he will spin it, cherry-picking the two or three examples that might best support his thesis.  Here’s one:  “A painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: ‘They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either’.”  See how this works?  Here are a few more:

An Israeli friend of Ulises Lima's says that the importance of the poets' lives had nothing to do with visceral realism: "It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it and what we can regain." He continues, and says that what we have lost we can regain, "we can get it back intact." Can we? Minutes after delivering this wisdom this same man dies in a car accident. A Mexican academic, interviewed late in the novel, says that hardly anyone remembers the visceral realists anymore. Many are dead. Lima, he says, is living in Mexico City. "About Arturo Belano," he says, "I know nothing." This is finally how the novel makes good on its playful, postmodern impulses.

I love that last touch – a novel with “playful, postmodern impulses” is OK as long as it ends in sackcloth and ashes (i.e., “realism,” but not of the visceral variety).  Reading Wood’s review, in fact, you would actually think that Savage Detectives was a book about apostasy.  Wood even includes, apropos of very little, a quote from that arch-apostate Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”  Superficially the quotation is supposed to apply to the sad fates of Belano, Lima and their cronies in the novel, but Wood is completely aware of its full resonance and has no doubt chosen it with that in mind.  Bolaño and Wordsworth – it’s hard to think of a less suitable literary association; it tells us little about Bolaño’s sensibility or the book’s, although it speaks volumes about the reviewer.[2]

Contra Wood, The Savage Detectives articulates the stubborn persistence of a utopia of poetry (poetry in its broadest sense, not just verse but the subversive transformation of daily life by the “marvelous”) in the face of history’s sharpest disappointments.  This utopia persists precisely to the extent that it has not appeared; it is the “absent center” of the novel itself.  Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are the trägers, the bearers, of “poetry” for young Juan Garcia Madero and many the novel’s other characters, just as, in a kind of infinite regression, Cesárea Tinajero of the original “Visceral Realist” generation is poetry’s träger for Lima and Belano.  Yet the pair’s rediscovery of Tinajero leads to her demise, and Belano and Lima themselves fade away.  Nobody therefore really occupies “the place of poetry,” but it is this very fact which keeps poetry alive as a radical possibility, as – to switch to a different idiom – une promesse de bonheur.  At another level, the death of Tinajero and the play of Bolaño-Belano in the context of the absence from the novel of the alter-ego’s point of view all suggest an effacing of author-as-authority.  Could “the author,” even a nominally radical author, really be a kind of caudillo that needs to be displaced?  If this is the case, then if anything perishes in the course of the novel it is the elitism that was such a prominent if problematic feature of much twentieth-century aesthetic and political vanguardism, here giving way not to restorationist ‘maturity’ but to an ostensibly more radically democratic and indigenous aesthetic, “from below.”  And in fact we can see precisely this sort of working-out of a historical and cultural dialectic in the very form of The Savage Detectives.  On the one hand, the novel’s comprehensive, epic ambitions – it is nothing less than the life-cycle of a generation – and its carnivalesque juggling of voices and chronologies call to mind the great ‘high modernist’ novels of El Boom – of Marquez and Cortazar, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes.  These novels were the products of a period of Latin American optimism and self-assertion in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.  Yet Savage Detective’s most fundamental structuring device is the testimonio, the first-person testimonial-style narrative that came to occupy an important place in Latin American prose in the period after the Boom.[3]  This was the period not of revolution and self-assertion but of reaction and retrenchment, of dictatorships and death-squads, and its predominant literary mode is correspondingly both more chastened and more populist – a bedrock of fugitive resistance.  The Savage Detectives, then, may be read as a Boom novel filtered through, and revised by, the post-Boom testimonial, in the service of creating a new form that includes its own prehistory.  It's a feat of insurgent literary zapatismo.

Once again, however, Wood’s ideological biases will not allow him to read the novel that is actually in front of him.  Instead, ever the Restorationist, he must turn Savage Detectives into one more accommodation with existing “reality,” a specific social arrangement that he wishes his readers to take for a metaphysical absolute.  Think of it as another sortie of James Wood’s arrière-garde literary movement, Gutless Realism.

Earlier in the review, in a brief biographical sketch of Bolaño, Wood writes, “Returning to Chile in 1973 to help with the socialist revolution as he saw it, he was caught in the Pinochet coup and briefly arrested.  As he saw it”– in a single, sniffy phrase, Wood dispenses with Bolaño’s leftism as if it were a dirty old sock found among his freshly laundered and triple-starched tighty-whities (he’ll have to have a word with Consuela, the housekeeper, about that sock!).  But his refuse is our rose, so we’ll tarry for another whiff:  “The socialist revolution as he saw it.”  This means, of course, that Wood himself doesn’t see “it” – the whole social process unfolding around the embattled leftist government of Salvador Allende – “that” way.  Somehow I doubt that Wood is criticizing the Allende government from the left, for its reformist timidity and half-measures. No, that phrase – “as he saw it” – is Wood’s way of distancing himself from any of that leftist taint, that socialist stink.  “Yes,” he’s telling his readers (and employers), “I’m about to give this seedy punk’s book a good review, but don’t think for a minute that it means I’m no longer clubbable” (likewise he would never put “U.S.-backed” in front of “the Pinochet coup”). 

It’s a priceless moment, but I know that many of you would rather vote for “like someone punting a leaf” as your favorite phrase, as this review’s most preciously Woodsian locution.  It’s a real specimen, after all, of the much-vaunted Wood “style” – maybe you’ll even cut it out of The New York Times and press it, like a flower, between the pages of Savage Detectives.  But I think you should take “as he saw it” along with “like someone punting a leaf.”  They go together, really, the former being the root, as it were, of the latter’s foliage.  For this is how Wood’s style works:  what he’s able to appreciate, and how he appreciates it, is dependent on what he won’t allow himself, or his readers, to see. 

Punting is, of course, a term from soccer, and in the context of this particular article it makes certain associations unavoidable.  Bolaño managed to get away from the U.S.-backed Pinochet coup, but thousands of others, that grim September eleventh, were not so lucky, and after being rounded up by the armed forces they were interned, infamously, in – the soccer stadiums.  Up to forty thousand were held in Santiago’s big Estadio Nacional; thousands of others, including the folk-musician Victor Jara, were kept in the Estadio Chile.  Of these, many hundreds – mostly leftists who had been “helping the socialist revolution as they saw it” – were soon to be tortured, or murdered, or were simply “disappeared.”

In an earlier post I quoted a long passage from John Felstiner’s Paul Celan:  Poet, Survivor, Jew, about a review of Celan’s volume Mohn und Gedächtnis by a German critic, Hans Egon Holthusen, who was intent on (mis)reading Celan’s poetry in a way that would further the cause of German self-exoneration in the wake of the Holocaust.  The very terms by which Holthusen sought to praise Celan betrayed the grotesqueness of his project of cultural whitewashing:

Celan has “mastered” a technique of repetition, says Holthusen, disregarding the use of “master” in "Todesfuge."  He is congratulated for “singing” a ghastly event, even as the commandant tells his Jews to “sing up and play.”  The poet has “overcome” a staggering theme – here Holthusen’s verb is bewältigen, as if Celan were part of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming the past”).  This gruesome theme “can escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors to rise into the ether of pure poetry.”  But it was the Jews in Celan’s poem who rose into ether, never the poem; not “Todesfuge” but its German readers who wanted to “escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors.” 

Some of the same creepy frisson comes through in the way that Wood treats Bolaño.  Holthusen wrote of “the ether of pure poetry” rising from the death chambers; for Wood, helping out his adopted nation with its own project of cultural amnesia, it’s “punting a leaf.”  But as with Holthusen’s rhetorical choices, this one can’t help but point back to the scene of the crime, and bear a trace of the very thing it’s meant, oh-so ‘aesthetically’, to transcend. 


[1]  The short essay on Bolaño in the Fall 2008 n+1, in fact, offers a perspective on the Chilean’s style that is the exact opposite of Wood’s:

Bolaño can write page after page without indulging in a single metaphor, or adding a dab of rhetorical color to the account of a dinner party or a murder. Of course you can find perfect sentences in Bolaño, and crazy metaphors too, but for the most part he proceeds as if literature were too desperate an enterprise to bother with being well written. The rationale for his antieloquence belongs to the internal dynamic of any modern language: an idiom encrusted with poeticisms needs a solvent bath. But for Latin Americans of Bolaño's generation there may also be political grounds for preferring writing degree zero to purple haze. One more disgusting feature of the Argentine junta (it is Argentines who predominate in Bolaño's gallery of imaginary Nazi writers) was the generals' magniloquence.

Wood, then, was responding to (and enthusiastically over-generalizing, if you’ll excuse the pun) a sample of such magniloquence that had been successfully ventriloquized by Bolaño.  One silently complicit, morally somnolent literary-establishment figure resonating to another. 

[2]  If there is any figure from era of the English Romantics who could be compared with Bolaño, it is Shelley, but I offer this only as a vaccine to the restorationist comparison put forward by Wood.  It’s always a risky exercise to assimilate Latin American writers, as part of the process of culturally vetting and “approving” them, to canonized English-language writers.  The novelists of El Boom, for example, were routinely recommended to readers in much U.S criticism on the basis of their being “like” Joyce or Woolf or – the favored comparison in such cases – Faulkner.  That gesture is being repeated today, even by people who ought to know better, such as Benjamin Kunkel, who writes of Savage Detectives:

It’s something close to a miracle that Bolaño can produce such intense narrative interest in a book made up of centrifugal monologues spinning away from two absentee main characters, and the diary entries of its most peripheral figure. And yet, in spite of the book’s apparent (and often real) formlessness, a large part of its distinction is its virtually unprecedented achievement in multiply-voiced narration. The confessional or first-person novel done in multiple voices was an important Modernist mode, a logical extension of the tendency towards authorial self-effacement that we associate with Flaubert. English speakers will think of ‘The Nighttown’ section of Ulysses, Dos Passos’s USA, The Waves, and – probably the most successful – several of Faulkner’s novels.

[3]  The best-known example of the testimonio is, of course, I, Rigoberta Menchú; adaptations of the testimonio-form for works of fiction include Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Manilo Argueta’s One Day of Life, and Elena Poniatowska’s Here’s to You, Jesusa!