"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

January 29, 2010

The Birth of Literary Fiction from the Spirit of Bathos

The secret of James Wood’s criticism lies in its revision of a myth – that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Wood’s restaging of this ancient tale – found nowhere in his work, yet implicit in every sentence he writes – is distinguished from all others by the novelty of a heedful, one might almost say law-abiding, protagonist.

As in other accounts, the song-master Orpheus descends into the vasty deeps of the Underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice, where his plaint so stirs the hearts of heavy-lidded Hades and blue-lipped Persephone that they grant him the unprecedented privilege of fetching his dead wife back to the land of the living. But on one condition: Walk before her on your way, and, while you are still within the borders of our dark demesne, do not set eyes upon her. Don’t look back!

In Wood’s retelling, you can see Orpheus’s lips move as he gets these instructions by heart. Then, confident of success, he makes his way towards the Exit sign, followed by the soft footfalls of his bloodless bride. But as he nears the threshold, a cold wind rises up from the caverns behind him, carrying a haunting whisper: Fail again . . . Fail better . . .

Orpheus experiences a pang of temptation, a sudden and almost irresistible impulse to turn…

As luck would have it, however, there’s this tiny cartoon figure hanging out on the side of the cave, see? His name is Jiminy Critic, and he’s got a little top hat and a little English accent – very cute! And he hops onto Orpheus’s shoulder and squeaks – well, really he’s shouting but it comes out like a high, piping squeak – “Don’t look back, Orpheus! Ignore those whispers and remember your instructions!

Orpheus nods to himself, resolved. Quite right, better not look back! He leads Eurydice across the threshold of the underworld and keeps going until they’re really quite a good distance away – in fact they’re already in a forest clearing by the time Eurydice taps him on his shoulder (the other one, without the Critic on it).

Orpheus turns – it’s her! Eurydice! Orpheus! Darling! They fall into each other’s arms. Success! Reunited! No crumbling to dust or vanishing into thin air! And no maenads to tear him apart! Everything ruddy and shiny and whole! Success! Sweet, sweet success! They settle down to a nice little domesticity, having tea, talking about their day. And then, at night . . . but we won’t go there – it wouldn’t be tactful! Suffice it to say: Mission Accomplished! And a few months later – look! – out pops Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children! And then Ian McEwan’s Saturday! And Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland!

Orpheus turns to the camera, winks, and gives a big thumbs-up – Thanks, Jiminy!

“Remember kids – always let your Critic be your guide!”


12 comments:

Steven Augustine said...

Comrade Edmond: we're stumped, and happily defer to your greater knowledge: who, exactly, is able to beat you at the rarefied game of the hypno-bardic essay...?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Only comrade Sean!

Steven Augustine said...

Where IS your co-hypno-bard these days, anyway...?

Edmond Caldwell said...

I've no idea . . . he's slipped his lead, has he?

NigelBeale said...

So, Mr. Wood charms birds, fish and wild beasts, cajoles trees and rocks into dance,channels the course of rivers...and writes Disneyfied criticism...while Edmond plays Pinnocchio

Edmond Caldwell said...

Um, Nigel? I know it's very complicated, but in the story, Wood isn't Orpheus, he's a completely different character . . . Next time, try reading.

NigelBeale said...

Let's see now...Eurydice?

With Edmond as the all-knowing, all-powerful Zeus? whose only weakness: insatiable lust?

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks, Nigel, but I really see myself more along the lines of a Prometheus (Shelley's version, naturally).

NigelBeale said...

Fiercely championing free will, goodness, idealism and the unAmerican way in the face of oppression as embodied by JW?

Steven Augustine said...

(to the tune of "Funkel, funkel, kleiner Stern"): "When you lick upon a Czar, makes no diff how thick you are ..."

But, seriously, folks.

Stockton Malone said...

This is the incendiary prologue to your CJW volume. Someone alert Random House.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"Stockton Malone" hmm? I don't know why, but I'm getting a Jazz vibe...