The Fun Stuff
By James Wood
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The lighthearted cover and title of Wood’s latest collection suggest a self-conscious turnaround from its starkly jacketed, arrogantly named 2008 predecessor, How Fiction Works. And the opening title-piece is an homage not to one of the eminent literary critic’s writerly pet favorites but to Keith Moon, whose drumming, writes Wood, was entirely the improv between phrases—the fills, the fun stuff. All signs point to a midlife-crisis makeover for Wood, but despite the profanity and iffy attempts to recreate the excitement of The Who’s music, the essay is the collection’s humblest (“sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for still being such a merely good student.”) Save one other, it’s also the only one not about literature, though even it finds space for Lawrence, Gogol and Georges Bataille.
The title and opening piece might lead you to expect only positive essays on Wood’s cherished books, but the majority of the book is the writer’s usual balance of pro and paternalistic con, examined with stylistic criticism at the micro level while shunning literary theory, which is what he’s known for. The essays—first published in The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and The New Republic—include a championing of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland that doubles as another of Wood’s confrontations with Zadie Smith, and an unabashed slobbering over the novelist Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home), which, by the end, finds Wood giving up: “it is all the critic can do not to catch from it, as in this review, the contagion of ceaseless quotation, a fond mumbling.”
Those “ceaseless quotations” are a Wood trademark, and in a long, excellent essay on the great man of letters (and New Yorker book critic) Edmund Wilson, Wood criticizes his forerunner’s preference for the alternative of paraphrase, which he feels Wilson used to squish and flatten works to fill his own calcified personal tastes. (Wood is quick to praise Wilson’s well-readness and brilliance with historic-biographical portraiture.) Wood’s criticisms of Wilson’s stodginess (impatience with the “ironies and veils” of modern lit) echo those often leveled against himself, which are rebutted less by the “rockin’” Keith Moon detour than by fresh, incisive pieces like a funny and acidic takedown of Paul Auster’s “shallowness” and by fine passages like this, from an intelligently prevaricating deconstruction of Orwell: “it is easy to gloat over Orwell’s contradictions… contradictions are what make writers interesting; consistency is for cooking.”