The Fun Stuff

In The Fun Stuff, James Wood once again shows us that his criticism always grows from the same seed: his remarkable ability to tell us exactly what makes a writer’s style idiosyncratic. More than anything, as a critic Wood is a microscopically close reader, and these close readings most often revolve around the small nuances in diction and register that make an author’s style his or her own. From these tiny but crucial bits of literary substrate, Wood constructs his towering opinions, his readings of what novels are attempting to say. The weight that Wood puts on a sensitivity to style becomes clear during his insightful encomium to Edmund Wilson, where he breaks from the piece’s plodding rhythm to stridently take the critic to task. Wilson’s crime? Bulldozing the great Chekhov into homogeneity: “One reads Wilson on Chekhov without any sense that beauty is involved, or that the critic wants to account for it. One feels only that yet another writer has been mastered.” Later in the same essay, Wood again dings Wilson for his inability to let a text be itself: “It is the desire of literature to ‘make its points and the meaning of the points it is making’ that leads Wilson into the coercions of paraphrase again and again.”

Wood rarely, if ever, submits to the “coercions of paraphrase.” With probably greater care than any other critic working today he sifts through every last word of a text to account for its peculiar way of functioning, its individual character, its particular aspirations. He always gives the impression that he is looking deeper and more thoroughly than any of us is capable of. In The Fun Stuff‘s title essay, for instance, Wood shows how something as quotidian as a drumbeat can be imbued with a signature sound. In a few elegant pages Wood lays bare how rock ‘n’ roll drummers function, letting him then explain why Keith Moon broke the mold — and why we should care.

Wood continually does this with a striking degree of concision and clarity. Take his praise of Lydia Davis’s collected works: “[A] grand cumulative achievement comes into view — a body of work probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom.” Wood likes to begin with these sorts of grand-summation remarks before launching into a much more magnified examination of the work in question, but even at flyover altitude his discernment is impressive. Notice how each of those descriptive words and phrases stakes out a distinct portion of Davis’s terrain, interlocking just enough to form a complete, almost Cubist sketch of her writing. Across the sweep of an essay, this is how Wood works: he critiques a work facet by facet, always implying how the facets fit together to form a distinct shape.

In addition to this critical/descriptive mode, Wood also has an interpretive mode, and he can give a very interesting reading of a novel when sufficiently moved. His particularly valuable takes in this book cover Sebald’s Austerlitz, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Norman Rush’s Mortals, and the careers of Orwell, Marilynne Robison, and Ian McEwan. Occasionally Wood uses structure to great effect, as when he lets the quote “I don’t know how it was where you were, but here in this fleeting life…” surface repeatedly throughout his review of Never Let Me Go, each time acquiring a new layer of significance, until, when it appears as the review’s last line, it speaks for itself.

Wood plays to another strength when he lets his love of literature intersect with his interest in religion. Despite some didacticism, his excellent essay on Robert Alter’s translation of the Bible gives an ample sensation of what he calls “peering into the crucible of theodicy.” Likewise, literature and religion blend harmoniously in his review of Robinson’s work, where he comes close to pushing the texts into the territory of philosophical inquiry. And one must appreciate the sheer technical ability with which Wood fits the bulk of Norman Rush’s doorstopper, Mortals, into a dense thirteen pages, giving the impression that he has inspected every detail in this cavernous book with a magnifying glass.

With Wood’s ever-tight focus on the rhetoric of fiction in The Fun Stuff, and with this collection following on the heels of his book-length inquiry into the same matters, How Fiction Works, it now seems clear that Wood is our culture’s heir to the great New Critic Wayne Booth. The latter gave us two books describing the inner workings of literature — The Rhetoric of Fiction and A Rhetoric of Irony — that have yet to be bested. Booth’s particular genius was to make the mechanics of literature feel crucial to the broader aspects of culture and philosophy of which they were a part. This was something Wood’s idol, Roland Barthes, also did with true genius, and it is something Wood’s own criticism lacks. As pleasing as Wood’s close readings of texts usually are, they never feel revelatory in the manner of Booth and Barthes. In fact, reading Wood’s essays in quick succession drives home the fundamental similarity to all of his criticism. This is both good and bad. Such clearly defined, rigorously held standards show an impressive dedication to the critic’s job; but on the other hand, one expects that a critic as clearly talented as Wood will push his talent to greater range, more independence of thought.

As a collection of work, The Fun Stuff is a reasonably good selection, although some obtrusive points do emerge. One wonders why this collection was titled “the fun stuff,” the books under consideration lacking any common denominator, much less one ostensibly related to the title. Additionally, the only decidedly negative piece in this collection, “Paul Auster’s Shallowness,” makes for an odd distraction from the other work here. When tearing down Auster, Wood loses the grace that he so routinely displays when praising an author. He begins this essay with a cruel parody of Auster’s style (the same trick he pulled in his famous takedown of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth), and he relentlessly hammers that style throughout the review: “[T]here are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, but the prose is never one of them”; “which is a fancy way of saying that his sentences and paragraphs are quite conventional…and his larger plots are almost always ridiculous”; “[W]hat Auster often gets is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism”; “[Y]ou will notice that the novel’s narration has switched from first person to third person — and that the novel’s prose has not adjusted its awfulness.” When Wood is not harassing Auster for his (admittedly) uninspired prose style, he makes quite lucid points about the homogeneity of his work and its shallowness compared to that of other postmodernists. Still, while one agrees with the content of Wood’s critique, one also wonders about the value of delivering it. If you’re going to deliver the coup de grâce to an author’s reputation, it shouldn’t be done, as it is here, dutifully.    

The other main critique is that, with the possible exception of Ben Lerner, The Fun Stuff keeps to well-honored authors that will be familiar to most readers. This is certainly not the biggest gripe to level at a book, but one longs for Wood to more frequently join his fellow critic William H. Gass in the task of sticking up for the outcasts and the underappreciated.

Nonetheless, after spending several hours immersed in Wood’s criticism, a reader cannot help but come away with a sharper eye and a deeper appreciation of literary prose. Wood may very well be the closest reader of our time — not a small achievement — and he has the capacity to say things about writers that no one else does. Reading The Fun Stuff, we are able to see how a powerful mind goes about comprehending a book. That in itself makes Wood worth reading, and reading closely.