In the fifteen years since he first began reviewing books for a living, the British writer James Wood has established himself as perhaps the strongest, and strangest, literary critic we have. In his frequent essays for The New Republic (where he is a senior editor) and various other publications on both sides of the Atlantic, Wood combines an elegant literary style and magisterial command of the canon with a fierce moral passion that threatens, at times, to come slightly unhinged.
Wood, who was brought up in an evangelical sect of the Church of England, combines an evangelical fervor with a high-church notion of literary seriousness. “The child of evangelicalism,” he has written, “if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference.” As a critic Wood is never indifferent. Not for him the polite gratitude for the halfway decent literary novel, let alone the grubbier pleasures of the juicy read. Even books he acknowledges to have “brilliance,” such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, can ultimately be deemed to be bad—not just bad for us, but a threat to true literary enterprise itself.
Wood leaves little doubt what that enterprise should be. He is that rare critic nowadays who goes beyond the necessary ad-hockery of book reviewing to propound a theory of fiction. Even when he seems to be engaged in mere plot summary and quotation, you can feel him thinking, arguing, positioning the work in question around his own powerful center of gravity.
Wood’s big idea, expounded in his 1999 essay collection The Broken Estate, is that in the middle of the nineteenth century the distinctions between religious belief and literary belief began to blur. Thanks to books like Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus, writers and theologians alike began to look at the Gospels as fictional tales—valuable not as a source of literal truth but for their poetry and moral lessons. At the same time, writers, with Flaubert leading the charge, began to turn literature itself into a quasi religion. Is it any surprise, Wood asks, that it was precisely at the height of the European novel that writers began to worry the line between religious and literary belief?
For it was not just science but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’s divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative—and then in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative.
Wood may oppose this blurring, but his own critical terms bear a distinct theological stamp. Above all, Wood is obsessed with the question of free will in fiction. For Wood, “fiction is a special realm of freedom.” True literature does not just somehow grant its characters freedom to outrun their creators’ intentions. It also acknowledges the freedom of its readers to stop believing—to “close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.” Our freedom to deny a writer’s reality, Wood writes,
is the true secularism of fiction—why, despite itself being a kind of magic, it is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity. Fiction moves in the shadow of a doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case.
Wood is ruthless when it comes to sniffing out falsity in fiction. He despises both the bogus, bullying “miracles” of magical realism and the manic notetaking of today’s social novelists, from Tom Wolfe to Jonathan Fran-zen. Instead of chasing after mere “social news,” the novel should keep its beady eye on the subtler motions of character and consciousness. Fiction, in his view, should unfold as “a free scatter through time, unpressed, incontinent, unhostaged; surprised by the shock of its unhindered passage through frontiers it, and not history, has invented.”
Wood has his gods: Chekhov, Lawrence, Woolf. But to read Wood’s essays on contemporary writers is to be treated mostly to a litany of failure. English fiction is fact-addled and overly knowing—plagued by the “hysterical realism” of Zadie Smith and Salman Rush- die; the airless intellectual gamesmanship of Julian Barnes; the “bossy authorial intrusion” of A.S. Byatt or Margaret Drabble; the “shallow,” “easy” comedy of Kingsley and Martin Amis. There are some exceptions: the late German writer and honorary Englishman W.G. Sebald, for example, or Ian McEwan on his good days. But Wood’s final tally offered in The Broken Estate is bleak: only two characters of true “depth or life”—Mr. Biswas and Miss Jean Brodie—in about forty years.
Things are just as bad on this side of the Atlantic. The “characteristic products” of American fiction, he has written, are
books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things—the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!—but do not know a single human being.
The summa of these tendencies is DeLillo’s cold war epic Underworld, which Wood damns for its pasteboard characters, for the “glamorous untruth” of its politics, for being “more paranoid than [J. Edgar Hoover] himself.”
But DeLillo is hardly the only one that Wood accuses of cheating at fiction. Toni Morrison’s Paradise, rather than creating a world the reader can believe in, “forces magic and pure rhapsodies on its characters like a demented anesthetist bullying patients with laughing gas.” The jokey asides of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon “act like the money that politicians used to throw to voters from the car: they distract us from the truth.” (“The writer-critic,” Wood has written in his essay on Virginia Woolf’s own metaphor-heavy book reviewing, “is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Indeed.) John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies is “theologically complacent,” devoid of “negative capability,” and excessively well written. Instead of chronicling its central character’s loss of faith, Wood writes, “it sounds as if Updike is reviewing [it] for The New Yorker.”
So it seems only sporting that Wood has joined in the fiction game and, with his first novel, The Book Against God, put his own negative capability—and a version of his own loss of faith—up for review. The book, at first glance, is almost ostentatiously modest, a scant 257 pages of personal confession narrated by one Thomas Bunting, a thirtysomething philosophy doctoral student caught up in dissertation turnaround and marital crisis.
As the book opens, Tom is living in an underfurnished apartment in London’s Finchley Road, collecting the dole and working on two very slippery logical proofs. First, he has to prove to his estranged wife, a concert pianist named Jane Sheridan, that he is no longer a compulsive liar. But he seems far more occupied with the second proof, contained in a swelling set of notebooks he has dubbed “The Book Against God,” or BAG. In it, Tom copies out various religious and antireligious passages from his wayward reading, and works up arguments of his own about the existence of God.
Tom stands firmly on the negative side. His main beef is the problem of evil—“the world vandalizes the face of God,” he says. The BAG is part of an ongoing if mostly covert debate with Tom’s recently dead father, a superhumanly genial former theology professor who gave up his university position for a dwindling parish in Northern England, outside Durham.
Instead of working on his Ph.D., Tom prefers lolling in bed reading the maddening writings of religious apologists—the atheist’s version of compulsive exercise. He picks fights about God with just about everyone except his father:
Really, I’m quite addicted to theological discussion, and like nothing better than the argumentative wrestle over God…. I want to be what a nineteenth-century thinker called an athlete of reason. But my father always made me feel, as it were, fat and short of breath, because he was himself a kind of athlete of reason while simultaneously a knight of faith. So we never had this kind of discussion.
Thomas has reviewed his father’s faith and found it maddeningly free of any imperfections or agonies. In an article for a theological journal, his father can make a self-satisfied joke about the resurrection because he suffers no doubts about what he calls “lift-off,” as if it were simply a matter of hydraulics. “Father and the theologians,” complains Thomas, “were in this together,…judging the world from the citadel of their own strength, rather than joining the world in the shelter of its weakness.” The priest even keeps a jaunty sticker on his Bible: “This is an advance copy sent in lieu of proof.”
But Thomas needs the proof. His own loss of faith began in his teenage years, when he and his friend Max started a philosophical society “dedicated to the frank discussion of atheism, amorality, and decadence” against a soundtrack of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Deepening immersion in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche may raise the tone a bit, but his revolt against bourgeois mental and physical hygiene retains a distinctly adolescent feel. “There’s a case to be made that washing is not especially philosophical,” he declares from his depressing bachelor apartment. “Plotinus preferred massages to bathing. Saint Jerome argued that those who have been washed in the water of Christ do not need to bathe.” (Lacking the wafer of Christ, he polishes himself with suntan lotion.)
Thomas’s decaying marriage also suffers grievously with comparison to his parents’ incorruptible uxoriousness. The early days of his and Jane’s relationship, and their early encounters on the unequal ground of music, provoke some of Wood’s most elegant and finely observed passages. Watching Jane at the piano, Tom admits to struggling with “selfish resentment—resentment that she is so free, that she can so easily slip out of reality, that she cannot take me with her, that she seems almost to be at prayer.” But even then she’s exasperated with his hypertrophied logical skills:
“I can’t stand it when you ‘go philosophical.’ You know I can’t, I can’t argue it logically. All I can say is that I feel when I am utterly suffused in music, immersed in it, so responsive to it that, that… well, in some silly way I want to change colour like a chameleon does, and become the colour of music—when that happens I go through the music as if it is a cloud, and, yes, I believe, I believe. I can’t not believe; nor could Bach or Handel or Bruckner or Elgar, and many others.”
I told her my father’s joke about the chameleon who finds himself on a tartan picnic rug and is so confused by the challenge of mimicry that he explodes.
“That’s me,” I said. “While you’re turning the colour of music I’m exploding! By the way, what does this something, this musical God, look like?”
Jane seemed genuinely surprised by the question.
“Look like? He doesn’t look like anything. He sounds, He-She sounds like music.”
But Thomas can’t abide this negative capability. The metaphor of belief and faith narrows to a strangulating literalism, to the detriment of the narrative. As the BAG overwhelms Tom’s life, his God-talk overwhelms the book’s initial charm and comic delicacy and the sense of free play between the characters. The novel becomes intellectually muscle-bound.
At the last Christmas before his father’s death, Tom’s angry disquisition on the persistence of evil in the world (a German-Jewish longtime family friend is conveniently present as a prop and foil) ends with Tom flying off the handle and denouncing a neighbor’s “pseudo-Dostoevskian” line of argument. But all too often, Tom’s interlocutors have a disconcerting tendency to brandish soothing paragraphs of close philosophical reasoning without so much as a stutter. In another scene, a character responds to Tom’s angry attack on theological fence-sitters by retorting calmly, as if receiving dictation:
The extremity with which you pose the question—either/or, yes or no, for or against—assumes that one can know, that one either believes or doesn’t because of some certainty, a certainty founded either on inner knowledge—i.e., faith—or some kind of external suggestion, i.e., some kind of vision or visitation, a miracle, or what as you know were in the medieval dispensation called “proofs” of God.
The climax comes at his father’s funeral. Tom winds up for a rant worthy of a Philip Roth character, if Philip Roth characters had Anglican priests as fathers. He begins his eulogy with a joke and throat-clearing references to Heine and Denys the Alexandrian, before launching into a description of his Book Against God—a final stab at Oedipal truth-telling. But just as he’s building up some steam, Jane approaches the pulpit and leads him back to his seat. The narrative energy curls up at her feet and dozes like a puppy.
From the beginning, this would-be immoralist is ticking off his minor fibs on subjects ranging from his weekend social schedule to the health of various philosophers. “People like Jane,” Tom complains, “cannot distinguish between small lies and large lies; for them, the act of lying is always itself an enormity, and comes only in one size.” But neither can the novel. The plot turns on Tom’s really big lies, to his parents (about his lack of religious faith), and to Jane (about his ambivalence about having a child). But for the reader nothing turns on them. They are supposed to be clinching evidence of Tom’s notably challenged relationship with the truth, but they camouflage an ordinary ambivalence, not an exotic pathology. Underneath the rakish paisley silk dressing gown and the expensive shoes he can’t afford, Tom is a run-of-the-mill loser who refuses to grow up.
Furthermore, while we are treated to laborious descriptions of his lies, we have little reason to think he isn’t telling us the truth. Tom is simply too transparent; his bending of the truth creates no interesting refraction. As a critic, Wood has written acutely of the novelist’s paradoxical relationship with truth. But as a novelist, he has invoked the problem of literary truthfulness without really dramatizing it.
As the meandering narrative leaches Tom of his vitality, another deficiency is revealed: his plausibility. A late-twentieth-century young man whose theological obsessions are ruining his life: forget God, could such a mortal exist?
But then, we recall, James Wood himself exists. Turning to Wood’s essay “The Broken Estate,” we see just how much Wood has taken from his own life. The essay is primarily a review of several works of contemporary Christian theology, but it also contains a few nicely turned pages of personal memoir. Here we encounter Wood’s own strict religious upbringing; his happy days as a chorister; his first stirrings of teenage doubt; his own Book Against God; the same indignant citation of Kierkegaard’s claim that the true Christian preacher had “the highest responsibility, to preach in Christian sermons …AGAINST Christianity.” (One wonders if this is the part of the speech that Wood delivered as a sermon at Worcester College, Cambridge, as noted on the copyright page.) There is the same reliance on Nietzsche and Camus as the twin pillars of his fervent unbelief. There is even the same elderly parishioner who walks with three canes.
Of finally shedding his own religious faith in his early twenties, Wood writes: “It is a process that brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself. It is like undressing. You are so quickly, so easily free.” Free of belief—but not free of God. Both Tom Bunting and James Wood end their books by grasping at an absent Father, and railing at our exile from a paradise they claim not to believe in.
For Tom, it is his own dead father, God’s representative, the final wit-ness to Tom’s theological agony and the only reader for his BAG, beyond the heavenly one. In this penultimate sentence, he recalls holding his father’s hand as a young boy, and asks, “Wasn’t it an orchard, my childhood? But why, then, the worm? Why the worm?” James Wood, discussing the maddeningly invisible heavenly Father, puts it more plumply but no less despairingly:
…Why, before heaven, must we live? Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven, this desperate antechamber, this foreword written by an anonymous author, this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?
Autobiographical fiction is hardly a scandal. But there is something odd about a critic whose ideal form of the novel involves characters with the freedom to outrun their creators’ designs, and who creates a character so like himself in broad outlines, and then gives him so many lecturing lines that seem plucked from his own writing.
And what, in the end, is the point of a novel of ideas if all the fictional conjuring doesn’t bring the ideas to a new kind of life? For in the essay we also find something that is lacking in Wood’s novel—a certain wildness, an arresting voice, a powerful character. Speaking entirely of others—speaking, that is, impersonally—Wood in his essays has created a voice of genuine interest and authority. The drama and tension of Wood’s criticism comes from the way it combines a calm mastery of the details with flashes of white-hot righteous passion. Instead of the voice of a self-proclaimed liar, it’s a voice of ruthless, even reckless, directness. Wood’s assaults on Updike, Morrison, and DeLillo are far more audacious and involving than anything Thomas attempts to say from the pulpit at his father’s funeral. They are also more entertaining.
So, too, even for the theologically disinterested, is his assault on Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan, fathers of the modern effort to demote Christianity from a strenuous mystery to a mere aesthetic and moral phenomenon. In “The Broken Estate,” he attempts to beat these writers’ plowshares back into weapons, before bashing them over the head. And when he moves in for the kill, you can hear his liter-ary composure wobbling a bit. “Such thinking,” he writes of a passage in Arnold, “which does not deserve to be called thinking, with its clownish contradictions and repulsive evasions, positively deserves Nietzsche’s decisive hammer.” (With Christians like this, he seems to be saying, who needs atheists?)
The Book Against God ends pretty much where it began, with Tom living at loose ends in his underfurnished apartment, mourning his father, paying off his debts, trying to convince Jane that he has given up lying for good. It’s not clear what will become of him. But if God exists, and He is just, when Thomas finally grows up he will grow up to be a literary critic.
July 17, 2003