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Weary Gargoyles
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel
James Wood
Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: an Introduction Through Interviews
Sharon Monteith, Jenny Newman and Pat Wheeler
, eds


Emilie Bickerton

There is something startling when first reading a James Wood review. Here is criticism of literature - from contemporary American or British novels, to nineteenth and early twentieth century translated works - that is not ordered by the two dominant voices of literary criticism today: those of the academics and the book reviewers.

From the former, texts are deconstructed or pillaged for a political or ideological relevance; the latter write merely to keep up with the publishing world, providing opinions, dustcover quotations and plot synopses, but using the criteria of the market - seeking out the sharp prose and conventional rebellions. Wood is outside both camps, even if his trajectory is the typical model for literary critics today: former chief literary editor at the Guardian, a judge for the Booker Prize in 1994, he has since moved to Washington where he writes and edits the New Republic books pages, as well as being a visiting lecturer at Harvard, and sitting on the editorial board of the London Review of Books.

It is his reviews that distinguish him from most of his colleagues, as he is concerned primarily with the aesthetic merit of a novel-those seemingly old-fashioned concerns over just how well a book is written, how convincingly developed its characters are and how successfully the author's original intentions have translated onto the page, through the novel's unique device of storytelling. This approach necessitates at once a comparative perspective, and this by definition means imposing a hierarchy in the world of letters - understanding literature as a changing form, with past and present masters as well as their forgettable pretenders.

The Irresponsible Self is Wood's second published collection of essays, some of which appeared originally in the London Review of Books. The Broken Estate (1999) focused on a theme he has been preoccupied enough by to integrate into his first novel, The Book Against God (2003): the connection between literature and religious belief. Both collections are historical as well as contemporary in scope, with discussions ranging from contemporary authors to the modernists, romantics and Shakespeare.

The Irresponsible Self has as its organising strain, 'laughter and the novel', or, more specifically and less succinctly put, how the novel provokes the reader's laughter, how characters are developed and language used - essentially how stories are told in order to develop a relationship between reader and the work that causes the former to laugh. To investigate this, Wood distinguishes between a 'comedy of forgiveness', more European in its origins, that laughs with characters, and a 'comedy of correction', from the Anglo-American tradition, that involves laughing at them - the former is the result of complicity between reader and character, a merging of them, rather than the detached amusement of the latter.

Apart from their geographical origins, there is a loose historical development from one type of comedy to another that runs in parallel with the shift from a religious to a secular society. Although the comedy of correction does perdure, with writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Margaret Atwood, Muriel Spark and Kingsley Amis, it is essentially religious in nature, and what makes something funny is a digression from a stable centre; there exists a transparent moral framework which provides the grounds for complicity between author and reader almost against the fiction's characters.

The comedy of forgiveness has no such luxurious certitude. Complicity has to be worked for because this comic form (though its roots are in Shakespeare's soliloquys) emerged in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, and is a product of the modern novel that, in the secular shift, expressed doubt over the nature and stability of self. For the novel, the suggestion that we have 'bottomless interiors which may only be partially disclosed' encouraged writers to expand the fictive inner lives of characters.

Chekhov, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Gogol are all modern examples who developed a comedy of forgiveness to manage the new incomprehension. It is through an 'unreliably unreliable narrator' that the comedy of forgiveness is deployed - the reader is lured into a sense of complete comprehension of character (and thus open to the comedy of correction) only to be surprised into doubt by an event or action. For Wood this moves one more deeply than any comedy of correction because it is a kind of 'broken humour' as Freud would have it, a sympathy developed for characters that is blocked by a comic moment, but that exists nevertheless as sympathy, and the laughter is 'through tears'.

Contained within this framework are the essential elements of Wood's own critical criteria for engaging with and judging literature. The focus on comedy really expresses a concern for what conditions are necessary to develop complicity, how the relationship between author and reader is developed through the words and stories. Nothing worse than the isolation of the absurd, as shown by Albert Camus in L'Etranger (1942), when Meursault watches a man behind a pane of glass, gesticulating on the phone. Unable to hear his words, Meursault is left only to wonder, 'why he is even alive'. But this uncertainty does at least keep you guessing and the triumphant creation of modern fiction for Wood is:

characters who are free to contradict themselves without being corrected by the author . . . free to make mistakes without fearing authorial judgement . . . In such fiction, the reader is not to be overly helped . . . We must find out for ourselves how much we know of character.

As a reader, you have to do some work, not so much of the theoretical kind - as many contemporary novels tend to encourage, tied to an abstract idea - but primarily through empathy. This inhabitation of character of course requires a quality in the literature to capture the reader's belief, and also that the author has fully understood his own creations, and given them enough depth to be believable, contrasting successfully their character's consciousness with a reality that is independent of them. It is unsurprising then to hear Wood defend realism, and suggest that in and amongst the plethora of literary genres, realism, essentially, 'is narrative's great master . . . it schools even its own truants [such as magical realism] . . . [it] is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting' ('Credulity', LRB, 14th November 2002, vol. 24, no. 22). So, deeper still what orders Wood's literary criteria is the truthfulness of a work, its foothold in reality.

In his analysis of contemporary novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, Wood draws out, through very close attention to language, the reasons why such writers fail to manage the challenge of the modern world and its incertitudes. Again the invocation of the aesthetic concerns are somewhat startling, to read praise for wonderful similes, disgust at 'sophomoric comparisons', misplaced crudity or objections against the cheap use of 'expensive' adjectives or adverbs.

This close reading of the text as art, rather than in order to deconstruct it, jars with an instrumental use of the novel by authors keener to illuminate social or political ideas underpinning or influencing their work. Wood is particularly keen to expose the intervention of the author who may, in riffs of style, an efflorescence of theory, a misplaced observation, speak over their characters, reduce or even obliterate them - an external imposition on that sacred interior of character the modern novel has the potential to create. At times Wood can labour this point. DBC Pierre, Yann Martel, Zadie Smith - every time their error is the same, '"Beat" is not Samad's word', the argument goes, 'he would never use it . . . Smith is not writing from inside [his] head . . .'.

This is, however, an extremely strong criticism to make of any author - they have misjudged their own creation, like a parent not knowing their child. It is such a rare attack because it demands the critic's certainty that he has understood the author's characters better; the critic knows what Samad would say. In part this suggests a paradox: surely Smith can't have obliterated Samad if the critic is still able to get such an acute sense of him, so by defending the novel's characters the work itself is elevated not disparaged, or at least its possibilities imagined. But this is less contradictory if one appreciates the distinction between reviewing and criticism: whilst reviewing can 'only hinder what it has not made' by saying a(n already existing) work is good or bad, criticism is an act of competition, often between writers, the sort Virginia Woolf embodied in her early years at the Times Literary Supplement, 'pushing her own project' when she wrote, preparing 'her own kind of novel' ('Phut-Phut', London Review of Books, 27th June 2002, vol. 24, no. 12). Criticism then, holds a radical potential, demanding something different from what is being produced, by engaging in a concrete struggle with what actually exists.

What guides Wood's criticism is not a paradoxical elevation of the work, but both his own expectations of what literature can achieve and a dedication to understanding the intention of its author. The nature of intentionality is not, of course, a historical constant. Plenty of writers have claimed they 'just write' and shied away from explicit theoretical or political positions - Alan Hollinghurst avoids being called to account describing his first novel The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) as not about gay history but just about 'one gay man'. Hanif Kureshi similarily claims 'I can't think of myself as a post-colonial writer. When I go upstairs to my study, I think, 'What do I want to write about today?' I can't think about myself or my work theoretically' (Contemporary British and Irish Fiction, pp. 75 and 93) - but there have been literary movements and experimentations with style, as well as political, philosophical and social novels that use the form with very different objectives.

Wood's most well-known essay in The Irresponsible Self, 'Hysterical realism', characterises a certain trend he has discerned in contemporary British and American fiction. The father of this recent strain is Dickens, the overwhelming influence on-especially British-postwar fiction according to Wood, whose novels were 'populated by vital simplicities', a masterly display of caricature over character. Dickens demonstrated 'how to get a character launched', propelling him into the fray, though 'not [showing] how to keep him afloat', and for aspiring novelists 'this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy'. Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, David Forster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie are examples open to George Orwell's criticism of Dickens, that he had 'rotten architecture but great gargoyles'.

These contemporary writers are engaged in excesses of invention and their narratives driven by vitality alone, the architecture, the form of the novel is 'essential silliness' in the lunge for multitudes-in all the detail there is an absence of moral seriousness. 'The "big contemporary novel" is a perpetual motor machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence'. Stories are lit from every spark of detail and storytelling has become the grammar of the novel. But in contrast to magical realism, every story in itself is plausible, 'the conventions of realism are not being abolished but . . . exhausted, overworked' and the results are novels full of that oxymoron, 'inhuman stories'. Characters have thrust upon them an overflowing amount of banalities, of information, connections, ideas.

The sources of hysterical realism seem to be a mixture of literary doubt - an awkwardness generally about the possibilities of storytelling and its various constituents - to a broader paranoia that orders the worldview of some writers, and spills onto the pages of their fictions. DeLillo's Underworld captures this, the 'Frankfurt school entertainer' weaves such an insidious web of connectedness that the stories, 'enforcing [links] which are finally merely conceptual rather than human' conjure up a political butterfly effect, a global world populated by powerless citizens. Hysterical realism also reflects the influence academia's takeover of literary criticism has had on writing, the emphasis on ideas and broader themes that has become the novel's job to illuminate - the interest in particular perspectives, hybridity, the global economy and its insidious nature, or the redundancy of roots in a multiracial world.

This sort of analysis in part rids one of a nagging worry when reading some of Wood's criticism - is he essentially conservative? Talking of character against caricature, searching for beautiful language (from which any social or political points will flow but ought never to be implicit), praising Monica Ali's Brick Lane but characterising it clearly as a return to the fiction of the nineteenth century, this immigration-centred literature 're-importing into the Western novel traditional societies, with their ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civil duty and pressures of propriety'. It can feel at times that Wood judges with the ideal novel in mind, from a time gone by, and his objective standards need some airing, some re-thinking. But what is most 'old-fashioned' is effectively what jars with the present times: defending art for art's sake.

The notion of art's autonomy does have its roots in conservativism, and clings to a picture of the artist as isolated from life and society that is most appealing of course, when in a privileged position to have the choice between the two. More positively however, the position also necessitates an acknowledgement of art's limitations - literature is not politics, nor philosophy, it does not deal uniquely in theory or abstractedness, but ought to be determined 'to trade in narrative', and via that narrative, via the uniqueness of literature, illumination ('A Frog's Life, LRB, 23rd October 2003, vol. 25). Philosophical novels such as L'Etranger, or the epic social novels by John Steinbeck are also works of art because they dealt with their concerns in a literary way. And whilst one can then debate over how isolated or engaged the artist should be, the first challenge is believing at least in the possibilities of literature as literature.

The hyperbole of hysterical realism conceals an unwillingness to endorse such a conceptualisation of art - the detachment or isolation of an artist is not even a partly radical stance, alienated from society because of a disagreement with its conventions, as the outsider-as-dissident in the sixties typified, but, precisely because the opposing force is so nebulous (the values of a society asserted with no confidence or authority), the role of art, the objective for writers, is to make sense of the world as it is, 'tell us how it works' and tie ideas and themes together, 'problem solving from other places and worlds'.

According to Zadie Smith the greatest contribution from writers such as David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers is that 'these guys . . . understand macro-microeconomics, the way the internet works, math, philosophy [as well as] the street, the family, love, sex . . .' (Contemporary British and Irish Fiction, p175). The writer should be implicated, informed - a journalist more than an artist, commenting on the world, revealing its intricate connectedness and putting events clearly into the context of a broad political or philosophical paradigm. For Wood this is too utilitarian and if characterisation is attended to enough and successfully the social commentary should always leak out, being already embedded in the material itself, drawing, as earlier suggested, from a realist base.

The social conscience and journalistic impulses of writers marr the attempts to produce great literature because this use of ready-made information, of commentary, portrays an immediately obvious aspect of reality, and 'when the surface of life is only experienced immediately it remains opaque, fragmentary, chaotic and uncomprehended' (Lukàcs, from Aesthetics and Politics: The key texts of the classic debate in German Marxism, 1977, p39).

But at the same time to 'take refuge in sentences' requires that one is equally wary of another, not unrelated, extreme: artistic narcissism. Commenting on the latest publication from John Updike in 2001, Wood tires quickly of the 'essayistic saunter' typical of his work. Updike, eager to find the 'best' word for his descriptions or dialogue is 'more interested in [his prose's] smooth continuation than in registering metaphysical or emotional interruption' ('Gossip in Gilt', LRB, 19th April, 2001, vol. 23, no. 8).

When a writer is such a stylist, like Updike, the tension between the author's talents and his character's voices is exacerbated. Any writer, unlike a poet, must juggle between the literal and the literary, as prose 'always forces the question: who is thinking in these particular words and why? Point of view . . . is the densest riddle for the novelist', either employing a first- or third-person narrative to (in)directly ascribe it. Whilst the poet is more an egotist then, his words flowing from himself, the novelist must be altruistic and strive to divert attention from, rather than draw attention to himself.

Altruism has been little cultivated in the vacillations over artistic purpose. Another characteristic form employed by contemporary writers has been the self-interrogatory, self-ironic, genre-mocking projects, a recent example being Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius (2000). But books written with excessive self-consciousness, Wood argues, lack the presence of actual selves, of the human, because - one can infer, though Wood does not say so - because the writer is not engaging in a struggle, his convictions at stake, so much as a self-serving game without consequences.

It is through his recourse to character, his weariness of gargoyles, that Wood attacks these flat, self-conscious works, but in his defence of character, Wood does not satisfactorily acknowledge the very actuality of the problem, and seems instead to encourage a leap of faith, a loose reappraisal of value and the value of fiction, of art for its own sake. Discussing the relationship between animals and humans in his review of JM Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello, Wood sides with its protagonist who asks that we 'enter the frog's life' which 'is like entering the fictional character's life', it is a willingness to believe in something that cannot believe in you. Not only is this quasi-religious dedication unappealing, but any reappraisal is impossible without an understanding of the changes that have given rise to the self-less novels.

Wood characterises them aptly, but often with a hint of detached irony, these 'curiously arrested books which know a thousand different things but do not know a single human being' (190-1), a little like 'a man who takes so many classes he has no time to read' (195). His characterisation is suggestive of the current confusion in literary criticism as much as literature, but it remains only suggestive, demoting the crisis to a curiosity (if only we took more care over character…). But what Wood does not apprehend - what the hysterical realists have in part grasped, but fail on a literary level to explore - and where his conservatism does seem to be confirmed, is that however great a literary realist you are, social reality cannot anymore be revealed through character alone, because part of social reality is the very absence of the subjectivity that character requires.

What other methods have been employed to apprehend social reality by writers not involved in the embarrassed charades of hysterical realism? One who unblinkingly stares at the social vacuum is the French author, Michel Houellebecq, though further, revelatory problems arise in a consideration of his own work. At first glance he seems the opposite of any Rushdie or Smith: his prose is austere rather than vivacious, his characters are deflated not hyperactive, or hyperactively described, he is uninterested in populating stories with the heteroglossia of postmodern fiction, and does not take the marginalised as his subjects but resurrects from the metropolis the dead white male.

Houellebecq has effectively 'dispensed with the 'deep' subject [and] its ethical and affective corollaries', the very object Wood fights for. His characters mimic the depthlessness Jean Baudrillard described in 1985, claiming an end to reflexive transcendence, 'today the scene and mirror no longer exist; instead, there is a screen and network . . . a non-reflecting surface . . . where operations unfold' ('The Ecstasy of Communication', in Hal Foster, ed., Postmodern Culture, 1985). Consequently Houellebecq's narrator states, 'I will not charm [the reader] with subtle psychological observations', these having become obsolete in a world of media, gadgets and homogeneity (Extension du domaine de la lutte, 1994).

The life-situations of his characters are not only rendered flatly in a style that is a matter of principle, an expression of sentiment and outlook, they are understood socio-economically, which presents their actions - despite the witty, acute commentaries that suggest a level of awareness and critical distance - as determined. Already we have encountered the problem of excessive self-consciousness, but what these works produce is a so-called 'surplus consciousness' as Martin Ryle calls it. '[T]he critical consciousness apprehends the subject as fully embedded in the social, [it seems that it cannot] apprehend itself as anything but surplus consciousness ... unable to affect anything' ('Surplus Consciousness', Radical Philosophy, July/August 2004, no. 126)

In defence of Houellebecq, Ryle argues that despite his characters' lack of agency, the blankness of narrative delivery is so unsettling that it actively provokes the reader into interpretation, the blankness is both 'banal and monstrous' so to reproduce it, to not ask the ethical and political questions would be to perpetuate the protagonist's resignation. A reader is thus 'produced' by the very banality of the text. By a very different method Wood's Jamesian tenet that good fiction can reach out and act on the morality of its readers, it is suggested here, is possible via this explicitly depthless fiction. But whilst provoked into anger, or laughter, does anything more substantial comes from this reaction than the impasse of startled entertainment resulting from a DeLillo or Smith novel?

Houellebecq for his part, is not about to dedicate himself to the 'frog's life', as he has severed all ties between reader, author and characters, but having nothing concrete to offer in its place, no convictions to make his architecture any less rotten, he seems more a polemicist playing at the fiction-writer's game than a writer responding and reworking the medium's troubled base.

'What matters', Georg Lukàcs argued, 'is that the slice of life shaped and depicted by the artist and re-experienced by the reader should reveal the relations between appearance and essence without need for any external commentary' (Aesthetics and Politics, pp. 33-34). Jonathan Franzen's overly conscious attempt to write a 'social novel' with The Corrections (2001) thus sidesteps the key challenge of any writer: once the deeper, hidden, mediated perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society have been discerned '[the writer] must artistically conceal the relationships he has just discovered through the process of abstraction . . . this is the dialectic of appearance and essence [and] the richer, the more . . . complex and cunning [it] is, the more firmly it grasps hold of the living contradictions of life and society, then the . . . more profound the realism will be' (p. 39).

Houellebecq then is just lazy, or perhaps, as Perry Anderson suggests 'by a cursory glance at his poetry', doesn't have the ability to do otherwise. ('Déringolade', LRB, 2 September 2004, vol. 26, no. 17) The hysterical realists may be gifted writers, but they are not able to translate their understanding of the world in a truly literary way, without debasing the form in the name of, for example, macro-microeconomics.

The major problem with the notion of 'surplus consciousness' is the suggestion that the embedding of a character's subjectivity in the social is a challenge to his agency. In fact, one should consider the contrary, that the objective of literature, its emancipatory potential, and thus the measure of authors' success, is the ability to understand and reveal the connection between the two. Wood would surely support this approach, but he stops short of pushing his literary criticism to make any broader diagnosis.

 

 
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