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Thursday, January 03, 2008

James Wood and LI's Reviewer Envy

LI writes reviews. We’ve completed a good thousand reviews over the past decade, mostly small things for Publishers Weekly. When you write reviews as a job, you soon get to know the routines that go into the review in the same way that, say, the debt collector making a telephone call soon acquires an easy sense for how to squeeze the other end of the line.

For some reason, this autumn saw more articles than usual about the decline of book reviewing in the papers, which all of us free lancers know all about. Just as we know that newspaper editors, on the whole, don’t understand how bound up their own fate is with the fate of reading matter. Since the reviewer page doesn’t generate the revenue or the online hits that the movie review section does, the book review section is given the orphan’s share. But what the movie review section does is point the reader away from reading material, and once you have ingrained that habit, reading material, which includes newspapers, starts dropping below the horizon of your life.

So much for special pleading. I intrude the facts of my own bio only to establish a parti pris. I am one of those people who is unimpressed with James Wood. He is, for a book reviewer, a bit of a star. Media places took note when he was hired away from the New Republic by the New Yorker this summer. Now, writing for the New Yorker, for a book reviewer, is to be in a job that was held, at various times, by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Edmund Wilson. It is to the kind of book reviewing I do as the Supreme Court is to a traffic judge in Williamson County, Texas. So much much envy goes into my overall view of James Wood.

And of course there is the problem he has with ‘hysterical realism,’ his name for what Delillo and Pynchon do. It isn’t really better than the literature of paranoia, which is the phrase by which it used to be earmarked. Wood is one of those English writers, like Martin Amis, who take Saul Bellow as the iconic great American novelist. They love the Essayismus in Bellow, they loved the dialogue with the great dead. They loved the comic turns, and Bellow’s damned familiarity with what C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite – whether in academia, or in the literary salons, or in politics, or even in the Mafia – vide Humboldt’s gift. And I understand that. One of the great things about Bellow is his confidence that the writer is one of the power elite. There’s not the anxious social sense that academic critics show about that elite, that resentment barely disguised by an ill digested Marxism. However, because Bellow’s territory is so much the Power Elite ego, his sense of what is happening in America is always a bit shaky. That phrase of his I love – the ‘moronic inferno’ – is exactly the skyscraper office view of what is happening on the street. There is no place in Bellow for voices from the moronic inferno to be heard.

Which separates him absolutely from someone like Delillo. Delillo’s worst book, Cosmopolis, is an attempt to beam up to the billionaire mindset. His great novels, however, are all about going into and out of the moronic inferno. It is a babel of technospeaks in there, and he has an exact ear for them. There’s a beautiful passage in Running Dog in that contemplates the military fetish for the names of hardware, a fetish that has mutated and flourished beyond reckoning in this software addled country; but that is merely one of the hundreds of intricately fetishized lingos, from gangsta rap to self help which Delillo loves to sample. Bellow, of course, felt those lingos creeping up the skyscraper as a threat, as the very heart of the moronic, that tongue grafitti threatening our very ability to think about life and death and meaning. And Wood follows Bellow here. This is why Wood can remark that Underworld is a failure and pen a glowing review about the last Coetzee novel, Diary of a Bad Year – which was a truly embarrassing mess. If you have absorbed Bellow as your model contemporary novelist, you are going to be a sucker for stories in which old men making sweeping humanistic gestures while entertaining the hots for younger women.

Coetzee’s novel is about a novelist with the initials J.C. (which is a reviewer’s opportunity to make English class clucking sounds, gravely informing the reader that we are not to confuse J.C. with the author – why, it is all a clever fiction! Wood, of course, doesn’t miss that opportunity) who writes a series of essays deploring the war in Iraq, America in general, and advancing some remarkably dumb views about biology and evolution to explain his take on feminism. He also writes some personal essays (“Class: write an essay about your encounter with a tree! in five hundred words or less”). These essays are put at the top of the page – at the bottom, at the footnote level, a drama takes place. J.C. notices a woman in his condo at the laundry with a divine behind. He makes friends with her, in a creepy way, by taking her on as a secretary. Her boyfriend is an investment banker, a spouter of neo-liberal arguments, and in general a thug who comes up with a scheme for robbing J.C. of all his Nobel Prize loot using J.C.'s fondness for his girlfriend. After the banker and the girlfriend go to J.C.’s apartment for a celebration of the publication of his essay book, the girlfriend breaks up with Mr. Thug – it turns out that he got drunk and said mean things to J.C. Unheard of, that. There is an implication in that breakup that the young woman has "learned to be herself" through association with the lecherous but impotent old writer. That fantasy of both lusting after a young beauty and improving her mind somehow makes me cringe - of fantasies of beauty and the old beast, I much prefer the final scene of The Blue Angel.

All of this is written in something like a non-style. To praise it (and somehow, I can’t believe that Wood actually liked Diary of a Bad Year, just as I can’t believe that he didn’t recognize the greatness of Underworld), Wood has to adjust our expectations. So this is how he begins:

“There are people who think of J. M. Coetzee as a cold writer, and he might agree, or pretend to agree. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry,” he writes of himself in his memoir “Youth.” “But warmth is not in his nature.” The protagonist of Coetzee’s new novel, “Diary of a Bad Year” (Viking; $24.95), is, like his creator, an aging South African novelist resident in Australia, who muses at one moment that his father surely thought him a selfish child “who has turned into a cold man.” His art, he laments, is “not great-souled.” It lacks “generosity, fails to celebrate life, lacks love.”

Yet this is the cold air just beyond the reach of a fire. Coetzee’s chaste, exact, ashen prose may look like the very embers of restraint, but it is drawn, again and again, to passionate extremity: an uneducated gardener forced to live like an animal off the South African earth (“Life & Times of Michael K”); a white woman dying of cancer while a black township burns, and writing, in her last days, a letter of brutal truths to her daughter (“Age of Iron”); a white woman raped on her farm by a gang of black men, and impregnated (“Disgrace”); a recent amputee, the victim of a road accident that mangled a leg, helpless in his Adelaide apartment, and awkwardly in love with his Croatian nurse (“Slow Man”). Coetzee seems compelled to test his celebrated restraint against subjects and ideas whose extremity challenges novelistic representation.”

With that exciting beginning, you figure there is going to be action galore in Diary of a Bad Year, observed with a fine anatomist’s eye. But where Wood writes cold, one should not think cool – one should think, “as in oatmeal that has been left out for a day.”

In the review, Wood barely covers the tendentious job he has laid out for himself. The job is, how to make a silk purse out of a cold dead sow's ear. He takes the obvious flaws that he should be pondering as a reviewer, and weaves them into an appreciation of the artistry of the writer – so artful that the awfulness on hand is simply an indication of the greater genius! Thus you get something like this:

The central characters of both “Elizabeth Costello,” which appeared in 2003, and “Diary of a Bad Year” are novelists, and novelists in the act of dispensing strong opinions. Elizabeth Costello has been giving public lectures, which are reproduced in the novel; the protagonist of Coetzee’s new book has been asked by his German publisher to contribute to a volume of essays that will gather the “Strong Opinions” (this is its proposed title) of six prominent contemporary writers. Many of the protagonist’s essays are reproduced in the novel we are reading. Naturally, the reader wants to make Coetzee’s novels confessional, to claim these opinions as his rightful children. But Coetzee explicitly complicates the question of his paternity, so that these books read less like confessions than like books about confession.
Lest that sound dry, it should be said that “Diary of a Bad Year” is an involving, argumentative, moving novel: if not quite “great-souled,” then deep-souled. Coetzee smudges the traces of his authorial DNA by using a framing device that both hints at and disavows connections between the novelist protagonist and the actual writer. The South African novelist at the center of the new book is teasingly called “Señor C” by his neighbors, but he is by no means identical to J. M. Coetzee, who was born in South Africa in 1940, taught at the University of Chicago before moving to Australia, and won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Señor C is six years older than the Nobel Laureate, often writes elegantly and sometimes a bit demotically (“Most scientists can’t write for toffee,” he claims at one point), and expresses regret that people think of him not as a novelist but as “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” Distinguished he may be, but he feels obscure, overlooked, worn out. Stockholm has not, apparently, called. He lives in an apartment block in Sydney, where he meets Anya, an attractive young neighbor who is currently unemployed but used to be a receptionist in “the hospitality industry.” Like the elderly Nathan Zuckerman, he is uselessly afflicted with desire, and smothers his lust by asking Anya if she would like to type up the “strong opinions” he has been speaking into a Dictaphone. After a formulaic demurral—as in bank-heist movies, the last important addition to the team always spends a scene resisting—she agrees. Anya calls him Señor C because, it seems, she had thought that he was a South American novelist. Señor C’s strong opinions are divided into thirty-one brief chapters, with titles like “On intelligent design” and “On Guantanamo Bay.” They are a confounding mixture of the banal, the extreme, and the scintillating. Inevitably, his attacks on George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Guantánamo, though righteous, have a slightly overinhabited quality, as if too many other people had been squatting in their public rooms. Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas. A passage like the following, from a chapter entitled “On terrorism,” sounds like a bull with a bullhorn, and is very different in tone from the more feline Coetzee, who would surely rather have his claws pulled than commit to print the phrase “It’s déjà vu all over again”.

What to say about that magnificent, ass covering sentence: “Coetzee, I suspect, wants us to reflect on the differences in rhetoric between public and private ideas?” It is perfect James Wood. There’s the stubbornness of the resistant text, which indeed consists of page after page of subdeb punditry – and there is the higher purpose, surely a higher purpose than mere vanity, that it serves when thrown at us in the guise of a novel, trimmed out with a halfhearted story that, in all, doesn't even make for a decent anecdote. Whereas the feline Delillo would simply be tossed about for 'It’s déjà vu all over again', with Coetzee one is witnessing the very birth of irony in this millionth reiteration of the Yogi Berra phrase.

Huh. I didn’t mean to go on so long, but obviously Wood’s tastes bug me – and more, his tastelessness bugs me. Wood’s reputation is partly built on his stern, prosecutorial essays on the likes of Delillo, Toni Morrison, etc., but I believe his rep rests, as well, on his appreciation of the old guys. I don’t think he is untalented as a critic – I liked the essay on War and Peace from the week before, although I did think he went on a little too much with the idea of Tolstoy’s characters being warmer blooded than the rest of us. But I do not at all like the praise of the second rate. Diary of a Bad Year was badly conceived, the essays are poorly written, and the machinations with the characters are cartoonishly dumb. Frustratingly, I don’t feel like Wood would disagree with that judgment – the hedging in the review is all too blatant, an exercise in misdirecting the reader. That, that I find to be disheartening. Far better Wood the prosecutor of hysterical realism than Wood, the sycophant of Great and the Good.


Anonymous said...

If you have absorbed Bellow as your model contemporary novelist, you are going to be a sucker for stories in which old men making sweeping humanistic gestures while entertaining the hots for younger women.

This is funny (as in funny ha-ha) because Mr. Scruggs and I were actually talking about this not too long ago.

Could one also make the same judgment of Roth and Updike and Cheever as you do of Bellow? I admit my acquaintance with all of them is slight, but...well, whatever I've read of theirs seems like politically correct fiction that caters to the identity politics of affluent white males. And I think you know where UFO stands on that.

The father of the significant other was an English prof at U/Conn who got on board in the mid 50s. Somehow, he escaped having to publish anything. And now, in his retirement, he likes make the same sweeping pronouncements to his daughter and her squeeze that he used to make to his students, and he is appalled—Appalled!—that Roth hasn't gotten the Nobel prize yet. Per his judgment, Roth is a great writer whose themes are universal and timeless, blah blah blah...while I realize that the trope of asserting the opposite is in general a lame one, but I think those adjectives apply more to Pynchon and Gaddis (I only ever read DeLillo's Libra and can't remember it too well) and that Roth, Updike, Bellow, etc., aren't going to age very well—or travel well beyond these shores, because it's all about their goddamn white dicks. Your thoughts on this point, maestro?

et alia

Roger Gathmann said...

Myself, I like Bellow a great deal, but he is definitely in the white male i.d. group. Every group has its geniuses. And, to be fair, he would never have been the guy who wrote Humboldt's Gift if that was all there was to him - the difference between a novel and a dream is that in a novel, it isn't all wish fulfillment. That's why novelists understand so well how God came to create the devil, and how the devil came to have all the good lines.

As for Roth - this, you understand, is so totally off the cuff - the latter novels I can't seem to get through. There is a moment in I think it is the Ghost Writer, which was written in the 70s, in which you can sorta see Roth getting serious, seizing up, seeing himself as writing about literature instead of just keeping slightly north of the goof - and it is heartbreaking, because the better part of him, up to that moment, had known that his art is the joke distended until it burst. He was brilliant at doing that. But I'm not gonna judge Roth, since he's written, well, a whole shelf I haven't read.
I must say, though, except as a parlor game, who gives a fuck who gets the Nobel Prize? Well, I guess we are fucked from that very first report card, aren't we? Wantin' that A. That Iron cross, that medal of freedom, that Oscar, that Grammy, those stripes, that Real Estate Salesman of the Year, Ventura County, 1978. But do I really give a fuck about the literary taste of a buncha Swedes? who I don't even know?

A..a..and - read Running Dog, man!