Lit Crit as It Ought to Be: Open-Eyed, Recklessly Committed

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel , by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 312 pages, $24.

Here it comes: yet another love letter to James Wood. People (including me) have been saying for years that he’s the most promising young critic around, but now that he’s pushing 40, let’s drop the qualifiers and say it loud and clear: He’s the best. This transplanted Englishman is a blessing to the culture. Confirmation comes later this month when he publishes his second collection of essays, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel -a sort of secular sequel to The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999). Heroically ambitious and infectiously high-minded, it’s also a genuinely enjoyable book.

Literary criticism needn’t go down like medicine. This is not the bitter pill of theory, that cocktail of mixed motives and obfuscation practiced in the academy. There’s not a drop of jargon here, and never the sense that turf is being measured out and defended. On the contrary: Mr. Wood is recklessly committed to literature (if he weren’t so flexible, I’d be tempted to call him a fanatic), and brave enough to risk ridicule by pushing every thought to the limit. Caution doesn’t enter into the calculation: He shows us, candidly-in prose overcrowded with metaphor, prose that palpably yearns for maximum expression-how his head and heart respond to what he reads (which is just about everything).

He’s growing before our eyes. It’s perhaps his most impressive quality: Somehow, he lets you know that he’s still absorbing a rich array of writing, that he’s open to ever-wider experience. Lord knows he has his opinions (dozens per page, it sometimes seems), but he’s willing to revise them. When he writes about the “novelistic idea that we have bottomless interiors which may only be partially disclosed to us,” we quickly agree that as modern readers, uncomfortably at home with relativity, uncertainty and the unconscious, we must settle for “the management of our incomprehension rather than … the victory of our complete knowledge.” Yes, we’re all in the dark-but if Mr. Wood volunteers to oversee the management of your incomprehension, sign him up on the spot.

The new book ranges from Shakespeare to Jonathan Franzen, with an eclectic cast of writers stuffed in between, including Bohumil Hrabal (“the great Czech writer”); our own Tom Wolfe, dissed in a phrase: “rows and rows of spangled typicalities”; the 19th-century Russian M.E. Saltykov (who naturally assumed the pen name Shchedrin); the newest Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee (he’s a bit too tidy for Mr. Wood’s taste); the exuberant Saul Bellow; the sadly obscure Sicilian Giovanni Verga, whom Mr. Wood first read “sitting stiff in my chair with concentrated delight”; the late, soon-to-be-forgotten J.F. Powers, “now barely visible at the end of that stretched telescope, ‘the writer’s writer'”; and everybody’s favorite blasphemer, Salman Rushdie, whose novel Fury “exhausts negative superlatives.” Never mind how motley the crew, Mr. Wood’s book is actually coherent-though he makes no attempt to disguise the fact that each of the 23 essays was written to stand on its own. (Is it worth noting that only two of the 23 are about women writers, and that neither of the lucky two-Monica Ali and Zadie Smith-is American?)

There is a scheme at work in The Irresponsible Self . Mr. Wood distinguishes between two kinds of comedy: the comedy of correction and the comedy of forgiveness. The Irresponsible Self is his exploration of the latter-comedy that shades into tragicomedy, comedy that laughs with , not at , empathetic comedy, “the humor,” as Freud put it, “that smiles through tears.” Mr. Wood argues that this kind of comedy descends from Shakespeare (think soliloquy) and matures in the 19th- and 20th-century novel; its hero is the “irresponsible self,” the reader’s secret sharer-a fictional character with a “bottomless,” ultimately unknowable interior. Judgment is meted out accordingly: Fiction populated by flat or cartoonish “types” (Rushdie and Wolfe) takes a beating; anything that resembles “the novel of character” (Henry Green, V.S. Pritchett) or hooks us with “unreliably unreliable narration” (Italo Svevo) gets a gold star. His highest praise goes to the author of Anna Karenina : “[R]eality is not the novelist’s toy in Tolstoy but his characters’ necessary food.” (There are volumes of insight packed into that one thought.)

For the work that Mr. Wood does most beautifully-which is to read closely and responsively-he hardly needs the armature of his grand scheme. Consider, for example, his mixed review of Mr. Franzen’s The Corrections , in which he reproaches contemporary American fiction for producing “books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them.” In between scoldings, Mr. Wood commends Mr. Franzen for his intelligent manipulation of “suggestive patterns.” The critic then rolls up his sleeves to examine a passage and tease out the pattern to which it belongs. It’s about a character who’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease:

“Alfred is a man being pitifully ‘corrected’ by his own hands: ‘His affliction offended his sense of ownership. These shaking hands belonged to nobody but him, and yet they refused to obey him. They were like bad children. Unreasoning two-year-olds in a tantrum of selfish misery. The more sternly he gave orders, the less they listened and the more miserable and out of control they got. He’d always been vulnerable to a child’s recalcitrance and refusal to behave like an adult. Irresponsibility and undiscipline were the bane of his existence, and it was another instance of the Devil’s logic that his own untimely affliction should consist of his body’s refusal to obey him.’

“Such writing, clear, direct, humane, and sensitively intelligent, is typical of this novel at its deepest. Alfred, a stern and proud man, suffers awfully the indignity of his illness but rarely says more than the stiff ‘I am increasingly bothered by my affliction,’ even as his children, now returned home for a final family Christmas, are changing his underclothes and mopping up his urine. But finer still is the unintrusive way that Franzen quietly expands this picture of Alfred’s hands as rebellious children. Later in the book, [Alfred’s younger son], in a weak rage, will deliberately burn one of his hands with his own cigarette; later still, [Alfred’s older son], in a weak rage, will accidentally cut one of his hands with an electric saw; and later still, [Alfred’s daughter] will show a group of strangers her scarred and burned hands, the working hands of a chef. This patterning may be accidental, but is more likely planned. It is precisely what the novel form exists for, how it justifies its difference as a genre, earns its genre-salary …. Alfred is indeed corrected by his hands; the novel shows us how. And Alfred is also repeated by his hands.”

Well … that kind of open-eyed and sympathetic reading is how criticism justifies its existence and earns its (paltry) salary.

James Wood may be the best and getting even better, but he’s not yet perfect. His language can be ridiculously flowery. (Literally: “Wordsworth … had seen the nectary of Coleridge’s lyric gifts dry into tendrils of metaphysics.” And here’s a sample for those who prefer fauna to flora: ” … the great vanity of the self, which is furred, like any vain beauty, in the minks of egoism.”) His passion for metaphor often threatens to derail his logic or obscure it. But that’s a lovable flaw. When Mr. Wood goes for glory and achieves only grandiloquence, it seems petty and grudging to say that his thinking lacks rigor. In the spirit of the comedy of forgiveness, let’s be thankful for his enthusiasm, his capacious learning and his keen eye. His faults we can dismiss as evidence of what he calls “the instability of greatness.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.