Shoot the Critic—Or Confront Wolff’s Representative Flaws

OUR STORY BEGINS: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES
By Tobias Wolff
Alfred A. Knopf, 379 pages, $26.95

Reading Our Story Begins, Tobias Wolff’s new collection of stories, is like being buttonholed by a drunk with a glass jaw. At first he’ll strike you as charming, and the fluency of his anecdotes may mislead you into finding him entertaining. But very soon you’ll realize that he only talks—never listens—and that the lone subject of all his talking is his own inadequacy. The answer he’s seeking—that he’s in pain precisely because he’s self-involved, and that all his suffering would end as soon as he stopped talking about it—seems self-evident, but he never quite puts his finger on it. As the evening wears on, and your discomfort becomes visible—as your eyes wander to the door, and you begin checking your watch and rattling the ice in your empty highball glass—the drunk will begin daring you to hit him. “Come on, tough guy!” he’ll bellow. “You think you know pain?” And if, finally, you give in and deck him, he’ll lie on the floor, bleeding triumphantly, and crow that he’s been victimized yet again.

The book, as I say, starts out well. “In the Garden of North American Martyrs” is an excellent story, and Mr. Wolff’s language is so smooth and economical that it’s almost easier to continue reading than to stop. But before long, the stories begin to repeat: The heroes, often soldiers, usually estranged from parents or children, simply don’t know where to go or what to do. They’re broken and they can’t be fixed. And the problem is that this state of paralysis, however smoothly rendered, is simply not very interesting, so Mr. Wolff must resort to manipulative tricks.

Consider this section of “The Rich Brother”:

“But Donald wouldn’t give him directions. He said the farm was too depressing, that Pete wouldn’t like it. Instead, he insisted on meeting him at a service station called Jonathan’s Mechanical Emporium.

“‘You must be kidding,’ Pete said.

“‘It’s close to the highway,’ Donald told him. ‘I didn’t name it.’

“‘That’s one for the collection,’ Pete said.”

No, the character Donald did not name the filling station—the author did; he either invented it or, if there is such a place in California somewhere, he chose to mention it. In a different book, this might constitute a wink at the reader, a smirking acknowledgment of the profound falsity at the base of all art—that it presents to the viewer as real facts what are only the mysterious, arbitrary choices of the artist. But in this otherwise straightforward story of a rich brother disclaiming responsibility for his flaky but sincere younger brother—a story that might have been constructed with a protractor and a Sears metaphor catalog—it can’t be given that much credit; in this story, it indicates only that Mr. Wolff takes for granted such full attention and credulousness from his readers that he doesn’t expect them to trip over such things.

A related trick is begging the question, taking for granted what remains to be shown. This is from “Lady’s Dream”:

“She’s in the kitchen running water into a glass, letting it overflow and pour down her fingers until it’s good and cold. She lifts the glass and drinks her fill and sets the glass down.”

The stories are full of this: People drink cold water; they take long swallows; they walk, straightforward, into the rain, as if it weren’t … even … there. In other words, they perform simple physical actions that could be highly charged, intensely vivid or specially significant—if anything in the context made them so.

That nothing does might seem to be merely a technical failure, but in fact it’s the necessary consequence of another problem: Mr. Wolff fails to demonstrate the reality of his characters’ interior lives because he doesn’t appreciate the reality of the reader’s. In “That Room,” for example: “That room—once you enter it, you never really leave.”

A room you never leave is an excellent metaphor for neurosis. But what’s significant in this sentence is the pronoun: you. You never really leave—in other words, Mr. Wolff takes for granted not only the reader’s attentive credulousness; he takes for granted that the reader’s neuroses will match his own. And if they don’t?

“At one point he walked over to the mirror and studied himself as if he were alone, and Gilbert was surprised by the anger he felt.” Gilbert, in “Two Boys and a Girl,” will go on to steal his best friend Rafe’s girlfriend, but in this passage he’s angered by the evidence of his friend’s separate consciousness—because, for the moment, it excludes him. This is why the drunk with the glass jaw keeps daring you to hit him: not because you make light of his problems, or are inattentive, but simply because his problems are not yours. This is the insult he cannot bear.

This is also the insult worth talking about. Mr. Wolff looks, from the enormous author photo that makes up the cover of his book, like a perfectly nice man—and he’s a skillful and talented writer. He might be forgiven some flaws. But the flaws that ruin this book are not minor, because they’re not unique: They exemplify the flaws that beset our entire contemporary literature. Because the writer can use the material of his own life to make work of universal appeal, too many writers seem to believe that their own lives, their own problems, their own pain, as such, must be interesting.

In his famous story “Bullet in the Brain,” Tobias Wolff invents a literary critic who’s murdered by bank robbers because he can’t stop himself from smirking at the robbers’ shoes and the bank’s tacky ceiling. Shooting a critic is fair enough—as a powerless writer myself, I’ve had my share of bitter, violent fantasies. But Mr. Wolff doesn’t indict his critic for missing the point, for being stupid, for being partial or unfair, for any critical failure—he indicts him, simply, for judging what should not be judged. And once your work makes a claim to be beyond judgment, it’s no longer literature—it’s therapy.

Will Heinrich, author of The King’s Evil (Scribner), is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at wheinrich@observer.com.

Shoot the Critic—Or Confront Wolff’s Representative Flaws