What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, November 19, 2012

James Wood's "The Fun Stuff"

James Wood, in the Preface of his great How Fiction Works (2008), writes, “I admire Milan Kundera’s three books on the art of fiction, but Kundera is a novelist and essayist rather than a practical critic; occasionally we want his hands to be a bit inkier with text.” Occasionally we want his hands to be bit inkier with text – how fine that is! It perfectly catches the quality I most desire in a critic’s writing – deep immersion at the level of sentence and structure. Wood’s hands are always inky with text – right up to his elbows. That’s what I love about his work. He gets inside writing, analyzing the words-as-arranged-on-the-page. Helen Vendler, in her review of Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue, writes, “The art of Heaney’s criticism is never to lose touch with the writing act, the texture of the lines on the page” (Soul Says, 1995). That’s Wood’s art, too. His new collection, The Fun Stuff, contains twenty-five essays - seventeen of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. They are all bravura pieces of writing, knit together by three of Wood’s abiding themes: the noticing eye, a distain for convention, and a love of the long sentence.

A key element of Wood’s aesthetic is close observation of detail. “Literature teaches us to notice,” he says in How Fiction Works. Of one of his favorite writers, Saul Bellow, he says, “Bellow notices superbly” (How Fiction Works). In "Red Planet," one of his earliest New Yorker pieces (not included in The Fun Stuff), he says that Cormac McCarthy is a “wonderfully delicate noticer of nature.” In "Reality Effects" (another New Yorker piece not included in The Fun Stuff), he says that John Jeremiah Sullivan is a “fierce noticer.” In "Cabin Fever" (yet another New Yorker review missing from The Fun Stuff), he says that the protagonist of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a “steady noticer of the natural world, and that the novella’s prose follows his eye, with frequent exhalations of beauty.” In "Wounder and Wounded" (in The Fun Stuff), he calls V. S. Naipaul a “brilliant noticer.” Wood himself deserves this compliment; he’s a brilliant literary noticer. Mark O’Connell, in his terrific review of The Fun Stuff, says, “When Wood block-quotes, you pay attention—as you would to a doctor who has just flipped an X-ray onto an illuminator screen—because you know something new and possibly crucial is going to get revealed” ("The Different Drummer," Slate, November 2, 2012). I know exactly what O’Connell means; I totally agree with him. Wood has a jeweler’s eye for choice quotation and a luminous way of presenting it. For example, here’s a passage from his excellent "Beyond a Boundary: 'Netherland' as Postcolonial Novel" (in The Fun Stuff):

The eye that sees the “orange fuzz” of the streetlights is the eye that elsewhere in the novel, alights on the “molten progress of the news tickers” in Times Square, the “train-infested underpants” of Hans’s little boy, “a necklace’s gold drool,” the “roving black blooms of four-dollar umbrellas,” and that sees, in one lovely swipe of a sentence, a sunset like this: “The day, a pink smear above America, had all but disappeared.”

That “in one lovely swipe of a sentence” is delightful, perfectly describing O’Neill’s inspired “pink smear” line.

Wood is impatient with conventionality. In "Keeping It Real" (The New Yorker, March 15, 2010; not included in The Fun Stuff), he describes Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered as "a book that is commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and alas, utterly conventional." He scorns what he calls the “cumbersome caravans of plot” (“Life’s White Machine: Ben Lerner,” in The Fun Stuff). In “Keeping It Real,” he exclaims, “All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization!” As an alternative to all this “silly machinery,” Wood points to novels such as Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Teju Coles’s Open City. Regarding Lerner’s novel, he says:

Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and “conflict,” fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life: what he calls several times in the book “life’s white machine”: “that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance … the texture of et cetera itself.”

The Fun Stuff evinces Wood’s fondness for the long sentence. In “Beyond a Boundary,” he writes, “O’Neill writes elegant, long sentences, formal but not fussy, punctually pricked with lyrically exact metaphor.” Regarding postwar avant-garde fiction, in “‘Reality Examined to the Point of Madness’: László Krasznahorkai” (in The Fun Stuff), he says,

A lot has already disappeared from this fictional world, and the writer concentrates on filling the sentence, using it to notate, produce, and reproduce the tiniest qualifications, hesitations, intermittences, affirmations, and negations of existence. This is one reason why very long, breathing, unstopped sentences, at once literary and vocal, are almost inseparable from the progress of experimental fiction since the 1950s.

In his beautiful personal essay, "The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon," Wood describes his notion of the “ideal sentence”: “a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong."

Wood himself occasionally writes a medium-length, Krasznahorkaiesque sentence. Consider, for example, this syntactically rich, eighty-eight word assemblage from “Life’s White Machine: Ben Lerner”:

At once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome, Adam is a convincing representative of twenty-first century American Homo literatus – a creature of privilege and lassitude, living through a time of inflamed political uncertainty, yet certain only of his own uncertainty and thus always more easily defined by negation than by affirmation, clearly dedicated to poetry but unable to define or defend it (except to intone emptily that poetry isn’t about anything) and implicitly nostalgic for earlier, mythical eras of greater strength and surety.

The New Yorker took one look at that line and put a period after “Homo literatus,” breaking the sentence in two (see "Reality Testing," October 31, 2012). Obviously, Wood prefers the single, long line. When he collected the piece in The Fun Stuff, he opted for his original conception.

The Fun Stuff is a brilliant collection of critical and personal pieces, one of the best in recent memory. I'm enjoying it immensely.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a review of The Fun Stuff by James Woods. We really enjoyed it!