Tuesday, January 22, 2013
January 21, 2013 Issue
James Wood, in his “Reality Effects” (The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2011) says, “The contemporary essay has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction.” I agree. The essay is the ideal medium of expression. Some of the best writing appearing right now is in the essay form (e.g., Zadie Smith’s “North West London Blues,” Elif Batuman’s “The View from the Stands,” John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Unknown Bards,” Aleksandar Hemon’s “Mapping Home,” Jeremy Denk’s “Flight of the Concord,” Peter Hessler’s “Identity Parade,” Iain Sinclair’s “Upriver,” Chang-Rae Lee’s “Magical Dinners,” Geoff Dyer’s “Poles Apart,” Keith Gessen’s “Polar Express,” Nicholson Baker’s “Painkiller Deathstreak,” Colson Whitehead’s “A Psychotronic Childhood,” on and on, a surging river of extraordinary writing). Wood himself is handsomely contributing to the essay’s renaissance. His “The Fun Stuff” (The New Yorker, November 29, 2010; included in his great 2012 collection The Fun Stuff) and “Shelf Life” (The New Yorker, November 7, 2011); retitled “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” in The Fun Stuff) are wonderful personal essays. Parul Sehgal, in his appreciative review of The Fun Stuff, describes “Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library” as a “self-portrait at slant angle” (“The Wayward Essay,” The New York Times, December 28, 2012). This week’s New Yorker contains a new piece by Wood, called “Becoming Them.” It, too, is a “self-portrait at slant angle.” The angle is Wood’s mirror view of himself as a reflection of his father. He writes,
Sometimes I catch myself and think self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did. And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion. Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons. Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization. I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s, and can be mistaken for it. But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance. How unoriginal can one be?
Noting one’s familial resemblance may not be original, but some of Wood’s particulars are remarkable (e.g., “I sneeze the way he does, with a slightly theatrical whooshing sound”). His description of his aging mother’s deteriorated living conditions, when his father had to be hospitalized, includes this memorable detail: “the carpet under the dining table was littered with oats, like the floor of a hamster’s cage.”
In his personal essays, Wood appears more relaxed, less forceful than he is in his critical pieces. His lines are shorter; his syntax simpler; his style plainer. Also, reality, realism, the real, the really real, etc., which so preoccupy his criticism, don’t figure in his personal pieces. It seems that, writing his personal history, he’s content to let reality speak for itself. What we’re seeing, I think, is a great writer in the process of adjusting his style to represent the felt texture of his personal experience.