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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

James Wood's "The Nearest Thing to Life"

What does criticism gain by being personal? By “personal” I don’t mean ad hominem. I mean autobiographical. What is a critic aiming to accomplish when he includes a chunk of his own personal experience in his writing? In his new collection, The Nearest Thing to Life, James Wood serves up four essays, each of which contains a personal component. This is a departure for Wood. Most of his work consists of reviews – among the best in the business. He’s also written at least two personal essays – “The Fun Stuff: Homage to Keith Moon” and “Packing My Father-In-Law’s Library” – both collected in his great The Fun Stuff (2012). The pieces in The Nearest Thing To Life weave together personal history and literary commentary. They’re more ruminative than analytical. They’re like autobiography set to literary theory. For example, the first essay in the book, titled “Why?” (originally published in the December 9, 2013 New Yorker) is a meditation on death and fictional form. It begins with an account of a memorial service that Wood attended and ends with an examination of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. In between, it discusses death, religion, Wood’s strict religious upbringing, his discovery of fiction’s freedom (“I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and short story as an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered”), and propounds a theory – “To read the novel is to be constantly moving between secular and religious modes, between what could be called instance and form.” The piece is a shade heavy on religion for my taste, but in light of Wood’s upbringing (“The scriptures saturated everything”), that’s forgivable. The real question is whether this form of essay is preferable to Wood’s essay-reviews. Before I answer, let’s briefly consider the other three pieces in The Nearest Thing to Life.

The second piece is “Serious Noticing” – my favorite of the four. It extends and amplifies Wood’s splendid philosophy of “detail.” In his How Fiction Works (2008), he says, “In life as in literature, we navigate via the stars of detail.” Wood has a jeweler’s eye for detail. He distinguishes between real and literary detail, relevant and irrelevant detail, “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail. In “Serious Noticing,” his consideration of Chekhov’s “The Kiss” (“The details are the stories; stories in miniature. As we get older, some of those details fade, and others, paradoxically, become more vivid. We are, in a way, all internal fiction writers and poets, rewriting our memories”) leads to a reminiscence about growing up in the northern English town of Durham (there’s a wonderful line describing coal pouring down a chute into the basement of his family’s house – “I vividly remember the volcanic sound, as it tumbled into the cellar, and the drifting, bluish coal-dust, and the dark, small men who carried those sacks on their backs, with tough leather pads on their shoulders”). The piece advances a theory of “life-surplus” (“the life-surplus of a story lies in its details”); talks about “serious noticing” (serious noticing is a way of “rescuing the life of things from their death”); and concludes by observing, “We can bring the dead back by applying the same attentiveness to their shades as we apply to the world around us – by looking harder: by transfiguring the object.” I question that last bit about “transfiguring the object.” It connects with an observation that Wood makes earlier in the piece: “Just as great writing asks us to look more closely, it asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.” So when Wood says, “by looking harder: by transfiguring the object,” he seems to be saying “looking harder” means looking at something in terms of its potential for metaphor and imagery. I disagree. For me, “looking harder” means seeing things exactly as they are. C. K. Williams, in his On Whitman (2010), says,

As for the body of the world, of existence – Whitman isn’t trying to raise reality through his poetry to another level of being, another realm of possibility: his poetry embodies rather the gigantic illuminations that are evident in perception. Unlike Rilke’s earth that desires only to be transformed; unlike Traherne’s “The corn was orient and immortal wheat,” Whitman’s vegetation is itself, his poems don’t need or want a mode of existence that depends on transformation: his metaphoric stuff is inherent in his perceptions; rather than using mind to alter reality, he finds ways to enlarge the underused senses of the mind, to fling the eyes and ears open wider, to make more sensitive the endings of the nerves.

Wood’s theory of transformation aside, his philosophy of detail, as expressed in How Fiction Works, and elaborated in “Serious Noticing,” seems to me one of the most useful, beautiful ideas in all of literary criticism. His love of detail is palpable. When he says, in “Serious Noticing,” “I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them,” I feel his passion. I want to touch them, too.

The Nearest Thing to Life’s third essay is called “Using Everything.” It’s about the practice of literary criticism. It contains a few surprises. One of them is Wood’s revelation that “A lot of the criticism I most admire is not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate rediscription.” He explains that by “passionate rediscription” he means “an act of critique that is at the same time a revoicing.” I like this idea of the critic as sort of jazz singer – the critic jazzing his subject text. But my first love is analysis. It’s why I read criticism. It’s why I devour Wood. He’s an excellent analyst of style, of structure and language. Here’s a quick example. In his How Fiction Works (2008), he quotes this long, remarkable sentence from Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre

Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenk’s uberous breasts – uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto’s painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit – suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan (as Juno herself may once groaned), “I feel it deep down in my cunt,” he was pierced by the sharpest longings for his late little mother.

 – and says,

This is an amazingly blasphemous little mélange. This sentence is really dirty, and partly because it conforms to the well-known definition of dirt – matter out of place, which is itself a definition of high and low dictions. But why would Roth engage in such baroque deferrals and shifts. Why write it so complicatedly? If you render the simple matter of his sentence and keep everything in place – i.e., remove the jostle of registers – you see why. A simple version would go like this: “Lately, when Sabbath sucked Drenka’s breasts, he was pierced by the sharpest longing for his mother.” It is still funny, because of the slide from lover to mother, but it is not exuberant. So the first thing the complexity achieves is to enact the exuberance, the hasty joy and chaotic desire, of sex. Second, the long, mock-pedantic, suspended subclause about the Latin origin of “uberous” and Tintoretto’s painting of Juno works, in proper music-hall fashion, to delay the punchline of “he was pieced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother.” (It also delays, and makes more shocking and unexpected, the entrance of “cunt.”) Third, since the comedy of the subject matter of the sentence involves moving from one register to another – from a lover’s breast to a mother’s – it is fitting that the style of the sentence mimics this scandalous shift, by engaging in its own stylistic shifts, going up and down like a manic EKG: so we have “suckled” (high diction), “breasts” (medium), “uberare” (high), “Tintoretto’s painting” (high), “where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit” (low), “unrelenting frenzy” (high, rather formal diction), “as Juno herself may have once groaned” (still quite high), “cunt” (very low), “pierced by the sharpest of longings” (high, formal diction again). By insisting on equalizing all these different levels of diction, the style of the sentence works as style should, to incarnate the meaning, and the meaning itself, of course, is all about the scandal of equalizing different registers.

Wood’s criticism abounds with such analysis or redescription or descriptive analysis. Wood can call it whatever he wants so long as he keeps writing it. I can’t get enough of it.

Another surprise in “Serious Noticing” is Wood’s view of criticism as a form of storytelling. He says, “The good critic has an awareness that criticism means, in part, telling a story about the story you are reading.” Really? What I like about criticism, in general, and Wood’s reviews, in particular, is that they aren’t stories. They’re description; they’re analysis; they’re argument. “Give me some straight talk. Give me a little humor. Give me something real. Above all, give me an argument,” Dwight Garner says, in “a Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical” (The New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2012). I agree.

The great value of “Serious Noticing,” as far as I’m concerned, lies in its appreciation of criticism as literature. The best critics, Wood says, “speak to literature in its own language.” This is a refreshing corrective to the dismal views expressed by Adam Gopnik (“Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it”: see “Postscript: Robert Hughes,”, August 7, 2012) and Richard Brody (“Criticism is a parasitical operation”: see “How To Be A Critic,”, August 22, 2012). For me, criticism – “writerly criticism,” as Wood calls it – is one of the most stimulating, satisfying, nourishing sources of reading pleasure. Janet Malcolm’s deconstruction of Sylvia Plath biographies (The Silent Woman), Richard Ellmann’s tracing of the sources of Joyce’s “The Dead” (James Joyce), Helen Vendler’s analysis of the grammatical shifts in Seamus Heaney’s style (The Breaking of Style), Michael Fried’s analysis of the structures of Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (Realism, Writing, Disfiguration), Svetlana Alpers’s argument for the importance of the distinction between description and narration (The Art of Describing) – I could go on and on – are every bit as artful and creative as the great works they take as their subjects. They are literature. I value them immensely.

The fourth essay in The Nearest Thing to Life is “Secular Homelessness.” I praised it when it originally appeared in the London Review of Books (February 20, 2014) under the title “On Not Going Home” (see my comment here). But rereading it in The Nearest Thing to Life, I’ve had second thoughts. It is a great essay – I’m still convinced of that – the verbal equivalent of a Rauschenberg combine, in which materials as diverse as Thomas Tallis’s “O Nata Lux,” Durham Cathedral, the Hudson River, Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile,” a Green Card, a bumper sticker, Boar’s Head trucks, Deltic diesels, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants are conjoined to make an arresting meditation on homelessness. But Wood’s mirroring off exilic literature strikes me as a bit much. His life is not in the least comparable to Said’s and Sebald’s tragic exiles, refugees, expatriates, and émigrés. And his statement that after eighteen years living in the U.S., he looks down his Boston Street and “feels nothing” is hard to comprehend. Compare it with Aleksandar Hemon’s immigrant experience, as described in his superb "Mapping Home" (The New Yorker, December 5, 2011). In March, 1992, Hemon, a Bosnian citizen, arrived in Chicago on a cultural exchange. He planned to stay only a month. But in April, the Bosnian War began and Hemon decided to stay in Chicago. To get to know the place better, he did a lot of walking. He says, “I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.” Eventually, he settled into the Chicago neighborhood of Edgewater. “Little by little,” he writes,

people in Edgewater began to recognize me; I started greeting them on the street. Overtime, I acquired a barber and a butcher and a coffee shop with a steady set of colorful characters – which were, as I’d learned in Sarajevo, the necessary knots in my personal urban network. I discovered that the process of transforming an American city into a space you could call your own required starting in a particular neighborhood. Soon I began to claim Edgewater as mine; I became a local.

This is quite a different story from Wood’s. My point is that not all immigrants feel homeless. It’s possible to make a home in a new place. But you have to want to; like Hemon, you have to want “a geography of the soul.” I suspect that the only place in which Wood truly feels at home is his books. This would be the case even if he'd stayed in England.

And now to return to my initial question: Are the hybrid essays in The Nearest Thing to Life preferable to Wood’s reviews? The answer is no they aren’t. I relish the descriptive analysis of his reviews. They are a form of art. Long may he keep writing them.

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