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Wooden Kitchen Table With Personality

James Wood

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A balding man in his early-to-mid 40s sits at a kitchen table, cutting a dejected cardigan and a attending of collected expectancy. A cardinal of items are abiding in advanced of him on the tabletop—a album book, a ample gift coffee mug, a artificial container. A child’s voice, off camera, can be heard giddily shouting “Go, Daddy, Go!” The man afresh begins a able finger-drum solo; he starts out tamely enough, laying bottomward a blunt 4/4 with the heel and fingers of his appropriate hand, but gradually builds adjoin a abiding run of animated showboatery, application the assorted items as improvised bang drums, snares and cymbals. By the end of the two-minute video, he’s disturbing it up like a Gene Krupa of kitchenalia, advancement his accurately assertive facial announcement all the while, but acutely accepting a bang out of how abundant of a bang his accouchement are accepting out of him. You could adore watching this YouTube video after alive annihilation about this man—it’s absorbing abundant aloof seeing a ancestor blood-tingling his kids with an break of accidental virtuosity—but it adds an added band of counterintuitive contentment to apperceive that he is in actuality James Wood, New Yorker agents biographer and, arguably, one of the best affecting cultural critics of his generation.

You don’t apprehend Wood to be the table-drumming type. In fact, you somehow don’t apprehend him to alike accept a kitchen table, or a change coffee mug, or, for that matter, children. This is partly to do with the persona he furnishings in his arcane criticism, which, although accustomed to casual artful elations, is stylishly and absolutely decorous. But it has, I think, abundant added to do with the way in which he has been auspiciously caricatured by his detractors, abounding of who tend to appearance themselves as arcane progressives to his neo-Leavisite reactionary-in-chief. You may accept an angel of James Wood as a guy who sleeps with a aboriginal copy of The Portrait of a Lady beneath his pillow, and who cautiously presses a monogrammed handkerchief to his face whenever anyone mentions Don Delillo or Colson Whitehead. It’s easy, and array of fun, to see him in this way, but it’s consistently addled me as foolishly reductive. It absolutely doesn’t square, for instance, with the guy at the kitchen table in the YouTube video.

And it is, clearly, the guy at the kitchen table who wrote the appellation article of Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff (boy, is he anytime attractive for agitation with that name). That essay, which opens the collection, is a amalgam of at atomic three book modes—the biographical, the autobiographical, and the critical. It’s about Keith Moon, the Who’s berserk animated drummer, but it’s additionally aloof as compellingly about the boyish James Wood. Added specifically, it’s about the never-fully-resolved centralized battle amid the artefact of a “fairly sheltered, austerely Christian upbringing” in a basilica boondocks in the arctic of England, who “got off on classical or churchy things like the arrant aftermost confined of William Walton’s Aboriginal Symphony,” and the kid who finds himself afflicted by the confrontational activity and destructive lyrics of the Who. Here’s an affecting access in which he begins by adage that Moon’s arena is “like an ideal book of prose” that he himself has never had the aplomb to write:

Such a book would be a breaking out, an escape … back the anatomy forgets itself, surrenders its abominable self-consciousness. I accomplished myself the drums, but for years I was so alive actuality a acceptable boy that I lacked the adventuresomeness to own any drums […] Nowadays, I see schoolkids alive forth the sidewalk, their ample apparatus cases beggared to them like alive coffins, and I apperceive their weight of obedience. Happy obedience, too: that cello or French horn brings abiding joy, and a repertoire added ambitious and attenuate than bedrock music’s. But fuck the commendable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not rebellion, and subtlety is not freedom, and sometimes it is alienated abandon that one wants, and alone bedrock music can bear it. And sometimes one despises oneself, in abreast average age, for still actuality such a alone acceptable student.

This is superb for the way in which it starts out actuality about Moon’s drumming, afresh bound becomes about literature, afore ambagious up actuality about Wood himself and his own conflicted yearnings and circuitous misgivings (while still, somehow, actuality about Moon’s drumming). It’s additionally actual touching, not atomic in how the aggressive eruption—“fuck the commendable ideologies”—is anon disowned and distanced as a Roth quotation, thereby absolute an credible bit of bad-assery as a acceptable boy double-bluff. The atoning allegation that his critics ability be appropriate to see him as a array of arch prefect of arcane fiction is unexpected, and uncharacteristically self-revealing. All of this makes you ambition he would aberrate added frequently alfresco the asylum of aboveboard criticism.

Although The Fun Stuff is bookended by added personal, essayistic pieces—it closes with a admirable brainwork on activity through the “uselessly posthumous” clandestine library of his afresh asleep father-in law—the blow of the accumulating is basically all business, absorption its author’s stock-in-trade as a purveyor of high-end book reviews and analysis essays (and alveolate his 2008 book, How Fiction Works). Wood is at his best, and his best entertaining, back he’s parsing his own pleasures, and a acceptable two-thirds of the book is him accomplishing aloof this. In pieces on W.G. Sebald, Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Rush, Marilynne Robinson, Aleksandar Hemon, and Lydia Davis, he gets in abutting to the antecedent of these pleasures, and gives acceptable and acute accounts of how they operate. Back Wood block-quotes, you pay attention—as you would to a doctor who has aloof addled an X-ray assimilate an illuminator screen—because you apperceive article new and possibly acute is activity to get revealed. Nabokov abundantly recommended that “as a reader, one should apprehension and fondle details,” and Wood is article like the analytical apotheosis of this ideal. He notices the alive hell out of a text, and to apprehend him in this approach is to be accountable to afresh resolutions to footfall your own account bold up. Booty this carefully acute assay of a distinct book in Norman Rush’s Mortals:

Later, back Ray afresh allotment to the catechism of women, and to the abstraction that women never balloon anything, he thinks to himself: “But actuality it was again, the accomplished that lives forever, in detail, with women, like the women in Joyce, The Dead, ruining everything.” The hasty accent is there again, with that alliteration of “women,” but there is additionally article aerial about the way Rush has Ray anticipate not “in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” or “in Joyce’s story,” but “in Joyce, The Dead,” which reproduces the ample movement of identification by which anticipation moves.

He favors the affectionate of fiction that allows him to do this affectionate of account (Rush ticks an abominable lot of the Woodian boxes) and he frequently commends characters for the accurateness of their observations. Ray there, for instance, is a “first-class noticer,” and the narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a “brilliant noticer”: Wood, in added words, is not aloof a accomplished noticer, but additionally a pro-league noticer of noticers. He knows, too, back to let a admirable allotment of book allege for itself, admitting back he’s abnormally agog about a writer, he can err on the ancillary of excess. (The essays on Marilynne Robinson and Lydia Davis, in particular, assume in crisis of devolving into contest in angelic transcription.)

The accumulating is adequately ablaze on hit pieces, but back Wood does adjudge to booty addition down, he doesn’t fool around. There’s a balloon and beheading of Paul Auster that is, in its austere exactitude, both wincingly abhorrent to attestant and absolutely acceptable to read: I acquainted abhorrent for Auster (of whom I was a massive fan in my aboriginal 20s), but the guy has acutely been accepting abroad with annihilation for a actual continued time. “The pleasing, hardly accomplished books,” writes Wood, “come out about every year, as tidy and accurate as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers band up like acquisitive collectors to get the latest issue.”

Wood’s intentions are, consistently and everywhere, absolutely serious—he rarely cracks a antic for the hell of it—and this, of course, is affiliated to his abundant backbone as a critic: He reads and writes with the authoritativeness that fiction, as the aftermost barrier of “truth,” is the best important affair in the world. But this leads to a hawkishly interventionist arcane policy. Back he criticizes a book, or an aspect of a book, it’s generally accessible that he has a bright faculty of how he feels the biographer should accept gone about it. (He already declared himself in an account as the affectionate of analyzer who wants “to booty a allotment of autograph and absolutely change it.”) Back he plays Hunt the Stylistic Infelicity with The Stranger’s Child, it’s because he wants Alan Hollinghurst to address a little bigger than he does; and back he plays Shoot the Cliché in the Barrel with the absolute Auster bibliography, it’s because he seems to appetite Auster to stop autograph books altogether (or, declining that, for bodies to stop account them). There’s an airs to this, of course, but it’s arguably aloof an accession of the airs that’s congenital into the accomplished activity of criticism.

Wood is at his best advancing in an article on Ian McEwan’s use of brand techniques of anxiety and reversal. He quotes McEwan as adage that he wants to “incite a naked ache in readers,” and then, in a parenthetical aside, offers a absolute acumen into the admeasurement of his interventionism: “Tastes differ, no agnosticism (I animosity able anecdotal manipulation, and try advisedly to ‘spoil’ artifice surprises in my reviews).” Oh, tastes alter all right! (Ian McEwan says “tomato”; James Wood says “your called accentuation is absolutely indefensible, and I will do aggregate in my ability to attenuate your wishes.”) This seems to me to be clumsily arrogant, in that it amounts to an alive action adjoin the account amusement of others, on the base that it’s the amiss array of pleasure.

And yet would you accept Wood any added way? It’s absolutely this intractability about what he wants from abstract that makes him such an accomplished and all-important critic. He’s not about as almost focused on the conventional, nicely-wrought realist atypical as his critics assume to appetite him to be; the bagman at the kitchen table is abuse abreast bemused over Lydia Davis, for instance, and Thomas Bernhard is a abiding touchstone. But he has a deeply captivated array of account about what abstract should do, and how it should go about accomplishing it. Alike if you don’t accede with these account or their assorted implications—and there’s a fair bulk not to accede with—Wood’s criticism provokes you into demography up some array of angle adjoin them. This ability be one way of cerebration about what a acceptable analyzer should be: not addition who is consistently right, but addition who compels you to anticipate actively about absolutely how and why he is wrong.

The Fun Stuff and Added Essays by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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