Friday, June 20, 2008


Although I disagree (sometimes fundamentally) with many of the opinions and interpretations in this collection of James Wood's reviews, I found myself reaching the book's end with the wish that it were longer. High praise indeed for a collection of critical essays. Even when Wood is wrong (as he often is!) he's worth arguing with, worth thinking about, and that's the sign of a very good critic, a Kael or a Vidal or an Edmund Wilson (to use the George Steiner tic that Wood so deliciously mocks). James Wood is not an easy man to ignore.

The fundamental problem with Wood's criticism is his overestimation of Jane Austen. Austen is his touchstone for literary greatness (he even compares Gogol to Austen, for pete's sake!), and this greatly limits his ability to appreciate Modern and Postmodern literature. Analyzing Pynchon or Morrison or DeLillo according to criteria abstracted from close readings of Mansfield Park and Emma is rather like judging sportscars in terms of the design specs for horse-drawn carriages. Wood's carriage of choice may be the finest ever made, but its excellence is beside the point when the subject is Ferraris.

THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is not--or at least, not yet--a writer of the first rank. She's with Iris Murdoch in the second drawer from the top. The Night Watch is merely good; it isn't a great novel, and in fact it seems a bit less than the sum of its parts. The novel's reverse chronology isn't really justified by the story and appears to be a rather obvious and artificial gimmick, a means of creating mysteries which the narrative wouldn't otherwise contain, a blatant reader-manipulation device. And in addition to all that, the device doesn't really work: the novel's eventual revelations all struck me as rather disappointing and anticlimactic. I also found myself wondering, as I read this relatively tame and P.C. Waters performance, about the niche Waters fills in the BritLit cathedral. Is she British fiction's 'acceptable' literary lesbian, less disturbing and transgressive than writers sold exclusively at Gay's The Word, more palatable to mainstream (read 'straight') readers who find even Jeannette Winterson a little too dykey? Is Sarah Waters Brit Lit's answer to The L Word, gentrifying lesbian fiction for a bourgeois audience? As the bisexual and very transgressive car crash afficionado Vaughan remarks in David Cronenberg's film Crash, "A case could be made..."

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE by Bohumil Hrabal

Yet another very good book that few Americans (even literary types) have read, this novella is a wonderful Central European melange resounding with echoes of Kafka, Gogol and Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. It's a marvelous book full of great ideas and images; it overflows with hope and hopelessness, dark humor and sly satire. (I'm starting to sound like a blurb writer, so I guess it's time to exit. Suffice it to say that Too Loud a Solitude is one of those books that, upon first reading, makes me want to gush.)