The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays
Twenty-three essays showcase preeminent literary critic James Wood as a hungry, happy bookworm.
If James Wood, today’s preeminent reviewer of literary fiction, were reviewing The Fun Stuff, a collection of 23 of his essays published between 2004 and 2011 in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the London Review of Books, he would be thorough, he would be specific, he would quote a lot, and he would appreciate the critic’s range and unpushy persuasiveness: “Certainly, the novella 'Agamemnon’s Daughter,' which [Ismail] Kadare wrote in the mid-1980s, around the time of [Enver] Hoxha’s death, is laceratingly direct and bitterly lucid. It is perhaps his greatest book, and, along with its sequel, 'The Successor,' surely one of the most devastating accounts ever written of the mental and spiritual contamination wreaked on the individual by the totalitarian state.” The polite Englishman might not point out, as I rudely would, that only laziness would prevent a reader of Wood’s essay from seeking out that Albanian novelist’s work.Skip to next paragraph
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Wood might, however, criticize what in fact he does concede about his own writing: “For me, [Keith Moon’s] playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheleved, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” For me, just another Yankee reviewer, reading or rereading Wood’s pieces one after the other (rather than as intermittent oases in a sea of sludgy literary criticism), is a little disappointing, if only because Wood, with his bright, clear voice, starts to sound slapdashedly slick: “Above all,” he announces in his essay on Marilynne Robinson, “I deeply admire the precision and lyrical power of her language, and the way it embodies a struggle – the fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.” A bit blurby, there, wot?
Wood doesn’t give his opinions and reactions as much play as, for instance, as a just as professional but less beholden author might – the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, or the late John Updike. He’s got a job to do, which is to say he measures his audience and tries to bring us up to speed, which I can’t help thinking puts us into the mode of graduate seminar students in the presence of a youngish brilliant professor: there’s no discussion. Wood is not conversing with us, we’re just supposed to listen to him riff: “I suspect that [Lydia Davis’s] prose will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal, in the way of the work of Flannery O’Connor, or Donald Barthelme, or J. F. Powers.” His judgments are impressive, but too often, he has killed and mounted his response rather than described it fluttering before him. That’s his default eagerness to cover himself and his subject, which he well knows has its drawbacks: “Sometimes one despises oneself, in near middle age, for still being such a merely good student." We wish his criticism were riskier, more alive, less mindful of being good and responsible.
Wood’s reviews of Lydia Davis and Aleksandar Hemon will persuade you that you have to read those writers, and you will feel grateful to Wood for having introduced you to them, through a meticulous and perfect selection of quotes, or for having jostled you into giving them another look: “And it needs to be stressed that Hemon did not become, in those eight years, merely a proficient but a superb stylist. Sometimes, his English has the regenerative eccentricity of the immigrant’s, restoring buried meanings to words like ‘vacuous’ and ‘petrified.’ A sentence like this one stands at a slight angle to customary English usage: ‘I piled different sorts of blebby pierogi and a cup of limpid tea on my tray.’ ‘Blebby’ is wonderful but perhaps more wonderfully, how many native English speakers would ever describe tea as limpid?”