The Fun Stuff and Other Essays
“James Wood is that wonderful thing: the academic who still loves the topic of his study.”
James Wood is in a bit of a mood. After nearly kissing Henry James square on the lips over What Maisie Knew and rhapsodizing over A Sentimental Education and Vanity Fair and anything by Chekhov in his last book, How Fiction Works, in The Fun Stuff and Other Essays—a series of essays on this and that, literature mostly—he spends what seems an inordinate amount of time bitching about Paul Auster.
Like this, from the essay in question, the slant of which is revealed in the title, “Paul Auster’s Shallowness,” in which, among other complaints, Mr. Wood lists what he calls “the most familiar features” of Auster’s work:
“A protagonist, almost always a male, often a writer or intellectual, certainly a reader, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence, and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction, and a general atmosphere of the B movie.”
To which the reader snappily responds: “How dare novels conduct themselves like realistic stories!”
The reader pouts over this, over the strange unfairness of a man who so champions authors, like James, who tend to write the same story over and over again, taking a modern favorite to task for the same. As if most authors don’t spend their professional lives revisiting things. How often, for instance, have wrestlers turned up in the works of John Irving?
But never mind.
It’s the whole point, you see. James Wood’s essays are like the list of the top and bottom ten movies of the year that we are about to wade through. Like the Barbara Walters’ special on the “ten most fascinating people of 2012.” The essays are determinedly subjective, often seemingly written to get a rise out of the reader, and often revealing more about their author than about the author they were written about.
As here, in the wonderful “George Orwell’s Very English Revolution,” in which we learn that Mr. Wood shared with Orwell both an alma mater and a blue collar background:
“I vividly remember when I first read George Orwell. It was at Eton, Orwell’s old school. Not coming from a family with any Eton connections (a portion of my fees was paid by the school), I had refined a test: if a boy’s father had gone there, then that boy’s grandparents had been rich enough, in the early 1950s, to come up with the money. And if his grandparents had been rich enough, the chances were that his great-grandparents had had enough cash to send Grandpa there in the 1920s—and back and back, in an infinite regression of privilege.”
Into the hands of Young Master Wood passes a copy of Orwell’s pamphlet “The Lion and The Unicorn.” (“A powerfully radical pamphlet, published at a time when Orwell thought that the only way for the British to beat the Nazis was to make the war a revolutionary one.”)
Perhaps Orwell’s pensées had an impact upon Mr. Wood (“I spent my time at that school alternately grateful for its every expensive blessing, and yearning to blow it up.) Perhaps not. But the willing self revelations, commingled with a consideration of Orwell’s oeuvre—which, thankfully, stresses Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigen Pier over Animal Farm and 1984—give the work a conversational quality if you will, one that the deep resonance between Orwell and Mr. Wood somehow emblematic of how is was an is perceived by the British reading public.
Some of the authors discussed in these pages are obscure to the point that Mr. Wood might have simply made them up and assigned their books to them as a means of using his apocryphal authors to make some salient points about the importance of and development of literature, but The Fun Stuff most certainly contains enough of the titular goods to satisfy any reader.
For example, the essay on Tolstoy and War and Peace, reminds the reader of just how exuberant the man’s works can be:
“‘Alive and very much so,’ Tolstoy’s diary entry for November 19, 1889, begins. Yes, reading War and Peace, that is how it feels to be caught up in Tolstoy’s bright sweep: alive, and very much so.”
Ah, the “bright sweep.” It describes much of what Wood has to offer as well.
Perhaps the best of the lot is the essay simply called “Thomas Hardy,” in which, among other things, Wood takes Henry James to task for his faint praise (James reportedly referred to the author as “the good little Thomas Hardy”) by writing:
“Henry James was snooty about Hardy, but I wonder how James would have done, in given as a kind of literary test a cow’s udder to describe?”
True, he manages to mention A Sentimental Education once again, here, when we were gathered to honor Hardy, but, by God, he gives the guy his due just by noting that in Far From the Madding Crowd “there is a joyousness that makes this novel deeply loveable.” before continuing:
“As on all Hardy, there is a coincidence and implausibility, the concertina-pleats of the plot pressing against each together more tightly as the tale seeds towards its melodramatic conclusion.”
About Hardy, admittedly, it’s all true, the joyousness, the implausibility, even those pleats, but, like Wood, the simple love the reader has for the book and its author transcends and forgives.
James Wood is that wonderful thing: the academic who still loves the topic of his study.
Whether Orwell or Hardy or Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road or Edmund Wilson, who, as Wood Reminds us, F. Scott Fitzgerald calls “the literary conscience of the age”) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or even Keith Moon’s drums in the titular essay, “The Fun Stuff,” the same truth rings out: There is no greater proponent of literature at work today and no one better capable of making the case that the written word still matters—and matters more perhaps than any other aspect of that vague, transitory thing we call culture.