The Nearest Thing to Life

Image of The Nearest Thing to Life (The Mandel Lectures in the Humanities at Brandeis University)
Release Date: 
April 28, 2015
Brandeis University Press
Reviewed by: 

a pleasure to read.

The late Ray Bradbury was often approached by fellow authors for cover blurbs for their upcoming releases. As a generous man and dedicated to encouraging others people’s creative endeavors, he accommodated as many as he could, but only if he sincerely felt the work deserving. After reading one novelist’s book, he wrote to him with a blurb suitable for marketing, but added a personal note that what he really liked about the writer’s novel—ostensibly a thriller—was that he took detours or asides to describe the world surrounding the characters, and even the interior landscape of the characters themselves. “After all,” Bradbury wrote, “people don’t really read just for plot.”

It is likely that James Wood, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University, would agree with Bradbury, given the evidence of his latest book, The Nearest Thing to Life. It is a short work that gives deep consideration to the art of fiction and the importance of that art to our culture.

Despite being an academic, and despite the fact that the four essays in the book started life as lectures (the first three given as part of the Mandel Lectures in the Humanities at Brandeis University and published under their sponsorship), Wood’s book is neither academically dry nor, worse, academically obscure. The book is a beautifully written, compelling, and personal series of thoughts as to what makes fiction, as the title declares, the nearest thing to life.

In the first essay, Wood gives consideration to what he calls “the first question”—Why?—uttered by children when they first encounter death. Attempted answers, usually ones that were clumsy in trying to rectify a supposedly good God with death, caused Wood to discount the reliability of such answers and the truth of the fount of those answers. It was a natural rebellion in a child living in England in an intellectual and religious household, given his “burgeoning apprehension that intellectual and religious curiosity might not be natural allies.” 

But it was a rebellion he had to keep quiet, to lie about the fact that he was not accepting lies. “I became a formidable liar,” Wood writes, “the best I knew, accomplished and chronic. Lying went all the way down: you started by withholding the big truth, your atheism, and ended by withholding small truths—that you swore among your friends, or listened to Led Zep, or had more than one drink . . .”

Where might that have led? Possibly nowhere good. But “Literature, specifically fiction, allowed an escape from these habits of concealment—partly because it offered a symmetrical analogical version of them, a world of the book within which lies (fictions) were being used to protect meaningful truths. I still remember the adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and short story as an utterly free space [Wood’s italics], where anything might be thought, anything uttered.”

Wood goes on to describe his delight in discovering that the writers of the fictions made up a whole world—or worlds—of rebellion. And blasphemy and the radical and the raucous and even the erotic. It is a license, one most people in real life may get close to but never exercise—except through fiction. Because “. . . to witness that freedom in someone else is to have a companion, is to be taken into the confidence of otherness.”

It is also, Wood believes, to take on “ . . . the power of religious monitoring—the power to turn inside out the pocket of someone else’s private thoughts, and watch the loose change of error fall incriminatingly to the ground.” And yet we stand over these fictional characters—because they are fictional—not in judgement but in “. . . fellow feeling, compassion, communion.”

Wood seems to be saying that fiction provides a secular answer to Why? Or possibly it is the secular way to ask Why? Wood states that the novel moves between secular and religious modes or between what he calls “instance and form.” By instance he means the details of life, even ordinary life, possibly the fullness of life within the novel’s own life. And yet the form of the novel, bounded by a beginning and an end, “. . . reminds us that life is bounded by death, that life is death-in-waiting.” Wood does not specifically say this, but one assumes he finds fiction’s response to Why? more fulfilling, or at least more palatable, than religion’s. And is this so because fiction is more honest in its lying?

The second essay is titled after a phrase Wood has coined—and what a fine phrase it is—serious noticing. He first uses the phrase, or actually a variation of it, after telling us about a favorite story of his, Anton Chekhov’s “The Kiss.” After summarizing the story, Wood quotes “two absolutely lancing sentences in this story” that describe an interior moment of amazement in the main character, a small detail of revelation that tells a reader much about the life of the character and possibly much about the life of the reader. “What a serious noticer [Wood’s Italics] a writer must be to write those lines.”

The serious noticing of details, both exterior and interior, is for Wood one of the defining aspects of good to great literature. Such noticing of details brings to a work a “surplus of life” that spins off other stories that cancel the form, the structure, the artifice of fiction, and thus makes the fiction not life, but “lifeness.”

In the third essay, “Using Everything,” Wood turns his attention to his own profession of literary criticism as a way to further talk about fiction, making them partners dancing to the melody of metaphor.

The fourth essay, “Secular Homelessness,” was not born from the Mandel Lectures but is based on a lecture Wood gave at the British Museum in 2014 in a series co-run by the London Review of Books. It concerns exiles and emigres in a world that, starting in the last mid-century, accommodated them with jet travel, leading to a World Literature that has possibly morphed into a Global Literature. The difference between the two, and literature from those who are not so much homeless as “homeloose” are the ideas Wood gives compelling thought to here.

All four essays are infused with bits of Wood’s life, often conveyed in passages of fine prose demonstrating his own eye for details, his own serious noticing. It gives his book a most comfortable continuity and makes it a pleasure to read.