Having ascended to being considered the leading critic of one’s generation is no joke, and finding the humor in Dostoevsky is no mean feat. James Wood is, and does. The subject is comedy, folks, and it’s not funny.
Wood has brought together this collection of “repeating themes” – to examine such noble concepts as the comedy of correction (in which the audience or reader knows more about the character than the character knows about himself and maintains the role of amused observer) and the comedy of forgiveness, which, Wood asserts, is more moving (in which the narrator’s revelations about himself are unreliable and keep us guessing and empathizing, as though we are in fact inside his fallible brain).
Whether he’s revealing the autobiographical details behind the creation of V.S. Naipaul’s Mr Biswas, a distant paean to the author’s father, or blasting the “savagely reduced” language of J.M. Coetzee, Wood is cooking up food for thought. If Coetzee’s Disgrace is too obviously a polemic, still, “People like novels that tell them…what to think.”
He lavishes his most potent trans-Atlantic scorn on the “bouncy” manifestos of Tom Wolfe, whom he regards as “floating on a sea of smiles, with the press garlanding him as Dickens’s heir.” Wood can sling a wry word, no doubt about that – “Wolfe’s character’s have only their simplicities…only feel one emotion at a time; their inner lives are like jingles for the self...they are all chosen from society’s catalogue.” Extraordinary excess of invective to waste on a writer who “is not in search of realism; he wants hot, brothy journalism.” But that’s the task of the literary critic, wearisome though it may be – to find the flaws, to seek out the greatness. And to tell it convincingly, in the genre.
What Wood critiques would make a suitable summer reading list. His vignettes intrigue, and the erudition makes the average reader (such as this reviewer) feel just a tad under-taught. His description of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, in which a “poorly educated eighteen-year-old Muslim girl…is plucked by arranged marriage…to a grim housing estate in the East End of London” made me want to do a search of Amazon to click a quick purchase of this enchanting book. Though the book is, Wood suggests, “far from cheerful,” yet it is “frequently comic.” Ali manages to make us see the world cock-eyed, through the mechanism of a naïve, rigidly raised Muslim girl’s skewed perceptions. A revolving door becomes a “glass fan” and ice-skating becomes an immodest display of a couple in shockingly tight clothing entertaining an audience with their “urgent, intense” movements.
The Irresponsible Self, even in its short bursts and frequent changes of literary scene, will be thick going for the unprepared. Bring along a thesaurus and a notebook for jotting down the many memorable phrases you will encounter, and the new words you’ll learn as you go. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship….