The monk of metaphor

The Book Against God, by James Wood , Jonathan Cape, £12.99

April 2003 / Prospect, Issue 85

James Wood conforms in many ways to my romantic ideal of the critic. He is not someone for whom literary criticism is a mere profession or a discipline. For Wood, criticism is a vocation, a secular calling.

When Wood, who is 37, first emerged as a young writer on the ‘Guardian’ in the late 1980s, his reviews had a strange, sanctimonious fervour. There was nothing quite like them. They resembled polemical sermons rather than reviews; even then, he seemed to have read everything of value and to know exactly what he wanted to say about literature and how to say it. It emerged later that he had endured an evangelical Christian childhood and adolescence in the northeast of England, but had lost his belief while a Cambridge undergraduate. In place of lost faith he discovered, as FR Leavis had before him, belief in the transformative potential of literature-literature as rival to, and usurper of, religion; literature as the repository of secular truth and ethical guidance. Literature as story, as entertainment, or as means to bring urgent news of the times in which we live, seemed of no interest to him.

From the beginning, Wood used a charged, inflated critical language, a high style appropriate to the dignity of his self-appointed task. Unwilling to forgive slipshod or ready-made formulation, he was a stern moralist, quite oblivious to modishness or fashion. He could be cruel, especially when reviewing minor writers of small talent, and exasperatingly competitive, contrasting his own elaborate style with that of the writer under review; he often spoke of the rivalrous proximity of the critic and the author, both of whom use prose narrative. Metaphor was what delighted him most. He once wrote, comically, in a review of a novel by Candia McWilliam, that he was prepared to lose a whole book for a phrase as good as the “silent bustle of fish.”

In 1995, Wood moved to Washington to become a senior editor on the ‘New Republic’, where he was allowed the freedom to write long, rigorously worked reviews of contemporary novelists, many of whom were reduced to rubble. At this time, he began to mature as a reader and critic, developing his own idiosyncratic theology of fiction. “Every novel is its own reality and its own realism,” he wrote in ‘The Broken Estate’: ‘Essays on Literature and Belief’. “The reality of fiction must also draw its power from the reality of the world. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of discretionary magic.”

At times, it seemed, he demanded too much from fiction, from the merely make-believe. His was a displaced religious intelligence wandering in search of the God he had lost. And you longed for this monk of metaphor occasionally to leave his book-stacked study, to transcend the restrictions imposed by the hermetic form of the long review. Why did he never write about politics? Or travel in search of a subject? Why had fiction become the sole battleground in his private war against belief? In ‘The Broken Estate’, it becomes clear that fiction was indeed, for him, a religious surrogate with the novelist a self-made god, creator of people and of entire worlds.

Having spent so long writing notes towards a supreme fiction, Wood has now published his first novel. Possibly, in doing so, he is seeking to fulfil his own prescriptions, to ask: “can I do it?” It is a question many critics-most notably, Cyril Connolly-have asked themselves and answered, reluctantly, in the negative.

‘The Book Against God’ dramatises many of the preoccupations of his criticism: the impossibility of truly knowing another person; the futility of belief; the longing for transcendence; the virtue of scepticism and doubt. The book is narrated by a young philosopher called Thomas Bunting who (no surprises here) is the product of an evangelical childhood in the northeast of England. Bunting is an erratic, comic grotesque. Compulsively dishonest, he is a failure in every sense-as an academic philosopher, who is unable to complete a PhD; as a husband, who cannot make his pianist wife happy; and as a son, whose parents are disappointed by his loss of faith. In his spare time (which is most of his time, since he does little but moon around his flat all day, wearing a soiled dressing gown) Bunting writes his own book against God, a fractured narrative of longing and despair, informed by his intense reading.

This is a good set-up for a novel and, for the most part, it works well. The often simple sentences have a clipped, comic buoyancy. One believes, and is moved by, Bunting’s struggles, and his relationship with his devout parents is portrayed with deep conviction. The real surprise of the book is how anachronistic it feels; it could have been written at any time in the past 50 years. ‘The Book Against God’ reminded me of the early fiction of Iris Murdoch: there are the same philosophical and theological concerns, the same attempt to animate often static dilemmas, the same posh talk, the same evasion of the contemporary inferno, the same concern with truth and redemption, the same antique burnish.

Those about whom Wood writes best-Knut Hamsun, Woolf, Chekhov-are also those who seek to privilege consciousness and interiority, who follow their characters deepest into thought and reverie. ‘The Book Against God’ has the form of a stylised confession, an account written by Bunting who, at the end of the book, is at the same point he was at the beginning. In effect, we have been privy to his thoughts as he tries to make sense of recent events in his life, such as the failure of his marriage and the death of his father. The narrative mimics the loops and patterns of consciousness, as Bunting seeks to impose order on the free flow and loose association of memory. Perhaps if Bunting thought less and acted more he would not be in the state he is.

Yet maybe Bunting-and, by implication, Wood-is wrong to privilege consciousness, in the style of the grand modernist project. Perhaps the truth of our lives is rather to be found in the fiction of Elmore Leonard, JG Ballard or Michel Houellebecq, writers who understand the flimsiness of the self’s construction, and whose characters have little inner life. Their lives, as the philosopher John Gray has written of Leonard’s fictional creations, are composed of the settings in which they act; there is nothing beyond, or beneath, what they do. It is the absence of inner life that makes the characters of Ballard, Leonard and Houellebecq so true.

The trouble with Bunting is that he has too much inner life, which leads him to embellish what should be simple, such as a description of travelling up the A1: “We swiftly passed long articulated lorries, sighing and creaking their governed way north. They were covered with little lights like a starlet’s mirror and as we passed them the car briefly glowed with rough glamour. Then suddenly they were gone, and we were silent again. At York the dawn arrived very quickly, like something unimportant…”

The stylistic infelicities of this passage, clotted as it is with incongruous metaphor, are merely those of a writer in the process of finding a fictional voice, a writer who, after all, already possesses an authoritative critical voice in the lost tradition of VS Pritchett and Virginia Woolf.

Will Wood write another novel? Should he have written this one? Should he have dared to disappoint himself and, no doubt, those who demand of him that he produces a first work commensurate to his great ambition? ‘The Book Against God’ is not ‘Buddenbrooks’, or J’ourney to the End’ of the ‘Night’, or ‘The Moviegoer’ or even ‘White Teeth’. But it is witty and charming.

For all the baroque extravagance of his critical style, Wood should, in the final analysis, be admired for the seriousness with which he reads fiction. He may occupy a lonely position, suspended uneasily between the academy, for which he is insufficiently theoretical, and the shrinking world of scholarly journalism, for which his standards are too exacting, but he is a true critic.