Customer Reviews: The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel
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on September 27, 2004
There are a few problems with The Irresponsible Self, but the main one is that it so clearly reflects its origins in journalism. None of the essays have been crafted with a full length work in mind, so Wood frequently repeats himself and often has to throw in something that is clearly a later addition to make the essay fit in with the putative theme of this work, which is a certain kind of comic novel. It is clear that this umbrella of "laughter and the novel" is an afterthought, because many of the books Wood writes about - Anna Karenina jumps out, so does Coetzee's Disgrace - won't inspire the slightest grin, as great or good as they are.

Wood repeats himself in two ways: the obvious one involves just telling the same anecdote repeatedly, in the manner of a newspaper columnist who is not sure to have the same audience from one week to the next. From the essays in The Broken Estate to this book I think I have read the same couple of anecdotes about Chekhov five times. Not a big deal, but sort of annoying to come across in a book one hopes would be more carefully edited. The second sort of repetition is harder to avoid: in his first book, Wood was so exciting because he brought a set of critical standards that were not only sensible but seemed to have been disappearing from a great deal of reviews. He asked basic questions like Would the character really think this way? - What is the point of this fancy language? - Is the author being true to the world he or she has created or just playing games? - and put his finger on things that had probably been bothering people who wondered why so many of the books that critics encouraged them to read were finally so unsatisfying.

The problem is that Wood argued for certain standards so cogently and consistently that it's easy to know what he's going to say about many books before reading the reviews. Anyone that has read the essay on Thomas Pynchon will pretty much know what Wood is going to say about Zadie Smith and Rushdie. Anyone who's read the essay on Updike from the last book is going to know what Wood is going to say about Updike - again - in this book. He's right, I think, but I wish that he might have expanded his critical range a little more over the period, or not bothered to re-publish essays where he knew he was repeating himself.

But there are still marvels here. Wood seems to be a voracious discoverer, from Knut Hamsun in the last book to Verga and Hrabal in this book (Svevo might be a discovery to many people as well, and such a worthwhile one). These essays may not stand up to re-reading, like truly great criticism (see Randall Jarrell), but they will certainly lead you to books that will. The essay I loved the most, strangely, is the one that shows that Wood's talents may have moved in the direction of fiction. The essay on V.S. Naipaul's relationship with his father is pretty much just a summary of a book of letters, but it's also an incredibly subtle and moving character study that shows how fully Wood has entered into their relationship. He doesn't pull out his usual set of critical tools, but inhabits the book like a writer entering into the minds of his characters.

Finally, for someone writing about comic novels, Wood has the singular disadvantage of not being funny at all. The dry way he describes even the best jokes succeeds in making them boring. The only time I laughed in this book on laughter is when Wood quoted parts of the novels. But even with all of these problems, Wood makes me want to run out and read a book immediately more than any other critic. And unlike the compulsive enthusiasms of most newspaper reviewers, Wood's subjects justify his praise, and that is reason enough to read any book.
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on August 27, 2004
James Wood's latest collection of essays is an improvement over his previous volume "The Broken Estate." For a start it shows off his cosmopolitanism to greater use. Whereas the only great but underappreciated novelist to appear in his first volume was the Norweigian Hamsun, here we see Giovanni Verga, Henry Green, Joseph Roth and Bohumil Hrabal. We are also provided with a usefully critical discussion of Isaac Babel. Even better, in my view, are reviews of Italo Svevo and the introduction he wrote to Saltykov-Shchedrin's "The Golovlyov Family." Reminding readers of the existence of this brilliant, deeply pessimistic, lacerating and criminally under-read novel is alone worth the price of purchase. Secondly, there is nothing in this volume that is as tendentious as his essay on Flaubert. Instead, what we have here are critical but intelligently appreciative reviews of "White Teeth" and "The Corrections," praise of Monica Ali, quite justified disappointment with Salman Rusdhie's "Fury," and quite caustic criticisms of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full." We are also blessed with the generous introduction that Wood produced for a collection of Saul Bellow's short stories. Thirdly, we also get solid appreciations of truly great novels. Wood starts off with "Don Quixote," which is relatively simple because in point of fact even well educated readers rarely actually read it. Any essay which scores Miguel de Unamuno as "relentlessly idealizing" and includes an amusing and mildly blasphemous analogy to summarize Part II has its uses. Later on, we see him discuss "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Anna Karenina."

If there is a common theme through this collection it is only partly about comedy. It is, one might think, about people who are fundamentally comic, which is why Wood devotes so much attention to Saltykov-Shchedrin's "Little Judas," in what is otherwise a horrifying satire. Over and over again we read about the deluded, the self-deceived, and the willfully irrational, whether it is the failed priests of J.F. Powers, the little emphasized callousness of Don Quixote, or the warped humility of Fyodor Karamazov. As a critic Wood delights in pointing out incidents that are precisely typical of the author in question, whether it is a hypocritical priest in Chekhov who berates a parishioner while pointing a food-laden fork at her, or the way "Little Judas," brushes aside his son's desperate need for help by invoking Job's acceptance of his children's death, or the way Karenin practices, like the good bureaucrat he is, the conversation he hopes to start on his wife's infidelity. He is adept at pointing out Bellow's striking imagery, or the way Rushdie gets it wrong in "Fury." He can see Zadie Smith's virtues, such as the way she points out the politically-correct gardening tips of a bien-pensant family, and the ultimately meretricious way she chose to end the novel (involving sex with twins and a fashionable comment about family).

Perhaps the most useful essay is his criticism of Tom Wolfe. Wolfe has been called a "Dickensian" writer, and Wood shows how false that is. Where Wolfe's imagery is obvious, Dickens is subtle and clever, like Joe Gargery's eyes or saying Uriah Heep has a mouth like a post office. Wood points out that Wolfe's characters only feel one emotion at a time, like British water faucets that gush either hot or cold water. He points out that Wolfe's millionaire lacks the complexity of his real-life model Robert Maxwell, the millionaire who published Communist propaganda, the family tyrant with the loyal sons. Over and over again Wolfe describes his characters as typical or broadly representative. Moreover his physical description of them resembles fashion journalism, the concentration on their physical appearance and clothing, as if they were being judged on their appropriateness for a "Vanity Fair" shoot. Nothing is as damning as the comparison Wood makes with a passage with "Anna Karenina." A bit unfair one might think? Not so. In discussing the Doctor who delivers Levin's first child, Tolstoy does not follow Wolfe in discussing the cut of his clothes, or the cologne he uses. Instead it is the "thick cigarettes" that he insists of smoking before going while Levin panics as he thinks, like all first-time fathers, his wife will give birth at any moment. That is the sort of detail Wolfe never grasps.

Reservations? Well, Wood writes nothing on Latin American literature (nor Japanese literature come to think of it), and so the third world is represented by V.S. Naipaul. And as a lapsed evangelical Anglican the theme of religion appears just a bit too much and a bit too often. And one may suspect a certain blind spot with Catholicism in his review of J.F. Powers. Nevertheless this is a book of criticism with substantial virtues: it is cosmopolitan, acute, thoughtful, amusing, intelligent, serious, sensible. Most important, it reminds the reader of the moral necessity for reading and appreciating great literature.
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on August 1, 2004
Looks like I'm the first one to get up on his soapbox here.

Wood has the best judgment of most any critic going, as well as the all-too-uncommon ability to explain why this or that passage works or does not work. He is right, and quite funny, in his

impatience at hysterical realism (surely we can take the quotes off that one by now). And how many readers would have heard

of Giovanni Verga, or Brohumil Hrabal, without having read these reviews?

But it is where he steps back from the work at hand, to pronounce on fiction generally, that Wood gets into trouble.

He goes from praising the exuberant style of one author(Bellow is a favorite) to sainting Chekhov for his aversion to verbal "splendour," and for never speaking over his characters. Elsewhere he upbraids American novelists for giving us novels with "no selves," saying that Jonathan Franzen and company fail at the increasingly difficult job of rendering fully human characters. His review of Brick Lane gives some idea of why this is so; in Monica Ali's novel, with its ghetto scenes and impoverished Bangladeshis, nineteenth-century realism is made contemporary again. This is not imperial nostalgia, but it does work out to something uncomfortably like Georg Lukacs' utopian vision of a restored bourgeois novel, or even George Steiner's creepy fascination with the literature of oppressed peoples. I'm left with the feeling that the man takes fiction much too seriously.

Which prompts the question: where is the comedy in all this? Admittedly, he doesn't mean belly laughs; these presumably would

belong to the genre of "corrective" comedy, territory covered by the "religious" Moliere, Rabelais, etc. Wood's favored

brand is "secular" comedy (read: "good" comedy. Do you want to be accused of being religious?). It's anyone's guess where

he finds such comedy in Anna Karenina; the epigraph alone establishes that Tolstoy is quite willing to judge his heroine,

and to do so in unmistakeably religious terms. Wood himself seems to regard comedy as a sort of holiday from his usual Puritan brooding over a lost Inner Light. But shouldn't it be funnier than that? Couldn't we do with a bit less mooning about "selves?"

A word on the style: the metaphors are sometimes very apt, sometimes just too precious; ditto the annoying tic of pluralizing abstractions(just how many "clarities" are there in the average Coetzee novel?).
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on January 14, 2005
The surest way of killing a joke is to analyse it. Not true, when the analysis is being done by one of the greatest critics alive today. James Wood examines humour in literature and analyses why we like characters who make us laugh, and what about them makes us laugh in the first place. James Wood is never one to voice his opinions, informed and erudite as they are. He turns his scathing pen loose on, among others, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe & J.M.Coetzee. he makes you wondered where, as a reader, your loyalties lie, as you find yourself nodding in agreement. In all, James Wood is a great companion who makes his readers think about their reading
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on January 5, 2013
excellent book, enjoyable and enlightening. this is my second james wood book, and i've come to think of him as the best literary critic now active in the u.s. or britain. very accessible, very penetrating. i look forward to more.
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VINE VOICEon November 28, 2008
"Comedy, like death and sex, is often awarded the prize of ineffability." So says James Wood, perhaps the finest living critic of literature. Just as he has prefaced, the art of comedy is often impossible to describe, and Wood falls victim to this perpetual difficulty. This collection of essays does not explain why some books are funny as much as it locates the brilliant moments of ironic and tragicomic paradox that accompany the finest works of literature. Although less focused than his 'How Fiction Works,' Wood is able to penetrate into the essence of an astonishing array of writers; he discusses the comic brilliance of 'Don Quixote' and the theological pull of 'The Brothers Karamozov' with equal depth and vibrancy. Perhaps he is most famous for his essay in this volume on "Hysterical Realism," the American novelist's proclivity towards the creation of a large and ridiculous vehicle of topical information. Wood sees writers like Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith as prime culprits of this phenomenon. But not everyone gets skewered in this book- Bellow and Henry Green are lauded, as is Naipaul and Svevo. Like all excellent criticism, this book is both focused, principled, and provocative. All together an excellent work.
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on July 9, 2005
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no current literary critic who writes as brilliantly as James Wood. His metaphoric precision, his moral rigor, his exacting standards of literary excellence, his humanistic compassion dwarfs all competitors for the title. One would have to revert to Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin to find comparable peers and, except perhaps for Trilling, I feel he outshines them all. Luckily we are not reduced to reading only one writer for insight and thoughtful exploration of literature's richness and follies. But in this, his newest volume of essays, he demonstrates once again why his writing remains indispensible.
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on April 26, 2015
This is the only book I have found that breaks down important developments in humour and satire in the history of the novel. Fantastic.
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on October 2, 2013
Wonderful writer a t the top level of erudite and interesting.i ration the reading time to keep the pleasure coming.
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on August 8, 2015
Excellent seroice and book.
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