At one point in James Wood’s novel The Book Against God, the spiritually tortured narrator Thomas Bunting is transported to a painful recollection of adolescence. Thomas is the son of a kind and intelligent Anglican priest. His childhood was filled with love and attention. Then one day when he was 14, he says, he walked into his school’s assembly hall and, as though stepping through some kind of portal, entered into a state of self-consciousness:
I can laugh about it now, but how terrible was that hurtle into self-consciousness; it was like a second birth. After that morning, whenever I went into assembly I became sure that everyone was looking at me; I imagined they could even hear me swallowing, and so I tried to control my flow of saliva. A terrible dryness and pressure would build in my throat, and then the only way to swallow without being heard was to give a little cough… For several months I seemed to have no personality at all, except the one I daily built. Writing this, I am reminded of that grand line from one of the Psalms: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.” But as soon as I write this down, I am also reminded, less happily, of what Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Well, this agony was my second birth.
Thomas is an atheist, but because he was raised in the Church, Scripture serves as his guide to understanding experience—hence his irreverent conflation of the fall from grace with the miracle of salvation. Rebirth, he says, does not lead to redemption from original sin but is merely the awful awakening to the true nature of our fallen state. It’s another, more scarringly personalized, expulsion from Eden.
Like Thomas, Wood was raised in a happy, stable middle-class home and brought up a committed member of an evangelical and “charismatic” movement within the Church of England. We don’t know exactly when he was born again into self-consciousness, but he writes in his first nonfiction collection The Broken Estate that he became a disbeliever at the age of 15. But, again, the forms of his atheism found their roots in Christianity: “The child of evangelism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical.”
This bind of being imprisoned within a system whose truths he denies, fated to a lifetime of unsuccessful psychological jailbreaks, is the source of Thomas Bunting’s comic contortions in The Book Against God. But of course Wood is a great literary critic, and his gawky, earnest single novel will likely go down as a curious anomaly, like the fiction of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. He has instead submerged his struggle against religion into a different story, one told over the course of his book reviews and literary essays. That is the story of fiction itself, and it’s there that his themes of disillusion and rebellion have found their fullest expression.
You can piece together the lineaments of this story in two books in particular, The Broken Estate and How Fiction Works. What is remarkable is how closely it recapitulates Wood’s autobiography. Here again is the myth of the Fall, and its secular patriarch is Gustave Flaubert. “There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him,” he writes in How Fiction Works. The period before him is characterized by an uncomplicated belief in God and in His literary avatar, the god-like author. Just as the world was divinely created, a fictional world was a kind of sub-creation, and though both were complex and often even tragic, they were essentially orderly and coherent, complete in themselves.
Then, in Europe, artists lost their belief and religion its authority. The “high moment” of Christianity’s decline, Wood writes in The Broken Estate, “was also the high moment of the novel’s progress,” and it was Flaubert who conclusively addressed the historical fact of the death of God. “After Flaubert, style is always mirrored, always self-conscious, always a trapped decision.” Instead of constructing dramas that could powerfully convey higher meaning and morality, Flaubert monkishly devoted himself to aesthetic perfection. Instead of inventing stories, he elevated style.
The problem with Flaubert, Wood explains, is that he too remained trapped within an old religious framework. He had adopted an authorial point of view grounded in conscious perception and dominated by “precise, observed detail.” But he did so to such a fanatical extent that he “began to turn literary style into a religion,” originating a kind of cult of the mot juste in which novelists became ritualistically obsessed with describing the real world in exquisitely exact terms, as though that were an end in itself. Flaubert, like his predecessors, thought the artist was analogous to God in that he disappears behind his creation, though this time the creation was intrinsically anti-revelatory, enforcing a no less formalized—and no less judgmental—vision of universal emptiness and human fatuity.
There are many chapters and characters in Wood’s story of fiction, but two figures play especially heroic roles. The first is the secular saint Anton Chekhov, who to some extent, Wood writes, “solved” the problems left by Flaubert by introducing a liberating quality of randomness to his short stories: “If Flaubert retained and aestheticized religious judgment, Chekhov paganized life.” To relax the stranglehold of authorial omniscience, he introduced arbitrary details and employed loose, open-ended structures. There does not seem to be any writer looming above the characters in these stories—at their best, Chekhov’s characters “forget to be Chekhov’s characters,” and in their small, touching dramas they give a true glimpse of the pathos and humor of lives unpressured by controlling higher powers.
Wood’s contemporary writer nonpareil is W.G. Sebald. The fallen literary landscape Sebald inherited was rendered all the more uninhabitable by the historical facts of the Holocaust, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the firebombing of Dresden. Such catastrophes deepened the trauma of self-consciousness; the writer was cast into exile from all consolatory verities, including the assurances of traditional storytelling methods. In an interview with Wood, Sebald said, “I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take.” His fiction, then—which has no narrative arc or well-defined characters, includes photographs and other documentary material, and is in many ways closer to nonfiction—explores and embodies the great theme of homelessness. Like its autobiographical narrator, it wanders, seeking something lost and possibly irrecoverable, and in its melancholy restlessness it challenges the remaining holdover relics from the age of belief. Sebald was, Wood says, the first writer since Beckett “to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination.” And it is Sebald’s qualities—self-awareness, exile, protest, and haunted, incomplete searching—that Wood demands in some capacity in the contemporary fiction he reviews.
Wood may cherish Sebald’s uncertainty, but his own story of fiction shows little of it. His is a narrative defined by rigid before-and-after dichotomies, in which stylistic breakthroughs can be pinpointed to single authors and singular moments of inspiration—in other words, it is cut in the Judeo-Christian mold. This is also apparent in Wood’s second work of criticism, The Irresponsible Self, which uses a similar binary to explain “old” and “new” forms of comedy in works of literature. The old, or “prenovelistic,” variety is religious and corrective—it sends up knavery and hypocrisy in order to deliver a moral and teach a lesson; new comedy (which in Wood’s definition is synonymous with tragicomedy) is, in contrast, secular and “forgiving”—it finds sympathetic, if pained, laughter in the characters’ and the readers’ shared incomprehension of the baffling ways of the world.
The striking and sometimes frustrating thing about Wood’s interpretations is that you cannot take them too literally. A good deal of confusion arises in The Irresponsible Self over the emphasis on a narrative trajectory from “old” to “new,” for instance, since Wood’s “new” includes Cervantes and Shakespeare, and his “old” can be found throughout 21st-century novels (in most contemporary comedies of manners, for instance, and almost all political and social satire). Likewise in his account of literary history, which insists on clear-cut conversions over a far more plausible series of fluid and ambiguous evolutions. The hard line that distinguishes between the modern and the premodern requires a drastic simplification of much of the writing that preceded Flaubert (Wood’s readings of Biblical narrative seem particularly reductive in this respect) and the exclusion of entire genres of 20th-century literature—historical fiction, adventure writing, romance, fables, fantasies, and much else—that don’t fit the thesis.
But Wood’s story works brilliantly if it is taken as just that, a story—if it is read conditionally and gleaned for the truths of a work of fiction. Wood personifies the novel; he sets it on a quest, as in a Bildungsroman. He puts it through a crisis of faith and then follows it past obstacles and blind alleys, through low periods of stasis, and into the fugitive joys of innovation and discovery. Most powerfully, he animates the novel with a very human desire: like Thomas Bunting, and like Wood himself, it seeks freedom—from the outdated customs of its upbringing and the fear of public disapproval. Most of all it looks to throw off the chains of self-consciousness, or, to borrow a description from his collection The Fun Stuff, to get away from “the overbearing presence of the self, the insistent internal volume of the self, the dunning inescapability of being who one is.”
Wood is never more passionate and convincing than when celebrating the writers who threw themselves into this battle, as he has defined it. In Flaubert, revolution is found in the use of the free indirect style—a roving subjectivity of perception that unshackled the author from the imposture of god-like omniscience—which Chekhov opens up even further by endowing his characters with “free consciousness.” Herman Melville escapes the manacles of his doubts in soaring lexical extravagance and a “polytheism of metaphor”—“Moby-Dick is every writer’s dream of freedom” because it swims in the infinitude of words. Knut Hamsun does so through primal incoherence; his novels outcast themselves from sense and reason. D.H. Lawrence’s fiction comes alive from its “free eccentricities” (“Lawrence has a strange liberty; he is unaccountable”); Thomas Mann’s through its masterly use of irony—his stories, however serious they may be, are always loosened by a winking element of game playing. Virginia Woolf, about whom Wood writes more lovingly than any other writer, develops stream of consciousness writing in ways that do not merely establish a striking narrative effect but which carry further Chekhov’s teachings:
[Stream of consciousness] allows absentmindedness into fiction. A character is allowed to drift out of relevance, to wander into a randomness which may be at odds with the structure of the novel as a whole. What does it mean for a character to become irrelevant to a novel? It frees characters from the fiction which grips them.
This is the paradoxical effect that Wood seeks: fiction that frees people from the grip of fiction, by which Wood always means the fiction of religion. The writing he admires must demonstrate atheistic struggle, must add evidence to his own ongoing book against God (though you sense he would dislike most present-day forms of atheism; Wood seems to yearn for something contradictory and impossible outside of literature, some kind of Edenic unbounded polyatheism).
The most misapplied criticism of Wood is that he is too traditional. In fact, he is a staunch partisan of rigorous rebellion, of writing that breaks apart accepted styles or that assails bourgeois niceties. He has eloquently advocated for such strange and subversive writers as Bohumil Hrabal and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and he has a soft spot for outsiders and misanthropes, from Elena Ferrante to the Philip Roth of Sabbath’s Theater.
But it is also true that his story of fiction imposes narrowly defined limits on the kinds of books he is able to appreciate. Wood pines for freedom but he scorns escapism, and he anathematizes any novel that seems to rely on explicit or implicit religious assurances. He may be best known for his criticism of the trend he popularly dubbed “hysterical realism,” but his most strident takedowns have been against writers and thinkers who have attempted to reconcile Christian belief with modernity. He pillories Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan for trying to substitute actual faith with the mushy theism of philosophical Christianity (“the serenity of partial illusion”). He excoriates George Steiner and John Updike for clinging to a comforting kind of vague spiritualism. The grounds on which he objects to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are unique among critics. These novelists write allegorically, which means that they portray reality as a closed system whose truths, however secretive or conspiratorial, are fixed and final. In other words, Wood attacks them for being too conservative.
Most writing that attempts to delight with the inventiveness of its storytelling is unacceptable because it does not confront the reality of the Fall, after which it was impossible to fully trust in the veracity of stories. Similarly, Wood dislikes the narrative manipulation of plot-heavy fiction because it too closely resembles the bullying of an all-knowing creator. Magical elements even more so: “Magic realism,” he has written, “might be said to be merely a branch of Scripture fixated on the acceptance of a miracle.”
A tone of old-fashioned pulpit-banging moral condemnation often enters these reviews. In recent months, critics have debated the so-called death of adulthood in popular culture, focusing on the declining levels of maturity in arts and literature. The trouble with these arguments has usually lain with the inability of most commentators to say what they think adulthood means (which may itself be an unwitting indication of their point). Wood does not have this problem. If anything his notion of adulthood is too strictly defined as the conversion into disbelief and disavowal.
To try to deny that conversion, therefore, is by Wood’s definition inherently childish. Toni Morrison’s novels, he has written, are “babyishly cradled in magic.” P.G. Wodehouse (whom Wood likes almost despite himself) is a “moral baby.” Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a “virtual baby” with the fairy tale qualities of children’s literature. Wood also panned Tartt’s The Secret History, written over twenty years before, for its fairy tale nature. That label, which for many readers is simply descriptive, carries damning connotations for Wood. The bankrupt fairy tale of the Gospels looms behind it.
These biases can be exasperating, in part because they make Wood predictable. You sometimes feel you need only read a book’s dust-jacket synopsis to anticipate his glowering judgment or satisfied approbation. More troubling is the frequent tone of moral hectoring. Like all born-agains, Wood cannot really admit the possibility that some readers and writers won’t ever accept his premises, and he seems prone to confronting disagreement with disparagement.
Yet Wood’s strength as a critic is built into the ironies he embodies, as someone who writes evangelically against evangelism. Here is an opponent of fixed meanings whose assertions of what the novel should be are adamant and unchanging. Here is a critic who longs for books to approximate the capacious, transcendent sense of the divine using only the materials of the real and the human.
Wood once described what his ideal sentence would look like, and it’s no surprise that it contains the seemingly incompatible virtues of his own best work: It would be “a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” Rightness is rooted to the scruple and diligence handed down from religious observance—the sense that books are sacred things that must be read closely and evaluated gravely and judged righteously. Wrongness is desire, the glimpse of freedom. Rightness is the real, wrongness is the dream. If Wood fatalistically conceives of life as an ongoing frustration to reconcile the two, he sets apart fiction as the last temple of the impossible, the holy of holies where lies still tell the truth.
Sam Sacks was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker. He writes the weekly Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.