The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief

James Wood, Author Random House (NY) $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-375-50217-0
At a mere 33 years old, Wood has produced an unlikely and brilliant first book collecting his reviews (from the New Republic, where he is the full-time book critic, the London Review of Books and elsewhere). Neither a programmatic study nor a grab bag of occasional work, these 21 pieces give a compelling account of modern fiction that is as conscientious as it is idiosyncratic, adducing a gallery of personal heroes (Herman Melville, Nikolay Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald), of more-or-less villains (Ernest Renan, George Steiner, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Julian Barnes) and of great in-betweeners (Thomas More, T.S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Philip Roth). Like Woolf's reviews, which he praises eloquently, Wood's really are essays, the incisive, beautifully turned workings of a literary mind. Even before the final, title piece, which links Wood's childhood in an evangelical Anglican family to his religious preoccupations, the book reveals a reader whose prejudices are as interesting as his conclusions, and whose radical Protestant upbringing seems to have given him an acute outsider's feel for American fiction. (Wood's ornery critiques of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo do them more honor than most critics' praise.) Wood is least convincing when he codifies his taste--pretty much anything he likes he calls ""realistic,"" whether it's Gogol's ""Nose"" or Woolf's interior monologues--but this is rare. One often wonders what Wood's take would be on writers absent from these pages, Anthony Trollope, say, or Leo Tolstoy, William Gaddis or David Foster Wallace, who seem temperamentally matched to his concerns. In other words, one wants Wood reading over one's shoulder--and for a reviewer, that may be the highest possible praise. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/31/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
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Paperback - 284 pages - 978-0-375-75263-6
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