THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF: On Laughter and the Novel

James Wood, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-17737-9

Still writing with magisterial sweep and terrific intensity, Wood (The Book Against God ) in this newest collection of review-essays celebrates the indeterminate voice of comic narrative, which "replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability," enabling the reader's sympathies without directing them. This voice aids the development of secular modernity, part of a "comedy of forgiveness" in which morality, no longer the voice of divine law, itself partakes of the foibles and variances of human temperament. Starting inevitably with Shakespeare and Cervantes, Wood offers up assessments of individual (male) writers who in one way or another exemplify Wood's principle, including Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Joseph Roth, Henry Green, Bellow. Oddly juxtaposed with this late 19th- to mid–20th-century sequence is a group of rather bilious reviews of a more recent generation of fiction, which Wood never deigns to call postmodern. His tone ranging from respectful reservation (about J.M. Coetzee) to outright contempt (for Tom Wolfe), Wood hammers vigilantly at the failure of intellectual, cultural and political motives to make good fiction. Unlike American culture-warriors, Wood takes his sharp ear and deep convictions straight to the work itself, carefully explaining the structural, formal and tonal weaknesses of what he calls "hysterical realism," revealing his distaste for journalism and pop culture but never advancing it. Most compelling is the way his own style swells and contracts with his subject matter, blithely metaphorical in praising Bellow, earnest and lucid in sorting out Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith, sarcastic in attacking Rushdie. Still, meaner spirits will await Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs , also due in June. Agent, The Wiley Agency. (June 16)

Reviewed on: 04/12/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-312-42460-2
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