Come back to the mall, Huck honey

I haven’t yet read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, but it isn’t necessary to, in order to see the bankruptcy of Walter Kirn’s review of it in the 17 August 2008 New York Times Book Review. Kirn begins by declaring himself a philistine. He is appalled that Wood is on familiar terms with Homer, Auden, and Ian McEwan. He litters his review with ad hominem mockery, calling Wood “vicarish” and quipping that Wood “flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic.” I happen to be in favor of intermittent viciousness in book reviews, but let’s be serious here for a moment: Kirn is making fun of Wood for being the sort of person who reads a lot of books. Perhaps Kirn has misjudged the audience for a review of a work of literary criticism?

Little matter is mixed with this impertinency. In an attempt to indict Wood’s method, Kirn writes:

Take his disquisition on detail, which comes down first to asserting its importance, then to questioning its all-importance, and then, after serving up a list of some of his very favorite fictional details, to defining the apt, exquisite detail much as a judge once defined obscenity: as something he knows when he sees it.

This indeed sounds like a clincher, except that Kirn has just described E. M. Forster’s method in Aspects of the Novel (unwittingly, no doubt—no such lumber in his study), and that book remains a classic. If the same method falters in Wood’s hands, we need to be told why. By this point, few of Kirn’s readers will trust his mere assertions.

Perhaps the review’s only substantive claim is Kirn’s complaint that Wood neglects “story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” I haven’t read Johnson’s novel, so I’ll set it to one side. But I’m not a fan of Kerouac, and I think it could be argued that what makes Huckleberry Finn great is not Twain’s phonetic rendering of dialect but rather the sort of thing Wood prizes: the chance to follow a mind as it works out what it thinks of a social world. I think it could be argued, in fact, that the phonetic rendering of dialect is something that Twain’s modern readers agree to endure.

There is an issue here worth debating: If one praises a novel for “absorbing the anarchic,” ought the emphasis to be on the absorption or on the anarchy? My inclination is for the former. After all, we hardly need resort to novels to experience anarchy. Still, all things being equal, one probably prefers to read novelists who have managed to absorb a little more anarchy than others. In a recent review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel praised O’Neill’s description of a Google Earth tour, writing that “The passage is exciting simply because it represents new territory, or at least new subject matter, claimed for fiction.” But it’s important to keep in mind that in practice all things rarely are equal. The flotsam of life sometimes appears in a novel not because the writer’s consciousness has made a new sense of it, but because he hasn’t. It’s then merely a distraction.

Indeed, in complaining that Wood overlooks “the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular,” etc., Kirn may be guilty of special pleading. In a review of Kirn’s novel The Unbinding in the New York Times Book Review of 11 February 2007, Matt Weiland wrote:

This is what Kirn does best—keen observation of American social fissures and class dynamics along with an ear for the jaunty rhythms of contemporary talk. . . . But this sort of thing, however well done, risks descending into a torrent of timely references, the sort of rage for information that James Wood has criticized as substituting for character in some contemporary fiction. Want to know what kind of car the characters drive? The Unbinding has a Ford Galaxy, a Cadillac, a Ranger, a Jetta, a Hyundai, a Dodge, a Civic and an Acura. Where they spend their time? There are mentions of Applebee’s, Costco, Fuddruckers, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Old Navy, Saks, Starbucks and Taco Bell. What they watch or listen to? Blue Man Group, Drew Carey, Tom Cruise, Neil Diamond, Madonna, Oprah, .38 Special and Bo Bice all make appearances. This may chime with Kirn’s aim . . . and it certainly fits with his theme. But it makes a short book feel like a long walk at the mall.

5 thoughts on “Come back to the mall, Huck honey”

  1. Joe L.: Thanks for the link. Daniel Green's review is intelligent and respectful. I think I'd disagree with his judgment on many but not all points (I happen to be a big fan of Donald Barthelme, for example), but I'm happy that he wrote his review. I was disappointed in Kirn's piece not because I disagreed with him but because he made so little effort to engage with substance—as Green admirably does—and instead lapsed into anti-intellectual wisecrackery.

  2. I don't know whether it reflects an actual change in assigning practice or just a new set of conventions adopted by reviewers at the NYTBR, but you remind me of my own irk at the opening of a review that appeared a week ago, by Geoff Dyer writing about Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running."

    Dyer did not like Murakami's book, whereas I did, very much so. Chalk it up to differences of opinion. But what do you think of this opening move?!? I have seen it half a dozen times this year in the NYTBR, and I think it should be banned (I will not itemize the four or five other things I dislike about it beyond the proud assertion of ignorance)…

    Opening paragraph:

    I seem to have developed a fondness for approaching great writers via the road less traveled. I read John Cheever’s “Journals” before his stories and novels. I got around to Joseph Brodsky’s poems, in “A Part of Speech,” only after reading “Watermark,” his short book on Venice. Martin Amis? I started off with the bits of journalism in “The Moronic Inferno” and then moved on to “Money.” And now I commence my reading of Haruki Murakami, not with “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” or “Norwegian Wood” but with this little book about running. I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register. And then there’s me, the zero-percenter: a non-running Murakami virgin. Oh well. The supreme test of nonfiction is that it be interesting irrespective of the reader’s indifference to the subject under discussion, and a great writer’s work is obviously beflecked with greatness whatever the occasion. So the terms of the test are clear.

  3. Hmm, that's a tricky one. I see what you mean about the self-indulgence of Dyer's opening, but I confess I'm a little more susceptible to his charm. I would argue that his and Kirn's cases are different. Kirn is mocking Wood for being learned; Dyer is mocking himself for an eccentricity that has put him in a position of ignorance. Admittedly a subtle difference. And there's the larger context of Dyer's books; he's proven himself more than willing to play the clown, and I'm soft-hearted toward writers willing to take on that role.

    But as for the meandering irrelevant autobiographical opening to a book review, yeah, it's getting old. What do they think they are, bloggers?

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