How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008)
If you want to read a short history of the realistic novel, and a lucid explanation of the free direct style, I recommend this book. Also recommended if you want to be reminded that reading more Flaubert, Stendhal, Diderot, and Chekhov sounds like fun. Warning: Wood quotes his favorite authors early and often. I also want to highlight his chapter called “Brief History of Consciousness,” which, despite the sleazy title, is an exciting trip from the Bible’s King David to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov woven together by examining the “audience” to whom each speaks. (David/God; Macbeth/audience; Raskolnikov/reader.) It leads to such insights as:
Raskolnikov is unnaturally theatrical, or better still, histrionic: he seeks attention, and is desperately unstable and inauthentic, hiding at one moment, confessing at another, proud in one scene, self-abasing in the next. In the novel, we can see the self better than any literary form has yet allowed; but it is not going too far to say that the self is driven mad by being so invisibly scrutinized.
That’s great, but the big problem is that Wood doesn’t care at all about plot, seems to get no joy out of it whatsoever, and tsk tsks over-plotters like Thomas Pynchon for eschewing something he calls “final seriousness.” Wood on Pynchon:
There are pleasures to be had from these amiable, peopled canvases, and there are passages of great beauty, but, as in farce, the cost to final seriousness is considerable: everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists. The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.
I think this condemnation is a lack of imagination on Wood’s part. Wood sometimes seems only capable of finding “pleasure” in character development and “beauty” in well written passages, and I think he misses why Pynchon would construct such plot-heavy turbulence. I always interpreted Pynchon’s style as an attempt to get readers to see the menace in the connections, in the matrices, in the whole, and that his final seriousness came from looking at aerial views of his worlds, not over the shoulders of characters. There is a lot of noise, and Pynchon to wrestle good books and truthful insights out of it. It’s in the struggle between the individual and the massive whole; and, if we’re going there, I might as well throw in that it’s the struggle between George Trow’s “grid of intimacy” and the “grid of two hundred million.” The middle distance, the buffering communities—for example, Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg, or even his mom and sister and friends—doesn’t exist for Pynchon’s characters. Instead, you get something like, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pig Bodine popping out of nowhere every few hundred pages to distribute drugs and sing a song. Yeah yeah yeah, it sounds like farce, but the accumulation and repetition of the episodes reveal scarier possibilities. I think part of the pull of Pynchon’s fiction is that he has been asking, since the late 1950s, if all we have is our life inside our head and the super-connected life of the whole earth. And that neither, at the end of the day, might make any sense. Why can’t that be final seriousness?
So that’s my gripe. But Wood is good. I still can’t believe he’s younger than David Foster Wallace would have been.