James Wood, The Fun Stuff

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Whenever I read one of James Wood’s book reviews, I’m reminded of a comment from the beginning of his 2008 primer How Fiction Works, where he claims that he’s used only “the books at hand in my study…to produce this little volume”. If that’s true, I thought, the New Yorker staff writer’s study must be either stacked to the rafters or else some kind of repurposed barn. He can’t write about one book without dragging a half-dozen others into the mix.

In Wood’s new book, however, what shines through is not the breadth of his interests, but their depth. Taken collectively, the 25 pieces in The Fun Stuff show Wood returning time and again to a smaller group of touchstones—War and Peace, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, a single phrase from King Lear—and using them as a kind of gauntlet through which all new novels that cross his desk must pass.

This, of course, is the kind of thing that will inevitably get a critic accused of elitism—as if literature wasn’t a massive, chaotic dialogue between past and present to begin with. Yet The Fun Stuff sidesteps that old complaint, too, mostly focusing on fiction from the past decade that meets Wood’s high standards. This includes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, and the stories of Lydia Davis, among others. Famous for his pans, Wood is also uncommonly good at writing about books he loves (a much harder task), especially because of that rich, plummy tone, audible when he describes how Marilynne Robinson “shuns the evangelical childishness of gluing human attributes onto God”.

The actual analysis is just as deeply considered as we’ve come to expect. One piece dissects seven different novels by Ian McEwan in its very first paragraph, and lays out a comprehensive theory of the author’s obsession with trauma nearly as swiftly. ButThe Fun Stuff’s most surprising victories are when Wood delves into his personal life, whether in smaller vignettes like the intimidating lunch he shared with V.S. Naipaul, or in the pair of personal essays that bookend the collection.

One of those, which is also the title essay, takes us through Wood’s lifelong fascination with rock drumming, and his worship of the Who’s Keith Moon. He describes his envy, even now, at the rock ’n’ roll aesthetic, and—in a perfect display of his own mild-mannered character—describes Moon as “the drummer of enjambment”, a poetry term. Clearly, Wood has cast his lot with the bookish crowd. And we’re glad to have him.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pp, $31, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, November 29, 2012)

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