Peering Through James Wood’s Methodical Lens

[21 January 2014]

By Jordan Blum

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Author James Wood (not to be confused with actor James Woods) is frequently ranked amongst the top literary critics of his era, and for good reason. As The New York Times Book Review claims on the cover of his newest work, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, “No critic gets closer to the text…” Indeed, Wood’s analyses are incredibly intricate, lengthy, and all-encompassing, as he often picks apart a text paragraph by paragraph (or even sentence by sentence). He also includes plenty of allusions to other writers, which demonstrates his incredible knowledge of the field. Sadly, much of The Fun Stuff also borders on being too scholarly and pedantic, which makes it too inaccessible and self-indulgent to have mass appeal. 

Wood includes nearly two dozen essays in this collection, and each one offers a dauntingly meticulous assessment of its subject. He focuses on a fairly wide array of topics, including writers Thomas Hardy, Lydia Davis, Ian McEwan, and George Orwell, as well as texts like Netherland (Joseph O’Neill), War and Peace, and even The King James Bible. Of course, your interest in his investigations depends on your knowledge of these choices, and in that respect the average reader may not find many familiar titles here. Furthermore, his prose consists entirely of formal rhetoric (which definitely helps his ethos), meaning that it’s without noticeable personality. In other words, you probably won’t want to read his entries purely for the appeal of his language.

Interestingly, he begins the book on a decidedly non-literary note: the manic genius of drummer Keith Moon. In fact, The Fun Stuff takes its name from this opening homage. Wood begins by describing his childhood musical education, assuring us that he was very skilled as a boy (and in doing so, he infers a need to be admired by the reader. This is far from the only instance of such a desire). In terms of discussing Moon, though, he does an excellent job of analyzing his eccentricities, poor choices, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to performance. In fact, Wood calls him “the drummer who wasthe drums,” implying (as many other fans have) that Moon was destined to do what he did.

Among his dissections is the notion that Moon defied conventional rules about timing, phrasing, and the like, choosing instead to play in a constant frenzy that soundedquite unorganized. As he puts it, Moon “did keep the beat… but he did it by every method except the traditional one.” From there, Wood asserts that while modern drummers, like modern novelists, are probably better than their predecessors in terms of technical ability, Moon’s frantic energy and unique vision put him in a class all his own (even Led Zeppelin’s marvelous John Bonham couldn’t compare). Overall it’s a fascinating—if, like most of The Fun Stuff, overly showy and particular—account of The Who’s lost legend.

Elsewhere, he goes into painstaking detail about what makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a quintessential dystopic novel. The appraisal initially does exactly what it needs to: set up a narrowing context. Wood explains how the events of 9/11 jumpstarted the fear of annihilation and abandonment that works such as A Canticle for Leibowitz, On the Beach, The Children of Men, and Failsafe tackled. He says that The Road captures “a kind of ultimate triumph of an American minimalism that became well known in the 1980s under the banner of ‘dirty realism.’” Essentially, The Road succeeds because it describes a void (the world) by focusing on seemingly insignificant instances of domestic life, such as eating beans and taking a shower.

According to Wood, what truly separates The Road from its thematic siblings is the way it modifies a clichéd tactic. Whereas most apocalyptic tales “merely describe the life that we know but with a twist…” this novel is not necessarily a commentary or cautionary tale. Instead, it simply asks what the world would be like without people. As usual, Wood chooses several wonderful excerpts to exemplify his argument, and he compares McCarthy’s style to that of Carver, Lawrence, Conrad, Hardy, and Melville, all of whom are “American Masters.” His dedication to accounting for every minute detail of McCarthy’s novel is remarkable, and if you’re a fan of it, you’ll no doubt adore this complex reaction.

As a teacher and writer, I love reading and talking in-depth about cultural issues such as these, so it might be ironic to fault someone for sounding excessively knowledgeable and academic; however, that’s exactly what makes The Fun Stuff anything but fun to read. Wood seems as interested in showcasing his own vernacular and scope as he is in highlighting his subjects, which results in extremely obscure references and tremendously wordy sentences. His pontification can be very tedious, too, and there’s very little character in his tone. Of course, argumentation and description should never be dumbed down, but they should also not be blatantly self-serving and elitist. There is absolutely an audience for his style, but it’s surely a limited one.

By and large, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays is bursting with insightful observations, immaculate connections, and thorough examination, illustrating why Wood is considered a master of his craft. In fact, these are some of the most in-depth and thoughtful reviews I’ve ever read. On the other hand, though, this level of specificity makes the essays feel too dull and elaborate, so while similar works may not be as scrupulous, they’re easily more welcoming and enticing. If you’re a fan of the kind of methodical lens Wood uses, by all means check out this collection; if not, you’ll find The Fun Stuff to be all function and no flare.

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