JAMES WOOD WILL have none of the "excited gravity" that most critics affect while handling the Great Books. In his collection of critical essays, The Broken Estate, Wood, who is literary critic for the New Republic, hacks away at reputations new and old: Toni Morrison's fiction is "babyishly cradled in magic"; Albert Camus's "novels have an almost charitable aesthetic clumsiness"; and a Julian Barnes story is "childishly solving, and cozily fenced." Judging from this swatch of stinging assessments, one might surmise that Wood is a curmudgeon, a malcontent, or merely a sadist who takes his greatest pleasure out of trashing literature. Yet none of these descriptions is true. It's just that Wood has very high standards.
Wood posits that we are living in the aftermath of fiction's broken estate. The old estate, here, means a universe where literary and fictional beliefs were kept separate from the rest of our philosophy. In Wood's mind the novel reached its pinnacle during the mid-19th Century. But thanks in part to thinkers such as Matthew Arnold and Ernest Renan, as well as some of the novelists Wood examines here--such as Flaubert, Melville, and Gogol--"the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales--as a kind of novel. Simultaneously, fiction became an almost religious activity." The result: "Christianity...turned itself into a comforting poetry on the one hand or an empty moralism on the other. Truth slipped away. And the novel...having founded the religion of itself, relaxed too gently into aestheticism."
Wood is himself atheistic, and he approaches fiction wielding the same Nietzschean hammer with which he debunks belief in God. Thus, his take on books that have enjoyed "a critical amnesty," while sometimes sounding like a sourpuss's insouciance, are actually rigorous tests of what he calls fiction's "gentle request to believe." Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo all fail that test, while Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, and W.G. Sebald pass. Not every essay grinds texts through this central question, in part because they were originally written as reviews for a variety of publications. Rather, they "pace the limits of belief," throwing in mini-manifestos on the trade of fiction.
This is a heady mixture, and Wood delivers his arguments with an evangelical fury. Like a preacher who skips around the Bible plucking passages, the 35-year-old writer cross-references texts from what seems like all of literature--from the poems of Coleridge to the novels of Robert Stone--as he dissects, praises, and sounds the depths of a writer's philosophy. But while a preacher's argument draws on his congregation's need to believe--indeed encourages that need--Wood embraces but does not bow to that need in fiction. After all, he writes "Fiction demands belief from us, and that is demanding because we can choose not to believe."