Friday, November 05, 2010

James Wood and the comic novel

This week’s issue of the New Yorker features one of James Wood’s most interesting reviews in a while, a dismissal of Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question. The novel is one I wouldn’t have been likely to pick up anyway; rather, what’s interesting about the review is how Wood uses it to characterize a particular type of bad comic writing--and thereby define a different, better version as well.

After explaining that The Finkler Question “is always shouting at the reader,” as if it needs to make sure we’re getting the joke, Wood states his broader case:
The problem might be put like this. There is comedy, and then there is something called the Comic Novel, and these are related to each other rather as the year is related to a pocket diary--the latter a meaner, tidier, simpler version of the former. Comedy is the angle at which most of us see the world, the way that our very light is filtered. The novel is, by and large, a secular, comic form: one can be suspicious of any novelist who seems entirely immune to the comic. But the Comic Novel flattens comedy into the bar code of “the joke”--a strip of easy-to-swipe predictability. The Comic Novel might imagine itself descended from Cervantes and Fielding, but it is really the stunted offspring of Waugh and Wodehouse, lacking the magic of either. In the work of English comic writers like David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, and Tom Sharpe, there is, too often, a tiresome need to be always seen to be funny. The novel’s prose may be calm enough, but the novel’s form will seem exaggerated, because it is monochromatically devoted to funniness, as a fever is devoted to heat.
I think the phrase he's looking for here is "flop sweat."

Wood is at his best when he’s writing on the comic; though his book on comedy, The Irresponsible Self, is just a collection of review essays, it is more consistently interesting--and convincing--than his other two books. And he makes an important, useful distinction here: most novels worth reading are comic; not all of them are comic novels. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is unquestionably comic, though you would be hard-pressed to find anything that could be called a joke in it. There is comedy in Iris Murdoch (though it’s overwhelmed by romance), in Barbara Pym, in Trollope, and in Halldor Laxness--to pick just four writers off my shelves. Those four are wildly disparate, but all in their own ways are practicing a form of psychological realism, and all realize that such an approach to the world requires them also to acknowledge their characters' occasional absurdities, smallnesses, and failures. Even such grim writers as Hilary Mantel or Roberto Bolano find room for comedy--hell, Richard Stark, in his Parker novels, some of the hardest-edged books I know, can’t help but allow glimmers of comedy to peek through, simply because he’s attending closely to the ways of people.

None of those writers (with the exception of Powell) are as funny as J. F. Powers, another of my favorites--nor did they set out to be--but a description of Powers’s writing from Wood’s essay about him in The Irresponsible Self would seem to apply to them as well, if in lesser form:
Powers is at his most comic when catching, as if by luck, this brackish overflow of people’s souls. . . . Powers shows again what comic realism can do: how it attends to the human exception, how it scathes our pretensions and blesses our weaknesses.
Wood’s other category is also clear--and, not unsurprisingly, it overlaps quite a bit with his other bete noir, the bustling, capacious, cosmopolitan genre he calls “Hysterical Realism.” It is the “cartoonish and inauthentic reality” he has complained of in Rushdie, the “pursuit of vitality at all costs” that he notes in Pynchon and others; you could take this description of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and apply it, nearly unchanged, to Wood’s demolition of The Finkler Question:
As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic.
By pointing out the overlap between the two, I don’t intend to criticize, or even seem to be making a particularly revelatory point: I appreciate that Wood is consistent, and I expect that, pejorative labels aside, Howard Jacobson wouldn’t balk at a categorization scheme that placed The Finkler Question with White Teeth. To a large extent, I share Wood’s point of view: I prefer the quiet comedy of the former category to the manic madcap of the latter; I prefer classic psychological realism, because what I’m most interested in in fiction is the age-old question of how we are to live in this world.

Yet I feel that Wood’s division leaves something out--that for someone who truly values comedy, who loves Fielding and Wodehouse and Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett and Kingsley Amis and others, who enjoys bursting into laughter on the subway (which I can’t quite imagine Wood ever doing), there are other novels that don’t quite fit the dichotomy of good/bad, gentle/madcap, natural/trying too hard that Wood sets up. They’re novels whose comedy--or perhaps satire--is not incidental, but the point, yet at the same time they neither use Wodehouse’s trick of unmooring us from all reality nor do they fall into the pit Wood identifies of rendering reality unintentionally unbelievable (and therefore unfunny).

Two recent examples give a clue as to how such a book can succeed: Personal Days, by my friend Ed Park, and The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. Of the two, Personal Days is by far the more sucesssful; The Ask, like Lipsyte’s previous book, Homeland, eventually collapses under the weight of its awkward plot. But along the way Lipsyte wraps the reader up in language so carefully polished that the jokes--and yes, there are jokes, a few of them awful--for the most part don’t feel like impositions, or demands for laughter, but instead feel more like the hidden sting in the sentence’s curved tail. And sting is the right term, for the rest of the genius of The Ask lies in its self-loathing, whose acid can dissolve any pretense; as you read it, you alternate between laughing and cringing. Laugh:
Bernie and Aiden slipped from their respective parental grips and commenced conversation about an action hero, something not quite human that maybe transformed or transmogrified but in any event could easily exsanguinate any mother or father or adult guardian, which was the crucial part, the takeaway, as TV commentators put it. It would have been hard to tell, witnessing the boys together now, that one had recently tried to bite off the other's penis. The flipside to the fickleness of children was their ability to transcend grudge, adjust to new conditions. Innocence, cruelty, rubbery limbs, amnesia, successful nations were erected on these qualities.
We knew the price of Christine’s criminally low price [for daycare], namely that under her supervision, or lack thereof, Bernie was becoming a criminal. Child care was like everything else. You got what you paid for, and your child paid for what you could not pay for. . . . A few seasons in Christine’s cement yard with Queens County’s puniest toughs and Bernie had the strut of an old-time dockside hustler. It was hard to imagine the boy completing kindergarten; remarkably easy to picture him in a tangle of fish knives and sailor cock under some rot-soft pier.
The satire of Personal Days is much gentler, but no less on point, and it's given strength by the formal inventiveness of the novel, which allows for a sneaking accretion of emotion that unexpectedly explodes in the novel's rushing final section. Along the way, there's some truly wonderful comedy. Here, for example, is a passage that distills the frustrations of modern office life into a few short lines:
Lizzie drags an icon out of a cluttered corner of her screen but lets go too soon. It falls into the document she's working on, which happens to be her resume. The icon bounces back to its starting place with a boinggg noise she's never heard before. She learns that Word cannot insert a file into itself.

Word can seriously go fuck itself, she mutters. She's been talking to herself a lot lately but maybe we all have.

Later she's trying to put a chart into a different document but gets scolded: That is not a valid action for footnotes.

This is funny--the quick response, the finger-wagging strictness--but it also creeps her out. She calls up Pru except she accidentally dials her own extension and the little screen says, You cannot call yourself.

Our machines know more than we do, Pru thinks. Even their deficiencies and failures are instructive. They are trying to tell us something about the limits of the human, the nature of the possible. Or something like that, says Pru, who has been reading a novel about cyborgs set in the year 2012.

The message that kills us is the one that pops up on the rare occasions when we remember to shut everything down for the weekend, just before we turn the computer off.

Are you sure you want to quit?
Then there's this description of the enigmatic boss, Maxine, which absolutely revels in the pleasures of language, its shifting rhythms and registers:
Maxine's new outfit was completely inappropriate for winter, in fact for any season or situation. It had two kinds of pink going on, and ornate beaded strappy things, and a fairly explicit bondage motif. There were parallelograms of exposed flesh that were illegal in most states, a bow in the back that looked like a winding key. One area involved fur. Her hair had a fresh-from-salon bounce that clashed with the rest of the getup, but this being Maxine, everything kind of went together in the end. . . . Pru and Lizzie instinctively flinched. They might as well have been rolling on the ground like bowling pins, with xs for eyes.

With her female competition out of the way, Maxine leveled her extremely hot gaze right at Grime, who stood his ground. He swayed in place, gently rocking on one heel. Maxine was saying something about Wednesday, but it wasn't clear whether she meant tomorrow or last Wednesday.

Grime's not-flinching was making Maxine flinch. It looked like a nod but it was actually a flinch. Lizzie and Pru saw it all unfold. They're filing away the subtleties for Jack II and his blog. Maxine lost the thread of what she was saying, eyes gleaming in panic. She could have been talking about the general concept of Wednesday, its status as a hump day, its complicated spelling. No one had seen her quiver like this before. It was like she'd been set in italics.

There was a historical vibe to the scene.
Though the two books are, themselves, wildly different--it would be hard to convey just how much less corrosive Pesonal Days is than The Ask, while being no less insightful--at the same time they're more like each other than they are like either of Wood's categories. They are neither hysterical realism nor comedy that is trying too hard: instead, they're well-grounded satire written in language of almost Nabokovian polish--and they put that language in service of a story about recognizably human characters. I wonder what Wood would think of them. Would he see that they're different from the books he's writing about--or is there, as I suspect, a limit to his sense of the comic?

All I know is that I want more novels like these, books that manage to dedicate themselves simultaneously--and almost equally--to comedy, carefully wrought prose, and the basic problems of being human. What more can a reader ask for?


  1. I'm surprised by the absence of comments, and as I hope you know, it doesn't reflect on the quality of your piece. No joke, I've read it 4 times this weekend, with great enjoyment, and even nurtured a hope that J. Wood might offer an atta-Levi. Your recent post is one of the very best I've seen in the literary blogosphere. I wonder, have you read Flannery O'Connor? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about her ability to fuse the grotesque and the comic.


  2. I couldn't agree more--I just recently read 'Personal Days' (having bought it when it first came out, it vanished in the Room of Unread Books), and it's close to my ideal comic novel, along with books like 'Lucky Jim' and the works of Wodehouse and Pamela Branch. There's no strain to be funny, no apparent effort. They're just marvellous.

  3. Totally agree. The dichotomy Woods draws is too stark to contain so many of the writers you mention... your comment re: K. Amis, Fielding, etc. basically obviated a need for a comment.

    Sam is hilarious, and it seems that his fiction is taking more of an emotionally forthright turn (haven't read The Ask, but read his recent short stuff).

    Seems like most of the comic fiction that I've liked in the past = campus fiction or office/bureaucracy fiction. It may be an obvious point to many, but G. Saunders, to me, is the master of the latter category, although he's not written a novel.

  4. Thanks, guys--I'm glad my argument found some agreement out there.

    noxrpm, you definitely should read The Ask: it's hard to convey just how well-crafted nearly every sentence is. The attention to sound, particularly to consonance, is remarkable; to sustain that level of attention for a whole novel is really impressive.

    Two last thoughts on Wood's piece:

    1. Where does Nabokov fit in? Or is he, not inappropriately, considered sui generis?

    2. What Wood is saying, boiled down, is that you can either write a comic novel whose comedy is incidental, or you can fail. That's what's so frustrating about his categorization: it doesn't even allow the possibility of success outside his narrow rules.

  5. Not to parse an argument too closely, but doesn't the Lipsyte belong to satire not comedy? It's a bitter satire as well. It's interesting that Wood doesn't seem to address satire. I haven't read the Park yet, but the sections you quoted were superb and they sound more like the gentle comedy of an R. K. Narayan, whose work was also closely observed. For what it's worth I would describe your tone throughout the blog as being consistently comic: you convey the sense of being pleasurably amused at all that is in your purview. In any event, this was a fine piece. Thanks for posting.

  6. Joseph,
    I think you've got a point: if Waugh is satire, which I think he pretty clearly is, then Lipsyte qualifies as well.

    But Wood doesn't really deal with the concept of satire in this essay; instead, he lumps it all in with the comic novel, which is why I didn't break it out.

    I do think that Lipsyte is trying to be more than satire: he really does want us to care about his characters, whereas one of the glories of Waugh is his complete disregard for their fates. Waugh is often ready to condemn a character to a horrible, unlikely, ridiculous fate for the sake of a satirical point, or even a joke. Lipsyte's writing is more inner-directed, more built around self-loathing than general misanthropy, and the natural home of pure satire is in the latter rather than the former.