Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

            No one is a better reader of literary language than James Wood. In his reviews, he conveys with grace and precision his uncanny feel for what authors set out to say, what they actually end up saying, and what any discrepancy might mean for their larger literary endeavor. He effortlessly and convincingly infers from the lurch of faulty lines the confusions and pretentions and lacuna in understanding of struggling writers. Some take steady aim at starkly circumscribed targets, his analysis suggests, while others, desperate to achieve some greater, more devastating impact, shoot wistfully into the clouds. He can even listen to the likes of republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum and explain, with his seemingly eidetic knowledge of biblical history, what is really meant when the supposed Catholic uses the word steward.

            As a critic, Wood’s ability to see character in narration and to find the author, with all his conceits and difficulties, in the character is often downright unsettling. For him there exists no divide between language and psychology—literature is the struggle of conflicted minds to capture the essence of experiences, their own and others’.

When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture/ The first fine careless rapture,’ he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants,’ says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants. (24)

This is from Wood’s How Fiction Works. In the midst of a long paean to the power of free indirect style, the technique that allows the language of the narrator to bend toward and blend with the thoughts and linguistic style of characters—moving in and out of their minds—he deigns to mention, in a footnote, an actual literary theory, or rather Literary Theory. Wood likes Nabokov’s scene in the novel Pnin that has the eponymous professor trying to grasp a nutcracker in a sink full of dishes. The narrator awkwardly calls it a “leggy thing” as it slips through his grasp. “Leggy” conveys the image. “But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’?” (25) The vagueness makes of the psychological drama a contagion. There could be no symbol more immediately felt.

            The Russian Formalists come into Wood’s discussion here. Their theory focused on metaphors that bring about an “estranging” or “defamiliarizing” effect. Wood would press them to acknowledge that this making strange of familiar objects and experiences works in the service of connecting the minds of the reader with the mind of the character—it’s anything but random:

But whereas the Russian Formalists see this metaphorical habit as emblematic of the way that fiction does not refer to reality, is a self-enclosed machine (such metaphors are the jewels of the author’s freakish, solipsistic art), I prefer the way that such metaphors, as in Pnin’s “leggy thing,” refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves, and are fruits of free indirect style. (26)

Language and words and metaphors, Wood points out, by their nature carry us toward something that is diametrically opposed to collapsing in ourselves. Indeed, there is something perverse about the insistence of so many professional scholars devoted to the study of literature that the main thrust of language is toward some unacknowledged agenda of preserving an unjust status quo—with the implication that the only way to change the world is to torture our modes of expression, beginning with literature (even though only a tiny portion of most first world populations bother to read any).

I'm not a Rick Moody fan, so here's a pic of Hank Moody,
who famously said, "Literary theory? None for me thanks."
            For Wood, fiction is communion. This view has implications about what constitutes the best literature—all the elements from description to dialogue should work to further the dramatic development of the connection between reader and character. Wood even believes that the emphasis on “round” characters is overstated, pointing out that many of the most memorable—Jean Brodie, Mr. Biswas—are one-dimensional and unchanging. Nowhere in the table of contents of How Fiction Works, or even in the index, does the word plot appear. He does, however, discuss plot in his response to postmodernists’ complaints about realism. Wood quotes author Rick Moody:

It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull. Therefore, it needs a kick in the ass.

Moody is known for a type of fiction that intentionally sabotages the sacred communion Wood sees as essential to the experience of reading fiction. He begins his response by unpacking some of the claims in Moody’s fussy pronouncement:

Moody’s three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is a “genre” (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction-making); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in “round” characters, but softly and piously (“conventional humanisms”); it assumes that the world can be described, with a naively stable link between word and referent (“philosophically dubious”); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics (“politically… dubious”).

Wood begins the section following this analysis with a one-sentence paragraph: “This is all more or less nonsense” (224-5) (thus winning my devoted readership).
Ben Lerner
            That “more or less” refers to Wood’s own frustrations with modern fiction. Conventions, he concedes, tend toward ossification, though a trope’s status as a trope, he maintains, doesn’t make it untrue. “I love you,” is the most clichéd sentence in English. That doesn’t nullify the experience of falling in love (236). Wood does believe, however, that realistic fiction is too eventful to live up to the label. Reviewing Ben Lerner’s exquisite short novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Wood lavishes praise on the postmodernist poet’s first work of fiction. He writes of the author and his main character Adam Gordon,

Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict," fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. Several times in the book, he describes this as "that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance… the texture of et cetera itself." Reading Tolstoy, Adam reflects that even that great master of the texture of et cetera itself was too dramatic, too tidy, too momentous: "Not the little miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time." (98)

Wood is suspicious of plot, and even of those epiphanies whereby characters are rendered dynamic or three-dimensional or “round,” because he seeks in fiction new ways of seeing the world he inhabits according to how it might be seen by lyrically gifted fellow inhabitants. Those “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict’" tend to be implausible distractions,
forcing the communion into narrow confessionals, breaking the spell.

            As a critic who has garnered wide acclaim from august corners conferring a modicum of actual authority, and one who's achieved something quite rare for public intellectuals, a popular following, Wood is (too) often criticized for his narrow aestheticism. Once he closes the door on goofy postmodern gimcrack, it remains closed to other potentially relevant, potentially illuminating cultural considerations—or so his detractors maintain. That popular following of his is, however, comprised of a small subset of fiction readers. And the disconnect between consumers of popular fiction and the more literary New Yorker subscribers speaks not just to the cultural issue of declining literacy or growing apathy toward fictional writing but to the more fundamental question of why people seek out narratives, along with the question Wood proposes to address in the title of his book, how does fiction work?  

            While Wood communes with synesthetic flaneurs, many readers are looking to have their curiosity piqued, their questing childhood adventurousness revived, their romantic and nightmare imaginings played out before them. “If you look at the best of literary fiction," Benjamin Percy said in an interview with Joe Fassler,

you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany.

The scene Percy describes is even more eventful than what Lerner describes as “life’s white machine”—it features one of those damn epiphanies. But Percy is frustrated with heavy-handed plots too.

In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next.
Benjamin Percy
The interview is part of Fessler’s post on the Atlantic website, “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction.” Percy is explaining the appeal of a new class of novel.

So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.

Is it possible to balance the two impulses: the urge to represent and defamiliarize, to commune, on the one hand, and the urge to create and experience suspense on the other? Obviously, if the theme you’re taking on is the struggle with boredom or the meaningless wash of time—white machine reminds me of a washer—then an incident-rich plot can only be ironic.
Ian McEwan
            The solution to the conundrum is that no life is without incident. Fiction’s subject has always been births, deaths, comings-of-age, marriages, battles. I’d imagine Wood himself is often in the mood for something other than idle reflection. Ian McEwan, whose Atonement provides Wood an illustrative example of how narration brilliantly captures character, is often taken to task for overplotting his novels. Citing Henry James in a New Yorker interview with Daniel Zalewski to the effect that novels have an obligation to “be interesting,” McEwan admits finding “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.” And if he thinks most novels are boring he should definitely stay away from the short fiction that gets published in the New Yorker nowadays.
Scene from Atonement that never took place

A further implication of Wood’s observation about narration’s capacity for connecting reader to character is that characters who live eventful lives should inhabit eventful narratives. This shifts the issue of plot back to the issue of character, so the question is not what types of things should or shouldn’t happen in fiction but rather what type of characters do we want to read about? And there’s no question that literary fiction over the last century has been dominated by a bunch of passive losers, men and women flailing desperately about before succumbing to societal or biological forces. In commercial fiction, the protagonists beat the odds; in literature, the odds beat the protagonists.

There’s a philosophy at play in this dynamic. Heroes are thought to lend themselves to a certain view of the world, where overcoming sickness and poverty and cultural impoverishment is more of a rite of passage than a real gauge of how intractable those impediments are for nearly everyone who faces them. If audiences are exposed to too many tales of heroism, then hardship becomes a prop in personal development. Characters overcoming difficulties trivializes those difficulties. Winston Smith can’t escape O’Brien and Room 101 or readers won’t appreciate the true threat posed by Big Brother. The problem is that the ascent of the passive loser and the fiction of acquiescence don’t exactly inspire reform-minded action either.

Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is definitely a loser. He worries all day that he’s some kind of impostor. He’s whiny and wracked with self-doubt. But even he doesn’t sit around doing nothing. The novel is about his trip to Spain. He pursues women with mixed success. He does readings of his poetry. He witnesses a terrorist attack. And these activities and events are interesting, as James insisted they must be. Capturing the feel of uneventful passages of time may be a worthy literary ambition, but most people seek out fiction to break up periods of nothingness. It’s never the case in real life that nothing is happening anyway—we’re at every instance getting older. I for one don’t find the prospect of spending time with people or characters who just sit passively by as that happens all that appealing.
In a remarkably lame failure of a lampoon in Harper's Colson Whitehead targets Wood's enthusiasm for Saul Bellow. And Bellow was indeed one of those impossibly good writers who could describe eating Corn Flakes and make it profound and amusing. Still, I'm a little suspicious of anyone who claims to enjoy (though enjoyment shouldn't be the only measure of literary merit) reading about the Bellow characters who wander around Chicago as much as reading about Henderson wandering around Africa. 

  Henderson: I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity I get to hang out with that crazy bastard.

Read "Can't Win for Losing: Why there are so many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change"