The Irresponsible Self by James Woods

The subtitle of Woods’ collection is ‘On Laughter and the Novel.’ Not everyone laughs when James Woods unleashes his considerable skills on their work. He doesn’t review literary works in the typical sense; he takes them for a stroll through the long history of the canon, a history that begins with Cervantes. “Don Quixote is the greatest of all fictional enquiries into the relation between fiction and reality.” That relationship, fcition and reality, has been strained over the centuries and Woods explains in precise and vivd terms how things have gone awry.

The Irresponsible Self covers this history in a series of essays that ground the reader in his approach to fiction. In describing Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, he quotes George Orwell’s remark about Dickens: “poor architecture, great gargoyles.” Zadie Smith takes her lumps in an essay called Hysterical Realism, aka Magical Realism, a style that Woods relegates to the low comic status of farce. Lumpen characters, absurd coincidence aren’t the exclusive territory of the modern novel, only the ambitious, big novels that grow out of a desire to be big and ambitious rather than tell a story. Ego dislodges humor and takes with it sympathy, coherence, and characterization.

Two of his targets, Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe, enjoy entire sections of their own. Franzen’s demise of the social novel is probed gently as Woods points out that novels are not the ideal delivery system for news of the world. The pivot point is September 11, 2001 when the destruction of the Trade Center drove home the notion that real world calamity defies imagining. While Woods has good things to say about The Corrections , he’s not sympathetic to Franzen’s nothing ever happens around here schtick.

“Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity. His characters are capable of experiencing only one feeling at a time; they are advertisements for the self: Greed! Fear! Hate! Love! Misery! The people who phosphoresce thus are nothing like real people.” Woods goes on, challenging Wolfe’s journalistic style as shallow, numbed by facts and information. A Man in Full is disassembled, examined, glued back together in great detail. It’s one of the worst novels I’ve ever read, and Woods take down is among the most brutal of the entries.

Shakespeare, Italo Svevo, Monica Ali, Salman Rushdie among many others come under Woods’ scrutiny in sections of their own. The Irresponsible Self serves as a rich resource from a man who has cornered the market in literary criticism. Well written, rational, and exacting, the book is one to kept at hand and read often.