Instead of Sheets, Dirty Tablecloths

James Wood, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays: 1979-2019

Vintage, 528pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781529111910

reviewed by Rod Moody-Corbett

The title (and title essay) of James Wood’s most recent selection, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays: 1979-2019, recalls a line spoken by a character in Saul Bellow’s The Actual and this feels significant: loyalties, from the first. The Bellow line, ‘first-class noticer,’ which enjoys explicit page time in Wood’s review of Norman Rush’s Mortals (collected in The Fun Stuff but unfortunately absent here), recurs throughout much of the criticism: a nifty barometer of aesthetic taste, with your atmospherics scaling from Wolfe to Woolf.

By serious noticing we understand Wood to mean realism but realism tinged with something more eccentric, more clumsily human, or wounding, than a mere ladling of similitudes. It is akin to worldly detail taunted with thought, a Chekhovian ethos Wood describes as ‘a bashful, milky complication, not a solving of things.’ Beauty figures in this, clearly. But it is a messier, paradoxical sort of beauty, one that, in embracing cloudiness and risking imperfection, enacts a straining toward le mot juste. ‘Just as great writing asks us to look more closely,’ Wood writes, ‘[serious noticing] asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.’ In this, as elsewhere, Wood resembles Virginia Woolf, who, deriding the occluded realism of the Edwardians, extols the novelistic virtues of ‘the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure.’

We might find it in horseshit: ‘dark, deflated, tennis balls’ (Alexander Hemon); in Stiva Oblonsky’s ‘still damp newspaper’ (Tolstoy); in some short sentences by Helen Garner concerning hats: ‘She used to wear hats that pained me. Shy little round beige felt hats with narrow brims. Perhaps one was green’; in Wood’s (nonfictional) description of a train horn: ‘the crushed klaxon peal you can hear almost anywhere in the States [. . .] a crumple of notes, blown out on an easy, loitering wail’; in Wood’s (fictional) description of a train horn in Upstate (2018): ‘Perhaps that childish harmonica sound, the crushed klaxon peal, reminded him of being a boy again?’; and finally, for good measure, Lily Briscoe’s painting of Mrs. Ramsay, her ‘attempt at something’ (Woolf).

This sort of realism stands in odd relation to the genre Wood diagnosed (and more or less obviated) in his 2000 essay ‘Hysterical Realism,’ in which ‘[t]he conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked.’ In the works of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, Wood identified a marring vitality (a kind of busy silliness) manifesting both at the level of the sentence and the incessant, neo-Dickensian tremoring of plot. The charge here wasn’t so much one of authenticity — DeLillo, for his part, can manage a pretty good train sound if he must: ‘There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little’ (Libra) — but discretion, glut. ‘Underworld,’ Wood writes, ‘the darkest of these books, nevertheless, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, carries within it a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.’ For the hysterical realists, the problem, to borrow from another Saul Bellow novel, is that serious noticing later made it big.

With the exception of ‘Hysterical Realism,’ a few unkind words about Cormac McCarthy’s ‘vatic histrionic groping [. . .] Blood Fustian, this style might be called,’ and a diligent shiving of Paul Auster (‘he does nothing with cliché except use it’), Serious Noticing largely omits Wood’s polemical études, and this is probably a good thing. Those essays are great — particularly those (on Wolfe and Franzen, say) that tackle the fiction through the misdemeanours of their own nonfiction (‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast’ and ‘Perchance to Dream,’ respectively) — but this latest selection better reflects the current trajectory of Wood’s critical pursuits. This is not to say that he’s softened. Wood, who in an interview with Michael Silverblatt once described his critical praxis as ‘sidling up to the text in its own fluid,’ remains a scrupulous enthusiast.

Since joining the New Yorker staff in 2007, Wood’s assignments have tended to gravitate toward ‘a significant contemporary literature that moves between, and powerfully treats, questions of homelessness, displacement, emigration, voluntary or economic migration and even flâneurial tourism.’ Serious Noticing gathers for the first time essays on WG Sebald, Elena Ferrante, Helen Garner, and Jenny Erpenbeck, alongside a number of autobiographical essays, selected from The Fun Stuff and Wood’s excellent The Nearest Thing to Life, which sliver their way around the more formal criticism, a healthy offering of Wood’s greatest hits: Melville, Woolf, Robinson, and Hrabal. Theories of home, homelessness, homesickness, a secular homelessness Wood describes as a ‘homelooseness (with an admixture of loss),’ combine with the literary to achieve their clearest, most serious expression in Wood’s autobiographical writing. It makes a good deal of sense that the selection’s final essay, ‘Packing My Father-in-Law’s Library (after Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’), ends on Wood’s discovery of a map: ‘It was his entire world: on one side the Mediterranean, and on the other the Aegean, west and east. He had marked the most famous places and circled them: on the Asia Minor side, Aeolia, Lycia, Troy, Smyrna; and on the Greek side, the honeyed, haunted, lost names: Illyria, Attica, Argolis, Corinth, Arcadia.’
Rod Moody-Corbett ’s work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries and on the Paris Review Daily. He teaches at the University of Calgary.