A few months ago, the literary site The Quarterly Conversation (edited by Esposito) published an article entitled ‘The One That Got Away: Why James Wood is Wrong About Underworld,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions. On the one hand, it must be said that this essay is another fine example of the James Wood Neurosis at work (it would be hard to imagine a more pointed title); but Hallberg has composed something quite different from the hectoring clamour of his peers. The most immediately apparent change is one of style: Hallberg writes well, entertainingly, and above all, calmly. What a relief after the antagonistic rhetoric of like-minded bloggers, to read something so polished and so reasonable. But more important is Hallberg’s choice of subject: not the flaws of Wood’s personality, but the virtues of DeLillo’s novel. Hallberg evidently has a deep familiarity with Underworld, and he communicates his enthusiasm for the work with charm and conviction.
Not to say that Hallberg’s argument is flawless. For example, he is not above the implication that Wood is both too English and too old-fashioned to judge DeLillo fairly; such arguments do not, I think, stand up to close scrutiny. But such cheap shots are in the minority. Hallberg’s greatest successes are, I think, in his defence of DeLillo’s style and in his description of the novel’s form. This can be best illustrated with an extended passage:
Wood is correct that Nick “exists, grayly,” but not that, “fictionally speaking, he is a stranger promoted above his station”; Nick’s claim to our interest is precisely that he is a stranger to himself. “I was barely there,” he tells us, early on. Like his willed grayness, his worldview offsets the novel’s vivid, Dostoevskian obsessives: he believes in order and reason—in living “responsibly in the real.” “I didn’t accept this business of life as a fiction,” he declares. “History was not a matter of missing minutes on the tape. I did not stand helpless before it.” And yet we sense in his dip into the past tense here that Nick’s “responsibility” has yielded no firmer grasp of the meaning of being than have the conspiracy theories of Bronzini or the phobias of Sister Edgar. His life keeps erupting into disorder. When we first meet Nick, impulses he doesn’t understand have driven him to revisit an old lover, and as we move backward in time we will see him cheating on his wife, spending $35,000 on the Bobby Thomson baseball, cuckolding Bronzini, and eventually (in his adolescence) committing homicide. His characteristic locution as an adult is, “I told myself,” and it emerges that his life has become a sort of fiction, a story about self-control.The value of this passage is that it is searching for value in the work itself. Any critic must be able to do this: what is the point of a critic who cannot tell you why they like something? In evoking the life of the protagonist, Hallberg offers a response to Wood’s claim that the characters are lifeless; in evoking his emotions, he demonstrates that there is emotion to be found in it.
Unlike Esposito, Hallberg even manages to engage the charge of didacticism:
[Wood] has, most significantly, failed to see that the form of Underworld is, among other things, a marvel of dialogics. In allowing its characters to talk at cross-purposes, the novel resists the pedagogy of the paranoiac, and allows DeLillo’s themes to ripen into questions: What is history? Who makes it? What are we so afraid of? DeLillo allows a dozen different characters to answer, and refuses to adjudicate among them.Ultimately, however, he fails, as Esposito did, to comprehend the full extent of Wood’s argument, as this statement shows (emphasis added):
But one can imagine a future in which the formal innovations of even the most gifted novelist will be used to sell dryer sheets before the first .pdfs of the novel have even hit the web. Thus, … James Wood’s insistence that out-culturing the culture is a goal both impossible and nonsensical for the novel.By ‘out-culturing the culture,’ Hallberg is referring to the ‘social novel,’ a genre whose aim is to encapsulate an entire society. But the causality he sets up between the velocity of postmodernity and Wood’s statement obscures the depth of his critique, which questions the very foundational logic of ‘out-culturing the culture’ in the first place.
Like many on the Internet who have addressed this topic, Hallberg assumes that Wood, who invokes Dickens often in relation to novels of the Underworld type, that he wants them all to write like Dickens—that Dickens represents his realist ideal. This is not, I think, the case. Wood compares Dickens with DeLillo to locate DeLillo’s style in a history of the novel; to, as he has put it, ‘deny the postmodernists their meat’ by attempting to prove that what they think of as a blindingly new invention actually has its roots in the old social novel. The rather simple-minded logic behind this common error is, of course, that Wood favours Dickens because Dickens is old. Unfortunately, this error forms a keystone of Hallberg’s thesis: that Wood should appreciate Underworld because it combines the form of the Victorian social novel with that of the contemporary social novel. Such an argument is unlikely to move Wood, however, because it is the social novel itself that he contests.
There is an implicit logic to the social novel, for the new form perhaps more than the old, in which fiction is seen as a tool for a kind of cultural reprogramming: in DeLillo’s desire to ‘alter the inner life of the culture’ (as he put it in Mao II) one finds the desire to save not the novel, but the world. ‘The novel is the dream release, the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinement,’ he says in ‘The Power of History.’ This is the same utopian mysticism that has infected liberal academia; as Leonard Jackson put it, ‘making revolutions of the mind and hoping society will follow.’
But for Wood this dream of social engineering is utterly quixotic, while its perception as a reasonable goal has a cumulatively debilitating effect on the power of the novel achieve anything at all. The discourse of other fields—history, sociology, politics—is dominated by rhetoric rather than fiction not by accident, but because rhetoric is such an efficient way to share information. The subject one chooses to render in the medium of fiction should flatter its natural strengths, which are, for Wood, the ‘human,’ the emotional, the ‘real.’ For Wood, fiction is a ‘secular’ medium—meaning that it acts as a corrective to the simplified proscriptions of dogma, revealing the complexity of individual lived experience. His ideal is a kind of ‘emotional realism,’ in which characters are ‘alive to themselves’ and free to represent not sociological theories, but real, living people.
Wood sees in DeLillo’s intent—revealed in an essay for the New York Times entitled ‘The Power of History’—a certain affinity with his own views. DeLillo states his wish to challenge the broad dogma of historical narratives, in which the complex realities of lived experience are erased:
Fiction slips into the skin of historical figures. It gives them sweaty palms and head colds and urine-stained underwear and lines to speak in private and the terror of restless nights. This is how consciousness is extended and human truth is seen new.But in practice, the pull of the didactic, turning characters into allegories or dialogic representatives (even if the author’s position is finally unclear), strips his fiction of emotional realism. As Wood puts it in his review of Underworld (not available online):
After a while, DeLillo’s attitude toward these people… comes to seem irrelevant; their bulk amounts to a pedagogical statement. Though they are all different, their differences are burned away by the scandal of their sameness. DeLillo’s anxiety about having anyone of substance in the novel unconnected to his central theme is not only irritatingly airless, it is itself a little paranoid, as if the writer can only employ characters who are loyal to him and his agenda.As a result, DeLillo is fighting dogma with merely a different dogma, turning literature into another form of religion. It is the same fault that he finds in White Teeth, that the author’s dogmatism has effaced the fiction’s aesthetic power, which is, for Wood, the only power a novel can possess. Is he correct? A true dialogue between these two opposing views of the nature of the novel would hopefully answer that question, but such a dialogue will never occur until the followers of DeLillo can comprehend the magnitude of the debate.