Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Placing faith in the power of the novel

The Book Against God: A Novel, James Wood, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 258 pp., $24

June 08, 2003|Jeffrey Meyers | Jeffrey Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, is the author of "D.H. Lawrence: A Biography," "Joseph Conrad: A Biography" and "Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation" and has recently completed a life of Somerset Maugham.

On the scene but not a literary personality, writing with passionate intelligence and richly metaphorical style, James Wood has ignored the opaque aridity of literary theory and insisted on the human relevance of classic and modern literature. Born in 1965, he grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Durham, England, and sang in the cathedral choir. As a teenager, he tore himself away from belief in God and soothed his restless soul with art. After taking a degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, he became a full-time literary journalist for the Guardian, the London Review of Books and the New Republic, and now lives in Washington, D.C. "The Book Against God" is his first novel.

Wood set forth his aesthetic and religious principles in his first book, "The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief" (1999). He likes realistic fiction, enriched with precise visual details. His method is to ask: "What is this art like? What does it resemble? How can it best be described?" A vivid writer, he calls a scene in Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theater" "a chandelier of gathered moments" and defines D.H. Lawrence's delicate descriptions in "Twilight in Italy" as "hidden sermons whose quarry is the secret of knowledge itself." Wood admires bold exploratory novels, like Melville's and Mann's. He insists that "fiction must not stroke the known but distress the undiscovered." The novel, he writes, "is able to test, and enrich, our powers of sympathy." Like God on Judgment Day, he separates the saved (Gogol, Chekhov, Lawrence and Woolf) from the damned (DeLillo, Updike, Toni Morrison and Julian Barnes).

The big gun in Wood's critical armory is theology. The autobiographical sections of "The Broken Estate" set out ideas he develops in his novel. He asserts that our religious belief was broken in the mid-19th century, when "the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports" began to collapse; when "historical biblical criticism began to treat the Bible as if it were a biography or even a novel." A key argument in both his criticism and his novel is that there is no correspondence between religion and morality, that "God-fearing Europe ... does not seem to have been obviously more moral than God-questioning Europe" after Voltaire and Hume. The hero of Wood's novel, who thinks the Bible is merely a collection of myths and that religion does not improve human behavior, wrestles with the consequences of abandoning religious belief.

Sustained by his iconoclastic heroes Nietzsche and Camus, Wood rejects Christianity in "The Broken Estate." He cannot accept "the problem of evil and suffering in the world, the senseless difficulty of faith, the cruelty of heaven and hell, the paganism of Jesus' 'sacrifice.' ... Either God cannot control this evil (and then he is not all powerful) or, in some way, he wants it to exist (and he is not good)." While Wood has lost faith in religion, he still believes in literature. For him, the religious and the novelistic impulse are the same. Fiction demands belief, and novelists "ask us to validate the reality of [their] writing by believing it."

Wood's religious background and north of England origins, as well as his critical and autobiographical essays, set the stage for his episodic first-person novel. The narrator and central character, Tom Bunting, reacts against the big lie of Christianity, forced upon him as a child, by becoming, as an adult, a chronic, unregenerate and self-defeating liar. Without belief in anything, his mind and heart are in chaos. "The Book Against God" thriftily recycles not only theological arguments but also specific statements and images from "The Broken Estate." In both the essays and the novel, Wood and his fictional character have had a happy childhood, and as choirboys wore black capes and tasseled mortarboards; in both books Wood writes of a household as solemn "as if a doctor were visiting," of a confused "chameleon who finds himself on a tartan picnic rug" and of a church-going lady who walks with three sticks. Both books end with rhetorical questions.

In an appreciative New Yorker essay on the Catholic fiction of J.F. Powers, Wood recalls that he "grew up among priests; they were stationed throughout my family, as uncles and cousins. A certain kind of Church of England rectory became as familiar to me as my bedroom." "The Book Against God" is an Anglican (not evangelical) novel with the clerical background of George Eliot and Anthony Trollope (alluding to Trollope's novels, he names one character Canon Palliser), of Barbara Pym and A.N. Wilson. The novel is set in London and in a village near Durham, and Tom shares the surname of the Northumberland poet Basil Bunting, whose archive is in Durham.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|