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November 28, 2009

On James Wood on Byatt, and the Universe

Too many magazines come to my house, and after I had a baby in May, I didn’t get around to reading any of them for ages. So it’s only just now that I’ve read “Bristling With Diligence”, James Wood’s review of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (because I’m superstitious about reading my periodicals and their contents out of order).

Like all of James Wood’s reviews, this one was as fascinating to read as the book it pertained to. There was not a single point upon which I really disagreed with him (except for “Byatt is a very ordinary grown-ups’ writer”), he got the book right on, and yet I loved The Children’s Book and James Wood distinctly didn’t. And this is where an objective approach to criticism breaks down, I think, or where I cease to understand it. Wood lets his evidence speak for itself, but what that it says something quite different to me?

I realize that Wood has an agenda of sorts, or rather an “approach” to fiction, and that I’ve not been paying much attention to what that is, so let us not make that the point. Instead, I want to point out the curiousity of Wood taking down Byatt for characters who are “dutiful puppets, always squeezed and shaped for available meaning.” That as author, Byatt “dances, with leaden slippers, around the thought-sleep of her characters… [with] that teacherly, qualifying, authorial judgment.” That “an atmosphere of historical typicality drapes the stories’ individual forms.” That “Whenever a detail could be selected at the expense of another one, Byatt will always prefer to buy both, and include the receipts”. (I love that sentence. Honestly, that every book review could be so vital and engaging, but I digress…)

To all of which, I reply, “Yes, yes, yes! And isn’t it marvelous?” Because it occurs to me that what I like best about fiction is not its realism (sorry, James Wood), but the way that a novel or story can be its own little universe. I confess: I like witnessing Byatt’s manipulations. I like writers that move their characters around like pieces on a boardgame, and I like omniscience, and I like a guiding hand. Ruby Lennox at the beginning of Behind the Scenes at the Museum: “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.” Realism, this isn’t.

I like Margaret Drabble, her novel The Radiant Way, and how “an atmosphere of historical typicality draped… individual forms.” Perhaps fiction is not so informed by history, but I think it works especially well the other way around. Also, I like how in Drabble’s novel The Gates of Ivory, a character from The Needle’s Eye appears out of nowhere, and how these novels are seemingly unconnected otherwise, the character is minor in both novels (which were written nearly two decades apart), but how this connection gives impression of a Drabbleverse, and that I am privy to it.

I think all of this is now old-fashioned, though it was once so modern they made an “-ism” of it. For I think Mrs. Dalloway was that kind of book, and so was To The Lighthouse. Whose characters stood for things, and knew things they didn’t even know they knew (though Mrs. Ramsey did). I think Zadie Smith’s fictional worlds are like this too (though I don’t this has to do with Wood’s “hysterical realism”, but I could well be wrong. I often am about things like that).

By chance (or for some deeper reason as determined by a guiding force, who knows?), I read Wood’s review as I was reading Penelope Lively’s novel Cleopatra’s Sister. Lively (who won the Booker Prize in 1987 for her extraordinary novel Moon Tiger) is a critically-underrated writer (which doesn’t mean she doesn’t get good reviews, but that is something different). Her novels– and this one in particular– deal with ordinary lives intersecting with history, the trajectory of destiny, teleology. Her recent novel Consequences is about what it sounds like; her pseudo-memoir Making It Up is a fictionalized autobiography, supposing different paths she might have taken in her life.

Cleopatra’s Sister is about history as random or inevitable, and Lively shows that it is both or n/either as she brings her two main characters together through a series of events that begins with Gondwana (and rapidly does proceed to the present day, do not fear; Clan of the Cave Bear this book is not). “These events are chronological; they take place in sequence and are in some senses contingent upon one another. Remove one– extract a decade, or a century– and the whole historical ediface will shift on its foundations. But that ediface itself is a chimera, a construct of human intellect. It has no bricks and stones– it is words, words, words. The events are myths and fables distortions and elaborations of something that may or may not have happened; they are the rainbow survivors of some vanished grey moment of reality.”

Which has a double-meaning, of course, in that this is fiction, but reality as we make sense of it is only “words, words, words” too. Which makes the concept of realist fiction sort of absurd to consider.

Achieving reality itself as the goal of fiction is one thing, but I think the construction of a fictional self-contained universe (like the Drabbleverse, the Livelyverse) is just as noble a fictional pursuit. However, not so much in the realm of the fantastic (excuse me, my bias is showing), where in order to be authentic, you just make everyone sound a little bit Welsh. But rather, universes that so resemble this one, but which are consciously constructed. Because what marvelous constructions these are, I always think. The details required in such creation (which is exactly why Byatt would get both, and receipts). It’s like rebuilding the whole world again, brick by brick, and guiding its people up and down the streets. Controlling traffic. And setting in play a chain of circumstances, like say, the New Years Eve during which Archie Jones tries to kill himself, fails, and then meets Clara, the Jamaican daughter of a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and then we’re off! for a few hundred pages.

Of course, all this, like everything, is a matter of taste. I was discussing Amy Jones’ story collection What Boys Like with a friend the other day, and she told me that her least favourite story was “The Church of the Latter-Day Peaches”– which had been one of the ones I liked best. (Note: We agreed our mutual favourite was “All We Will Ever Be”, but I digress. Again.) My friend felt “Church of…” wasn’t as strong as the rest of the collection due to its storiedness–its cuteness, its beginning, middle and end, such a tidy shape, the patterns, how it contained its own lore, how parts of it meant something other than what they were. That it didn’t stand for life itself. And when all of that had been what I’d enjoyed so much about it– there really is no accounting for other people, is there?

What I’m slowly getting around to then is questioning the assumption that fiction has to be real. Which is hardly original, I know, but I wish to point out what a feat still is an excellent novel without realism as its intention. That such a novel can be excellent, even, and The Children’s Book— while not flawless, and Wood had a point about the problem of its history– is a tremendous book, even with its author pulling strings. That string-pulling is no small feat sometimes. That a book can be a book, and that can be wonderful in itself. And that it’s still baffling that literature is supposed to be or achieve any one thing, because like a whitman, or the universe itself, literature (and fiction, and the novel) contains multitudes.

2 thoughts on “On James Wood on Byatt, and the Universe”

  1. Melanie says:

    Brilliant post. I agree about The Children's Book, even though I do enjoy James Wood's criticism a fair bit. I loved The Children's Book, and I love the concept of and spending time in, especially, the Livelyverse.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Melanie. I'm so glad to have a fellow Penelope Lively fan. I haven't read her newest yet but it's received wonderful reviews (and was one of the New York Times' notable books of the year!) I'm looking forward to it.

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