Near the end of these twenty-plus essays I flashed back to being in college in the early 1980s and discovering Garcia Marquez, Borges, John Fowles, Andre Gide, Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick and on and on. Amazing, fascinating, cutting-edge, avant-garde literature endures with new writers and their works continue to fill an artistic literary void. The Fun Stuff by James Wood is one place to fill that emptiness.
The Fun Stuff: and Other Essays starts off a little off-beat with a homage to Keith Moon’s early success filled with “noise, speed, rebellion” and his eventual decline. The rest of the essays are literary critiques of quality writers and their writing and most of the time both. Woods delves deep, breaks down, tears apart a few times, comes from all directions to decipher the meaning he derives from each subject. His literary knowledge and scholarship is mind numbing as he makes complex connections between varied works that is astounding. In addition, you may need to have a dictionary close by if you read this.
And the subjects he chooses are, for the most part, extraordinary and challenging works of art and at least a few should be on any literature lover’s Goodreads read, currently-reading or want-to-read lists. Here are a few of the writers and books he devours.
W.G. Sebald’s “beautiful novel” Austerliz, filled with real but fictional photographs and the “rubble of history” and memory.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go, an allegorical and tender novel that brings fantasy to an eery and hollow day to day life of clones who become aware of their reason for existing.
Norman Rush’s three novels set in Botswana, particularly the masterful Mortals, and its fine intricate plotting and real sense of understanding a place and a marriage falling apart.
The theological questions in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.
The career of Edmund Wilson and the issues that affected the iconic journalist and critic’s judgement and writing.
Joseph O’Neill’s Netherlands and its colonial and colonist metaphor in New York City with the added bonus of the confused immigrant’s sense of becoming American as well as the roots of a rootless man.
V.S Naipaul as the wonder and the wounded. A gritty tale of nastiness and personal demons that make you squirm.
The fascinating examples of Robert Alter’s translation of the Bible that is startling because we’re so used to the King James version.
Marilynne Robision and the the deep division’s in a family where faith and pride and perhaps fanatical stubbornness rips a family apart.
Lydia Davis’s literature of lives whose habits hide a biting loneliness that they acutely understand and question.
Ian McEwan as a manipulative novelist.
The shallowness of Paul Auster.
And, he rambled on finally getting to George Orwell’s revolutionary mysticism as both contradictory and prescient. Orwell’s as well as England’s victory over Hitler was due to their winning combination of collectivity and individualism.
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The magic realism of a mad-hatter Hungarian with a mad name: Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
Ismail Kadare, an Albanian, whose world, revolving around his battle against communism falling, evaporated when it did.
A fascinating final essay about packing up his father-in-law’s library of four thousand books.
I particularly loved two essays: the Geoff Dyer piece that made me immediately purchase the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and the Alekzandar Hemon section and the extraordinary fact that he not only moved to the United States in 1992 and learned to read and write in English, but he became a master craftsman.
There were a few essays that I trudged through, e.g., Tolstoy, but that could be more about me. If you love Leo, you’ll probably be engrossed in the rich analysis.
Woods is, to say the least, passionate about books and writers. His dazzling critiques are here for you to examine and discover and disagree, but ultimately he opens countless doors to the wonderful and bottomless worlds of fiction and nonfiction. A must read for lovers of contemporary literature. This collection by James Wood is fun stuff for lovers of comparative literature, which happens to be what I earned a B.A. in.
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