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James Wood’s New Novel Confronts the Mystery of Other Minds

The pivotal event in “Upstate” centers on the daughter responsible for the gathering. Her bouts of melancholy are an old story with the family. From earliest childhood she has been unaccountably unhappy — shy and moody, without friends or interests — unable, like the others, to just “get on with it.” No one in the family has ever grasped that for this daughter the simple act of being alive has, almost from birth, been a trial. Consciousness itself is, for her, an ongoing agony. Whether a circumstance or an event proves trivial or dramatic, her distress is of a uniformly high order. She suffers intensely from the constant fear that her lover is about to leave her, her anguish on this score so great she cannot sleep. In the morning, after a particularly restless night, she lies rigid with exhaustion: “Just the prospect of showering, or having to make breakfast … seemed an immense task.” On the other hand, when something as small as the breaking of a favorite bowl occurs, her agitation is equally severe because it means that “everything that is most dear to you will eventually be taken from you.”

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This woman knows — after all, she’s a philosopher — that it’s natural to wonder whether life has “meaning and design,” and equally natural to consider that it doesn’t. In which case, she thinks, as multitudes before and after her have also thought, why not, then, face down the burden of our lives instead of caving to naked fear? But she cannot. For her, it is impossible to stop obsessing over the “pointlessness … the brevity and meaninglessness of things” when “despair — awful, awful despair — kept on returning.”

It is not necessary that we, the reader, understand, as an analyst might seek to understand, the origin in such a character of a constitution permanently afflicted by the dread of existential nothingness. However, it is very necessary — if the book is to lift itself from the quotidian to the metaphorical — that we feel that dread; and feel it so strongly we connect anew with our own experience of the humdrum anxiety embedded in daily life. If we do not, all is summary and surface. And the latter, I am much afraid, is what prevails in “Upstate.”

James Wood is famously not only among the most highly regarded literary critics of our moment, he is also one of the most beloved. His detractors, mainly rival critics, may be numerous but his celebrants in the ranks of the educated common reader are legion. For the latter, Wood is the writer whose passion for literature is not only commanding, it is transformative. Clearly a man for whom life without literature is tantamount to life without material nourishment, Wood brings to the practice of literary criticism “the ardor of the artist” — the quality John Keats proclaimed most necessary to the making of all art.

In his critical work it is revealed that whatever else he may be — husband, father, teacher, transplanted American, pained agnostic — it is as a reader that Wood does indeed qualify as an artist. His philosophical views of literature often seem to serve a narrow, somewhat prescriptive orthodoxy, but no matter. When he is reporting on a book that has fired his imagination, his readers feel themselves in the presence of a writer immersed in his natural element, drawing on the resources of his deepest self, vibrating very nearly, pencil in hand, with a responsiveness that almost always overwhelms our reservations. In fact, such is his devotion to his calling that it is almost as though he prizes writing only because it leads to reading.

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