Bamboo: Essays and Criticism
by William Boyd
Reviewed by David Haglund
New York Times
There may not be a more sensible set of literary reviews published this year than those in Bamboo, the first collection of such pieces -- plus art reviews, travel writing and other assorted articles -- from the British novelist William Boyd. The author of nine novels, three story collections and many screenplays, Boyd is unfailingly judicious, whether praising the "potent manipulation of symbol" in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, the "compelling dry-eyed poignancy" of Raymond Carver's stories or the "curious blend of faux naïveté and profanity, of innocence and deep irony" in the writerly voice of Kurt Vonnegut.
It's difficult, in fact, to argue with any of Boyd's conclusions. But if one can't argue with a review, why bother with it at all? One would rather -- at least, I would rather -- read a striking if ultimately dubious argument about a book or a movie than the level-headed evaluations provided in these pages. It is more important for a critic to be interesting than to be right. To truly interest the reader, a critic must risk something and be prepared for the embarrassment that follows a questionable enthusiasm or the contrition that's the result of an ill-considered pan.
There are advantages, certainly, in Boyd's measured approach. His review of Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient is a model of open-minded consideration, especially given that Ondaatje's subjects, war and the British Empire, have provided material for several of Boyd's own books. "Ondaatje eschews the nuts and bolts of period detail, the roughage of authentic fact," Boyd writes, drawing an implicit contrast with his own historical fictions. But what we get in exchange, he says, is "the trenchant reverberation of metaphor and image." To focus on the novel's implausible aspects would be "pedantic" Boyd writes; the "strange power" and "final reality" of the book "belong to it alone."
Here is Boyd's concluding line: "The English Patient...marks a significant advance in Michael Ondaatje's growing reputation." Endings are difficult, of course, but banalities like this one appear all over the place in Bamboo, as when Boyd deems The Unbearable Lightness of Being "complicated and thoughtful," or when he calls Zuckerman Unbound "an elegant and amusing contribution to the debate" about an author's relationship to his characters. One senses in these comments a holding back, an unwillingness to judge viscerally whether Kundera's philosophizing ever becomes windy or pretentious, or Roth's ambiguity merely evasive. Those pronouncements might have looked foolish in the morning, of course, but a critic's cooler considerations sound empty without this personal, immediate response.
No doubt this is partly a matter of temperament: Boyd himself says that he is "not an autobiographical writer," that his fiction "will provide no handy keys to unlock the door to my personal history" -- an unusually guarded remark for a 21st-century writer. Even the personal essays included here, like the long, mostly engaging piece on Boyd's boarding school experience, make extensive (and somewhat deadening) use of the passive voice: "Drugs were taken," "The female sex was judged by one criterion," etc.
Temperament aside, however, Boyd's approach also reflects his most basic ideas about fiction and art. He sees a surprisingly self-regulating logic in these endeavors. "The novel," he says, "has taken on board the lessons of Proust and Joyce, has filleted what little it likes from Virginia Woolf and decided to spit out much of what, say, B. S. Johnson and Alain Robbe-Grillet served up." It has, in other words, "grown up." For Boyd, literature itself is a fairly sensible enterprise. And criticism is less a personal engagement with literary expression -- whether it be surprising, revolting or inspiring -- than an objective appraisal of verbal craftsmanship.
This may be a "grown up" attitude. But those of us who find the best literature unsettling, riotous -- even, sometimes, immature -- will have to turn elsewhere for a guide.
David Haglund is the managing editor of PEN America, the literary magazine published by PEN American Center.
Copyright c 2007 The New York Times Co.
Reprinted with permission.