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Esquire
Wednesday, July 9th, 2003


 

The Book Against God

by James Wood

Imperfect Lies

A review by Daniel Torday

So very much has been made of the astute James Wood's literary criticism — He takes snipes at Updike! He occasionally fails to fawn over DeLillo! — that it has become almost disallowable to think of him as anything but an abuser of the pen. The thirty-seven-year-old book critic has been villainized as a literary deforester, but this view couldn't be further from the truth. James Wood has noble notions. In a sentence: The critic Wood believes that, in our current world, thoughtful interaction with literature has replaced the same exchange with religion. It is a searingly accurate idea, penetrating and well-argued in his first book, The Broken Estate, a collection of essays.

At first glance, The Book Against God seems a quiet, studied book; Wood's harshest critics have hinted that it's a yawn-inducer. But Wood has chosen to articulate a new wrinkle in this form he relishes, studies, and worships: the novel. He arrives at the small and unfortunate character Thomas Bunting, anti-hero. Bunting is consumed by the minutiae of his life. He cannot finish his dissertation to get that elusive philosophy Ph.D.; he frets over a cocktail party invitation. He is an uncontrolled liar, vaguely Seinfeldian. Soon after we meet Bunting, these lies have escalated, and have begun to affect the things he actually does care about: his wife and his family. Bunting then conceals his intentions in pretending to want a baby and instead faking orgasm (surely a symbol of the most extreme lie our modern times can manufacture), and in choosing to all but refrain from discussing with his priest father his seemingly virulent atheism.

This all culminates in The Book Against God, a text in which Bunting has placed his faith. It is the name of the polemic he's writing, a collection of reactions to theologians and philosophers, of which we see one brief three-page snippet. "Kierkegaard was an awful prig, how could he not be; his name essentially means 'churchyard' in Danish. He is always amassing all the qualities that make Christianity hateful," it begins — and we're given reason to believe it might not be much bigger than the excerpt Wood provides. It is insubstantial, and we're left wanting something more of Bunting's conundrum, his seriousness, to balance his character.

Wood's novel is packed full of wonderful sentences and observations ("crowds were shuffling along the pavements as if they were chained together at the ankles"), but its plot is stagnant. Ultimately, what saves The Book Against God is the thing the critic Wood most fully prizes in a novelist: character. His Thomas Bunting speaks poignantly to a jarringly modern — if somewhat banal — condition: Even the searcher, the questioner, is unable to tell the truth. And for a writer who believes the practice of writing novels to be the act of a modern saint, it can't help but resonate that Bunting has lived his life by creating what Wood sees even the greatest writers of our time creating: imperfect lies.


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