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Wednesday, August 4th, 2004


The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

by James Wood

The Funny Business of Fiction

A review by Anna Godbersen

James Wood is smarter than I am; chances are he is smarter than you. Take, for example, the opening sentences of his new collection of essays on novels and how they make us laugh. "Comedy," Wood writes, "like death and sex, is often awarded the prize of ineffability. It is regularly maintained that comedy cannot really be described or explained." He thus cleverly sidesteps the naysayer who would smirk at the irony of a book about comedy being so serious, and being about such serious novels. That would be simple-minded, Wood seems to say, and anyway he has already had that thought.

Still, you would be forgiven for noting that many of the novels Wood writes about aren't obviously comic -- The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, to name a few. And though Wood proves himself adept at revealing the mechanism of a joke, there are essays in this collection where he leaves the actual humor of the work unexplained. Wood, you see, isn't after comedy as you and I think of it.

More to the point, he isn't talking about satire, which he labels "religious comedy." He puts forth instead a theory of the kinder, gentler "secular comedy." As Wood explains in his introduction: "If religious comedy is punishment for those who deserve it, secular comedy is forgiveness for those who don't." In secular comedy, we laugh with (not at) characters who are represented with all their ugly contradictions; the good comic novel depicts characters with realistic inner lives. The ideal, in the Wood schema, is sort of nineteenth-century-novel. The author's voice doesn't compromise the reality of the characters, so we can smile at them with pity and amusement, yet love them in the end.

The Irresponsible Self does feel, at times, too much like pieces thrown together. (Most of the chapters were previously published in The New Republic or The London Review of Books; it includes, for instance the much-discussed essay on "Hysterical Realism," where Wood looks down his nose at nearly all of contemporary literature.) But even in small doses, Wood employs a remarkable understanding of how fiction works, and how it works on us the readers. The depth of his reading and the acuity of his observations make this a tough, enlightening book. (Which is not to say that Wood himself is never amusing; he has his Dale Peck moments. He writes, for instance, of Tom Wolfe's books and their "immense twisted colons of plot.") In this, his second book of criticism, Wood approaches literature with such absolute passion that in the end you forgive him anything.

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