THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF by James Wood
Kirkus Star

THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF

On Laughter and the Novel

KIRKUS REVIEW

A theory of distinctively “modern” comedy is and isn’t consistently addressed in this provocative gathering of 21 recent (1999–2003) reviews by the stylish critic (The Broken Estate, 1999, etc.) and novelist (The Book Against God, 2003, etc.).

A closely reasoned introductory essay contrasts the corrective emphases of classical satire and invective with a “comedy of forgiveness” that acknowledges, indeed esteems human frailty and folly. Wood locates the roots of such comedy in displays of “random consciousness” in Shakespearean soliloquies, and in the wise tolerance of exemplars like Cervantes, Erasmus, and Austen. This idea is developed with impressive variety and nuance in analyses of the irrational mood swings of Dostoevsky’s posturing characters, Isaac Babel’s “rhythmic discontinuity,” and Saltykov-Schedrin’s horrifically funny anatomy of hypocrisy in his underrated masterpiece The Golovlyov Family. One wants to applaud Wood’s endorsements of such brilliant little-read writers as the Sicilian Chekhov Giovanni Verga, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s mordant “elegist” Joseph Roth, and the enormously reader-friendly Czech comic novelist Bohumil Hrabal. Equally incisive looks at contemporaries include a stringent criticism of the Dickens-inspired “hysterical realism” that suffuses ambitious overstuffed fictions by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Salman Rushdie (though this generally negative essay does include an admirably evenhanded assessment of Zadie Smith’s much-admired White Teeth). But a review of J.M. Coetzee’s unsparingly judgmental (and splendid) novel Disgrace doesn’t seem to belong here—and one wonders why space was wasted reprinting understandably dismissive analyses of Tom Wolfe’s clunky A Man in Full and Rushdie’s tedious, meretricious Fury. Focus is recovered with considerations of the inspiration for V.S. Naipaul’s immortal Mr. Biswas (the author’s appealing father Seepersad), V.S. Pritchett’s “Russianized” English comedy, and Henry Green’s aslant, quietly anarchic character studies. And Wood’s admiring, admirably detailed tribute to “Saul Bellow’s Comic Style” is, as they say, worth the price of admission.

A miscellany, then—and an unusually rich and satisfying one.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-17737-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2004




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