As for reading, Wood suspects that it’s done with headphones on and the TV and computer screen glowing in the corner. But — surprise — he confesses he sometimes has trouble concentrating on a book himself. “I get restless,” he explains. “I find it is in some ways a boring activity. I mean, I love it, but the natural part of one would much rather be walking down the street in a busy city.”
“But you obviously read a tremendous amount.”
“I do, but perhaps not as much as it sometimes seems. One reason I’m able to read a lot is not that I’m unnaturally scholarly, it’s just that I don’t do much else. I don’t have much else of a life, and I’m quite happy for that to be the case. And unlike most people I do have a real central fascination with the novel. That never leaves me. I’m truly interested to read novels.”
So, given that much of his life is spent immersed in novels, how is the form holding up? Can it go on being vital in a world of videos, cell phones and computer games?
“No, and I actually think it isn’t vital at the moment. I think it can’t be. The old 19th-century notion of the novel as something really riding on the gusts of popular interests has quite gone. I can’t see it will ever come back, actually.”
“What about the overwhelmingly leftist or liberal nature of the literary world now?” I ask. The term “right-wing novelist,” for instance, is practically an oxymoron. Yet if you look at the early 20th century, any number of great writers were on the right — Conrad, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Celine . . . with just as many on the left, and no doubt in the middle, too. Now every poet in the known universe is against the war, and if he isn’t, he’s not saying so. How did it get to be so one-sided?
“I think there is a general cultural fear now of being dislikable,” Wood replies, after giving it some thought. “That’s why Philip Roth interests me a lot. That’s why I like Sabbath’s Theaterso much, because he really turned that novel into a little bomb of offensiveness. It’s quite dramatic in that sense. Roth actually said once that Celine was his Proust — he has a lot of anger, and I like that. But it’s a very good question. In no way are we living in less interesting times, we’re living in terrifyingtimes. Writers ought to be engaged with a whole host of issues. Why is it, for instance, that it’s Conrad in The Secret Agentwho provided a better analysis than we’ve yet had of contemporary suicidal terrorism?”
Wood ponders the matter some more. “Is it not possible,” he says eventually, “that we’re all a bit too well-off, and well-remunerated, relatively speaking? We’re not in any danger. So then what are we risking? If I have a literary fervor that reminds people of Trilling, for myself I’m also a bit of a romantic, and I sometimes lament this idea that novelists should all be well provided for. They’re all going to get their big advance, or they’ll get their job teaching, or they’ll get a Guggenheim, NEA, whatever it is. Someone will bail them out. And then the question is, What’s at stake for these writers? Of course, it’s always easy for something to be at stake for a critic, because it’s so parasitical — you can just let other writers be your stake.”
Wood’s own novel, in which Thomas Bunting, atheist, procrastinator and chronic liar, struggles to keep his wife, complete his Ph.D. and come to terms with the death of his father, is a hit-and-miss affair, the work of a talented apprentice struggling to master narrative form. Because of its obsession with loss of faith — a dead issue for most of us – it is not a trendy book, and Wood concedes that were it not for his reputation as a critic, it might not have been published at all. In some ways the book is brave, however, because Wood has taken the risk of creating a protagonist who is neither likable nor entirely understandable. The novel begins in a conventional, slightly rakish “man-about-town” manner, but soon gets disastrously bogged down in discussions of theology interspersed with scenes from the breakup of a marriage. It recovers only in its final 100 pages, which are strikingly well done.
Here, in miniature, Wood gets to practice what he is always preaching from his New Republicpulpit. He has criticized many of our most acclaimed novelists for producing “books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things — the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons! — but do not know a single human being.” Well, in The Book Against God the reader comes to know ä