at least one human being, Thomas’ father — a happy, erudite and rather admirable priest — quite well. And though there are times when one thinks the book ought really to be called The Book Against Dad, the portrait is deeply loving. At a party at his parents’ house, Thomas looks across the room and catches sight of his father:
One of his hands was on my mother’s shoulder, the other held a wine glass. He was a picture of genial energy. His bald head was glowing. I saw his round, clean face, with its little loyal ears — seemingly tightly pinned to his head — and his smooth young cheeks, and at that moment I thought, “He will live for a long time.”
Unfortunately, the book’s defects tend to crowd out its virtues. Thomas’ militant atheism proves more tiring than inspiring, while the discussions of classical music (Thomas’ wife, Jane, is a pianist) have none of the charm and precision of, say, Vikram Seth’s in An Equal Music. Worst of all, perhaps, is the puzzlingly dud portrayal of Thomas’ best friend, Max, an influential newspaper columnist. It seems cruel to compare such a nullity to Dewey Spangler, the all-powerful columnist so vividly and sinisterly evoked in Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, but given that Bellow is one of Wood’s novelistic touchstones — he wrote the introduction to Bellow’s Collected Stories— the comparison does spring to mind.
Luckily, Wood seems able to take criticism in stride. “I’m averagely sensitive to bad reviews,” he says, having already received a few of them. “There’s a nice line by Kingsley Amis: ‘A bad review should spoil your breakfast, but not your lunch.’”
Does Wood ever see himself reviewing something other than books? Could he imagine writing movie reviews like his compatriot Anthony Lane, for instance? The thought seems to horrify him. “I don’t know how he does it,” he says of the New Yorkerwriter, shaking his head. “He pulls this mode off very well, but he does it in a way by avoiding criticism in the deep sense. He knows what he is, which is a brilliant entertainer. I know that if I wrote about film I would end up being terribly earnest week in and week out, and terribly negative, and I’d just make people very upset. The films people like I always hate, anyway. Particularly the so-called art movies, like Affliction, or In the Bedroom.”
“What kind of movies do you like?”
“I tend to like honest trash, like Ronin, or very pure unmediated stuff like Kurastami’s films.”
There’s another kind of movie Wood enjoys: ambitious adaptations of great novels. Not because he thinks they will be good, but because he knows they will be bad. He went to see Jane Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, for instance, for the sheer pleasure of comparing the “40 or 50 hours it takes to be in the swim” of the original, “with its cathedral-like movement through different rooms and spaces,” to the paltry two-hour cinematic version — a 12-course meal next to a Big Mac. He had similar fun with a BBC adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The book begins with a long, poetic account of the thoughts going through a child’s head as he anxiously looks forward to a journey. But in the film, “All they could do is train the camera on the boy,” Wood says pityingly. “And I sort of love that. I cheer in the stalls.”
He even pumps his fist, like a soccer fan whose team has scored a winning goal. James Wood: defender of the faith, partisan of the novel.