In a Dark Wood

Is the esteemed literary critic’s novel just too well-written?

James Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, is a daring piece of work—not only a novel of ideas but, God help us, of theological ideas, though it is grounded in its characters’ lives, and, undoubtedly, in Wood’s own. Books in which an atheist grapples with God   or the free-thinking son (or daughter) wrestles with the faith of the stern, unbending father, went out of fashion at least 80 years ago, along with religious belief itself.

As an acute critic whose literary essays often turn on issues of belief, Wood is keenly aware that this literary tradition no longer has much vitality. But the emotional pressures of his formative years and his theological concerns have led him to write precisely this kind of book. Or so it seems, deceptively, when we first read it.

Born in 1965, Wood grew up in Durham, England, in a family of evangelical Christians, praying among worshippers who might easily dissolve in tears or begin speaking in tongues. At the age of 15, as he tells us in his fine collection of essays, The Broken Estate, he lost his faith. Recycling parts of his life, along with religious themes from his essays, Wood has written this novel as defaced or deflected autobiography, under the dark sign of failure, futility, or sheer self-laceration.

Throughout, Wood’s hero, Thomas Bunting, is trying to free himself from the God (and the example) of his father—not a severe believer, like Wood’s own, but a surprisingly genial, tolerant former theology professor who left the academic world for the simpler life of a country vicar. Thomas is difficult to like—a 30ish grad student unable to complete his Ph.D., working sporadically on what he calls his “Book Against God” (or BAG). He is a chronic liar who is casually dishonest with his wife, a concert pianist who supports him. He’s lavishly extravagant though he earns almost no money; a man who believes he doesn’t sweat and therefore rarely needs to wash; who sabotages his wife’s desire to have a child. (“If you could, you would put off every major adult responsibility forever,” she tells him.)

The prototype for all such portraits of gridlocked intellectuals stewing in their own ideas is Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. But Tom Bunting is much closer to the lucid, ineffectual protagonists of Saul Bellow or of the Trieste novelist Italo Svevo (Emilio’s Carnival, Zeno’s Conscience) than to Dostoyevsky’s bilious Underground Man. As in Bellow’s Herzog, another novel of ideas, there’s not much action in Wood’s novel; largely written in flashbacks, it takes place mostly in Tom’s head, in his lonely “bedsit” in Finchley Road near Swiss Cottage. There he mulls over the disintegration of his marriage, which coincides with the last months of his father’s life, and nurses his largely self-inflicted wounds. Where Herzog passionately scribbles unbalanced letters to famous men, Thomas commits his musings, just as ineffectually, to his Book Against God, scraps of which are included in the novel. But Bellow’s Herzog is a brilliant portrait of an intellectual coming apart at the seams, while Wood’s character   is less convincing at every level. He is not especially credible as a compulsive liar, or even as an atheist, since he is caught up with God on every page. “He palpably does exist for you,” someone says to him, “because you can’t stop talking about ‘God.’ “

In his essays Wood has argued that skeptics need to be as passionate in making their case as believers. Though he sees Updike as “one of the few theologically literate novelists,” Wood harshly attacks his fiction for complacency, a lack of urgency, but above all for the “inability to imagine atheism and the loss of religious faith.” Instead of the silken phrases celebrating the natural world, Updike should try to “depict something he does not like: fervent belief and fervent unbelief.” This reads like the game plan for the father-son conflict in Wood’s novel.

But Wood’s fervor is reflected less in the atheism of his protagonist than in his own lush style, which creates a rare problem: The novel is simply too well-written. Great novelists are not generally celebrated for their style, especially at the sentence level. In criticism as well as fiction, Wood has a near-fatal attraction to metaphors that call attention to themselves, like actors in mid-performance taking a bow. (Wood’s opulent imagery—it can take your breath away—brings to mind the young Updike, who was then a happy acolyte of Vladimir Nabokov.) He praises Virginia Woolf’s criticism as “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is metaphorical.” As if to exemplify this, Wood quickly goes over the top: “All of Woolf’s work is a kind of tattoo peeled off the English poets and rubbed onto her sentences; all of it is poetically metaphorical. … Metaphor is how the critic avoids bullying fiction with adult simplicities.” In a brilliant essay, Wood once described Melville as a writer who luxuriates in a wild efflorescence of metaphor, a metaphysical writer whose language of similitude creates a parallel realm, a second order of reality. Although Melville is, he says, “one of the most daringly sacrilegious writers,” he “simply cannot tear himself away from the rival life, the alienated majesty, that metaphor offers.” For Wood, as for Melville, metaphor unearths a mother lode of meaning behind the world of appearance; he notes that Melville had the Puritan habit of “seeing the world allegorically, that is, metaphorically. The world was a place of signs and wonders which could always yield up its meaning, like secret ink.”

Likewise, Wood pursues his religious quest through literature by way of metaphor. But in The Book Against God Wood’s metaphors too often suspend the narrative flow for descriptive flights of grotesque or distracting beauty. As Tom Bunting cooks, he enjoys hearing “that delicious steady choking noise as expensive wine blunders like tides into the pot.” He pictures Brussels sprouts as “those funny tattered turbans of green leaves.” His wife, in her music, rouses “flocks of sound from sheets dotted with abstract black collisions.” Churches and cathedrals, the sounds of their organs (“that silver dapple of complicated breath through a thousand mouths”), bring out a riot of metaphor—these were “great flying buildings that had lasted longer than God, flying like the flags of countries that had disappeared.”

If metaphor is Wood’s substitute for belief, his awkward way of deciphering the world as a place of signs and wonders, the novel expresses Wood’s nostalgia for a credulous, stable Age of Faith, with its sacramental plenitude of meaning. As he sees it, the closest equivalent to that lost realm today is art: not the social novel, the novel of brute fact and historical circumstance that he’s attacked in his criticism, but art that reaches for transcendence—the architecture of the churches, the sublime music to which Tom’s wife devotes her life, Tom’s Edenic memories of being a boy chorister in the great Durham Cathedral, which echo an autobiographical passage in Wood’s essays. (“To sing Palestrina and Victoria, Gibbons, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, in such a building, whose stone columns had a stony, vast smell, was an experience never to be repeated or regained, a lost garden.”)

George Orwell once complained that in the first-person novel it was hard to disengage the thinking of the character from the mind of the author. Wood is sometimes inconsistent, making Tom a musical illiterate on one page, then giving him a fine ear later on. Though Tom argues theology with verve, in the end he is little more than a negative example, largely self-defeated. Finally, this is not the story of doubting Thomas and his cogent arguments against God. Wood’s emotions secretly lie with the unforced piety of Tom’s genial but cunning father, a churchman called Peter, the book’s best character, who gave up the perplexing labyrinth of theology for the daily rounds of a parish priest. In a wonderful scene of rare communion not long before he dies, he tells Tom, “I didn’t know the answers to any of my questions, and decided in the end that living a Christlike life was the only answer to them.” This is what Tom’s estranged wife means, near the end of the novel, when she says, “I’m not interested in philosophical truth—all that Schopenhauer mush you were quoting in the church. I want daily, practical, ordinary, living truth.”

In their last encounter she plays him a favorite recording, and instead of minding the music, he hears the breathing of the pianist himself. “It was the sound of hard work, but it was also the sound of existence itself—a man’s ordinary breath, the give and take of the organism, the colourless wind of survival, the zephyr of it all.” This hymn to the dailiness of the ordinary, even as it founders in metaphor, is not, unfortunately, what most of the novel is about—only its final eloquent revelation. To me it sounds closer to the mundane, practical spirit of Judaism than to the theological reach of Christianity—or of Tom’s “Book Against God.” As the title of Wood’s God-saturated novel, this phrase must in the end be read as teasingly ironic.

The Book Against God is a tricky, often unattractive, ultimately moving work whose real meaning emerges late or, in my case, on a second reading. It is not exactly a believer’s novel, but it can be read as a eulogy of the father (upending the eulogy that Tom, self-absorbed as ever, mangles at the funeral)—and as a defense of primitive Christianity and a portrayal of the unhoused modern mind, including the author’s own. Wood’s advantage over his character is that he has literature as another source of meaning. But so far, this route works better for him as a critic than as a novelist. Writing a novel enables Wood to dramatize “the tremor of faith” he finds wanting in Updike, but he does it full justice only in his criticism. Describing Melville’s quarrel with God, he says that Melville “needed to be braced against the flickering horror of his refusal to believe, and then braced against the sour clarity of his refusal entirely to unbelieve.” This may be a more searching self-portrait than anything in The Book Against God.