God and Mr. Wood
James Woods's religion-haunted novel.
Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By ALAN JACOBS
The Book Against God
THOMAS BUNTING--the protagonist of "The Book Against God"--makes a practice of setting his face.
It was during the first or second year of our marriage, when I was working hardest on the Ph.D., that I contracted my habit of "setting" my face to resemble an appropriate emotional state--humble in post offices (because the staff are always so sullen), generous in shops, distracted at the university (to impress the students), arrogant in buses, confident with my parents, genial with Jane, sober with Max's parents, and so on.
Anyone who has read much of the last half-century of British fiction will perceive an echo of Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon--the hero of "Lucky Jim"--with his extensive repertoire of faces: his "Martian invader face," his "shot-in-the-back face," and so on. Thomas Bunting resembles Jim Dixon in other ways as well: He drifts along the margins of an English university, possesses a remarkable collection of tics and peculiarities (in Bunting's case a mania for lying and a terror of insects), makes a mess of his relationships with women, and demonstrates a striking inability to get proper work done. In short, he's immediately recognizable as a comic type, familiar not only from "Lucky Jim" but also from more recent books--Nelson Humboldt in James Hynes's "The Lecturer's Tale," for instance.
Yet in the course of this novel, Thomas Bunting proves to be a richer character than most of these, and one of the achievements of "The Book Against God," the literary critic James Wood's first novel, is the gradual deepening of Thomas. Early in the novel it becomes clear that we will see few of the familiar landscapes of academic comedy: Thomas tells us that he teaches a few classes at University College, London, and that his students probably don't respect him--and then he moves on, because that aspect of his life holds little interest for him. Looking back over the recent years of his life, Thomas says that he "moped and bunted"--his coinage--around his house in a dirty old paisley dressing gown, smoking, drinking, getting next to nothing done on his doctoral thesis; and yet all that scarcely matters, because he has bigger fish to fry. Thomas tells us these things, because unlike Amis and Hynes, James Wood allows his protagonist to use first-person narration--and allows him also much of Wood's own extraordinary power of language.
James Wood is one of the finest essayists writing in English today, though his skill has been expressed almost always in book reviews. I groaned when I learned that he would be publishing a novel: Why is it, I thought, that the most masterful writers of nonfiction prose--Annie Dillard is a prime example--feel that they have at some point to turn to fiction? It is as though they do not think themselves serious writers until they can drop a novel on our laps. But if Wood's reviews are about as "serious" as writing gets, he reveals to us in "The Book Against God" a real gift for fictional narration as well.
In his essays, Wood's intelligence is manifested most purely in his metaphors--look, for instance, at how sharply he concludes a summary of Coleridge's distinctive power: "The great pathos, tension, and comedy of Coleridge's work is that he commits the sins against which he warns--and commits them while in the act of warning against them. It is why he is so likeable a Christian, despite his orthodoxy. His piety shares its borders with a rogue state." In "The Book Against God" Wood yields this metaphorical gift to his protagonist. Thomas notes that in summer, the trees in a London park "exuberate into green, each leaf a delegate sent out by life." When his wife Jane, in great anger, leaves him in his parents' house in a northern village, he describes her departure thus: "The car bristled away over the gravel--that luxurious substance that bears no impress, retains no memory of wear." And in one of the novel's loveliest moments, Thomas hears on a recording of a piano sonata the faint noise of the pianist breathing: "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, our colourless wind of survival, the zephyr of it all."