- The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief
James Wood’s title refers to that moment in cultural history when the Bible began to be read as a literary fiction and literature itself took on a religious aura. “This is when the old estate broke”—when religion lost its status as “a set of divine truth-claims” (p. xv). Wood’s discussions of Melville, Gogol, Ernest Renan, Arnold, and Flaubert directly address this break, and this blurring. Other chapters are more obliquely related to the subject of his title. The Broken Estate fleshes out a variety of essays and reviews which appeared first in The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. It includes spirited attacks, qualified detractions, and unqualified celebrations. The authors under discussion range widely, from Sir Thomas More (spirited attack) to Toni Morrison (qualified detraction). But the cumulative effect is hardly that of a ragbag, in part because Wood’s thesis can be heard throughout in the form of a leitmotif, and in part because everything Wood writes is unified by his independent critical sensibility and his relentlessly inventive prose.
The distinction Wood draws between literature and belief can be understood as a revision of Coleridge’s famous phrase, “suspension of disbelief,” particularly in its application to narrative fiction. Coleridge coined the phrase out of his troubled desire to hold literature and faith together. Wood, who shares Nietzsche’s antagonism for Christian theology, has the opposite desire. The literary suspension of disbelief, he argues, is actually an imaginative form of surveillance, a play of belief and skepticism. For when we read narrative fiction we never entirely suspend our disbelief, and this difference makes all the difference. “Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free,” but fiction is “a special realm of freedom”; it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case” (p. xiv). From this “licensed freedom” (p. 181) flows the celebrated realism of the novel, which Wood regards as a form of secularism. Indeed, for Wood, novelists are the unacknowledged legislators of our secular culture. “For it was not just science but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’ divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative—and then a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative” (p. xvi).
But fiction and belief are more than antithetical modes of cultural authority for Wood. They are inescapable categories of aesthetic judgment. He locates the distinction between literature and belief within literature itself—within the novels he discusses—relying upon it the way earlier critics relied upon the distinction between imagination and fancy, or the sublime and the beautiful. Belief, in this sense, is any given novel’s shortcoming, and Wood’s deployment of theological metaphors is often subtle and suggestive. He takes issue, for [End Page 439] instance, with Thomas Pynchon’s “lumpy deployment” (p. 175) of his cultural polemic in narrative art. Pynchon’s political allegory flattens his characters. He attempts to compensate them for their lack of inwardness by granting them a zany vitality (“the principle of Pynchon’s comedy is the principle of the stage musical. Everyone gets to sing his or her song” [p. 173]). But his characters remain “theatrical, not free”—“serfs to allegory” (p. 174). In one of those metaphorical riffs that characterize Wood’s prose, he regards Pynchon’s fiction as “a system whose vents, whose partialities and flaws, seem only to make it stronger, like medieval astronomy. Pynchon’s world is a planetarium devised by a myope” (p. 176).
Wood is nothing if not critical, and he has a particular genius for defining an author’s limitations. He writes against allegory in Pynchon, against political paranoia in DeLillo, against magical realism in Toni Morrison. These writers are not theological in any conventional sense of the term, but...