Jesus, James Wood is terrible, just terrible. Have you ever seen someone work so hard to create the elaborate, phantasmagorical impression of holding a critical opinion while wholly and utterly withholding any actual critical judgment? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. IS IT ANY GOOD? Note that Wood does have modestly more concrete opinions about Mitchell's prior novels. Christ, hell, I wonder if that has anything to do with a preexisting critical consensus, which Wood can basically echo while occasionally staking out a position of quiet idiosycracy in order to imitate individual-mindedness.
Wood's general project is the whittling of all literature down to the dull confines of his own MFA-primer (How Fiction Works--oh, God, LOL: how does it work, Jimmy?). I want to pull out the most offensive and strained paragraph:
The jacket copy of “Cloud Atlas” mentions Nabokov and Umberto Eco, and calls Mitchell a “postmodern visionary.” This is true enough, but one is struck by the gestural nature of Mitchell’s postmodernism. You could remove all the literary self-consciousness without smothering the novel’s ontology, or coarsening its intricacy. It is not exactly that Mitchell’s heart isn’t in his authorial games; to put it positively, the persuasive vitality of his stories is strong enough to frighten off their own alienation. The novellas have a life of their own, and will not be easily burgled—which is to say that they function like all successful fictions. The revelation that, say, Adam Ewing’s journal might have been fabricated by his son, or that Luisa Rey’s journalistic crusade in California might just be a thriller written by someone with the nom de plume of Hilary V. Hush, actually strengthens the autonomous reality of these fictions. This is the opposite of the weak postmodernism of a writer like Paul Auster, whose moments of metafictional self-consciousness—“Look, it’s all made up!”—are weightless, because the fictions themselves have failed to achieve substance: a diet going on a diet. In this respect, Mitchell is more like Nabokov (or José Saramago, or the Roth of “The Counterlife”) than like the feebler novelistic creator Umberto Eco. Of course, the paradox whereby the exposure of fiction’s fictionality only buttresses its reality is at least as old as the second part of “Don Quixote,” and reminds us of the ancestral postmodernism of the novel form.Firstly, many of these phrases make exactly no sense: "the gestural nature of Mitchell's postmodernism"; "smothering the novel's ontology"; "coarsening its intricacy"; "the persuasive vitality of his stories is strong enough to frighten off their own alienation" . . . How do you smother an ontology? How can you frighten alienation? James Wood, what are you talking about?
It's plain what he's talking about. A stuffy enemy of the even-approaching-the-avant-garde and a relentless domesticator of unruly authors, Wood regards it as his critical duty to make all well-regarded fiction read like a crackpot retelling of Dubliners, a gently mediated inner life revealed in its moment of change . . . Fuck, even Dubliners blows that model to pieces. James Wood writes for the New Yorker. He should be teaching AP English at some third-rate midwestern high school. (Not to overburden the New Yorker with respect for its reputation. Excepting Anthony Lane, the New Yorker is like Highlights for people with enough disposable income to make sustaining pledges to NPR.)
Mitchell, a writer of period and historical fictions with an archivist's affection for lost letters and intertextual references, a dabbler in the toolbox of science fiction, is much, much closer to Umberto Eco than to Nabokov. This is true even if you believe (I do) that Nabokov is a superior writer. Note to James Wood: critical examination of a writer's method involves more than erecting a rubric of bad-to-good authors. Judging Mitchell to be a superior writer to Eco does not indicate that he is therefore a more similar author to Nabokov, who is also a superior writer to Eco. Fuck, Christ, is this your fucking homework, Larry? Is this your homework?
Is your ontology feeling smothered yet? Is your alienation getting a bit skittish? This whole shtick about Cervantes inventing postmdernism a billion years ago and therefore ergo propter hoc et veritas logo scientia prestochangeo sim sim saladin we can transmogrify all fiction into an undifferentiated whole from which we can extract moderate lessons about
He may be self-conscious, but he is not knowing, in the familiar, fatal, contemporary way; his naturalness as a storyteller has to do not only with his vitality but also with a kind of warmth, a charming earnestness.Don't worry, New Yorker readers, I, James Wood, guarantee that you will not have to think about this fiction. Just remember, if you find it challenging, it is really just charmingly earnest. He's just telling a story. It's about a man, just like you, just like me. It's just like my good friend, Vladimir Nabokov used to say: "Keep it simple, stupid."