“I like implication very much; there’s a fiction of implication that I think I’ve championed over the fiction of explication.”
Upstate by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pages, $26.
By Matt Hanson
In his pithy 2015 essay collection The Nearest Thing to Life, acclaimed literary critic James Wood devotes a chapter to praising the art of what he calls “deep noticing” and applauds some of the writers — Chekhov, Bellow, James, and Henry Green, among others — whose sensibilities are exquisitely tuned enough to catch the details that make literature almost (but not quite) as vivid as life itself. Wood suggests that these poetically chosen observations “represent those moments in a story where form is outlived, canceled, evaded…nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.” The capacity to observe with this level of insight, according to Wood, is part of what makes for quality writing. In his new book Upstate, his second novel, Wood beautifully applies his critical advice to creating fiction of his own.
Set in the waning days of the second Bush administration, the novella is a subtly observed portrait of a family in the midst of an emotional strain. Alan Querry, a widowed real estate developer who, like Wood, hails from the north of England, is called to the States to visit his daughters Helen, a go-getting music industry executive, and Vanessa, a gloomy philosophy professor at a school in upstate New York. Vanessa is in the midst of an emotional crisis brought on by relationship troubles, which hits her harder due to her ruminating, introverted nature.
Alan is a doting but practical father alternating between his daughters’ markedly different temperaments, offering a sympathetic ear when he can and holding firm when he must. Upstate is an adult novel, but not in any euphemistic sense; it has a subdued but knowing sensitivity to the way life feels for people who have a lifetime’s familiarity but still don’t quite know how to speak to one other. Family members provide an interesting example of how people with very different approaches to life are bound by proximity and shared history, an insight that infuses Upstate’s treatment of its characters.
Why is life so much harder for some and not for others, even when they might have so much else is in common, genetically or otherwise? Helen is all sophistication and imperial confidence, fired up over the possibilities inherent in downloadable music. Vanessa has spent her life in long hours of reading, lying diagonally across her bed, buried in a mountain of philosophy with a break for the occasional foray into The History of Torture. Alan feels the caring parent’s puzzled chagrin in the face of his daughter’s continual misery, as any parent would. But it’s an open question why no one can seem to help her out of it.
Wood’s revered attention to detail is ever-present as we follow Alan through his encounter with America, beginning in the hurly-burly of New York City in winter: “a fire engine was bucking down Park Avenue, clanking its chains like an angry ghost, and it was impossible to speak or think while its siren warped the freezing air beside them.” The restaurant that Helen takes him to is “a noisy gym with food, everybody toned, young, and fuck-off fit.” An overly large hotel croissant is “a horn of plenty” and a laptop is “a proud white magic box full of secrets and tricks.”
For an American, it’s useful to see how someone from elsewhere newly experiences American volume and amplitude. If you’re used to homegrown dimensions, it can be striking to see how visitors marvel over the vastness of the landscape. Being English, Alan knows a thing or two about dreary weather, but even he’s almost awestruck by the all-encompassing cold in upstate New York. Alan’s not as acerbic about American life as some folks from across the pond have been (Dickens and Kingsley Amis come to mind). Having lived in the U.S. for decades and writing a moving essay about happily choosing “not to go home” Wood comes by his cultural comparisons honestly and frankly.
As they awkwardly host Alan and Helen in their book-padded apartment, Vanessa and Josh are chuffed over Senator Obama’s potential as a national figure. I remember the excited conversations people had then, back when it seemed like the country might get itself back on track politically. This optimism feels pretty nostalgic now, and it reminds me of how far we’ve gone down the rabbit hole and what it felt like to assume that our better angels would prevail. Vanessa and Josh aren’t necessarily naïve, but their hope that the rest of America would have their thinking caps on (and keep them on) when it came to voting looks pretty close to it.
Upstate shifts contrapuntally between chapters, accentuating the character’s contrasting points of view. The narrative works as a character-driven family drama, but Wood takes intriguing risks. At a few points, an unforeseen plot twist or dramatic climax seems on the verge of happening but ends up fading away without resolution. Conversations between strangers spontaneously start up and seem to be heading somewhere, only to mysteriously dissolve. Alan has a few moments when his customary practicality almost fails him, but a major crisis doesn’t occur. After Alan hears Vanessa’s penetrating account of why she finds life so difficult and pointlessly repetitive it is left open whether or not she can find a way to accept life on her own bleak terms.
To its credit, Upstate largely shies away from tying things up in a neat little narrative arc. Instead, it explores the open-ended contours of everyday life as it’s actually lived, where people who know each other fail to understand themselves, and where events have a tendency not to brazenly announce themselves as being about to happen. Life doesn’t disclose its meanings to us unbidden, as much as we might wish it would. We don’t live by “the plot” in our daily lives, so why not explore ways of writing fiction that try to capture that evanescence? Call it elliptical realism. At a time in history where it often seems as though everything great’s already been said, and said again, maybe it’s time to consider a new set of fictional parameters. Deep noticing, looking closely enough to find and examine the frayed ends of existence, might be one way to do it.
Arts Fuse: You’ve written a lot as a critic about the art of “deep noticing.” You suggest that an important part of good writing is about paying rigorous attention to the minute, poetic details of life — for example, Nabokov’s describing a tissue falling to the ground with “infinite listlessness.” How do you think about deep noticing when you’re working on your own fiction?
James Wood: I think literature has always had something to teach me about noticing, about being observant. I’m not a particularly visual person. I did do a lot of music as a kid, so I tend to get most things through the ear. I never forget music, though I’m not an especially observant person by nature. I read a lot of poetry as a kid, which taught me how to see the world around me better — things like trees, roads, cars, faces. It’s something I attend to a lot in my criticism and I think I’m more observant of life and more observant about those details in fiction, with issues that have to do with how seeing works.
For writing Upstate, it worked to my advantage, seeing things through the eyes of someone who’s a relative stranger, an Englishman in America who’s only been there once before and is in a very distinctive, semi-rural environment. So that allowed me to see through his somewhat estranged eyes as he thinks, “what is this American reality that my daughters are living through?” I think, especially with English fiction, there’s a sense of how people have very strong reactions to America — some are snobby, sort of disparaging of it, and others feel a great joy to get away from that sort of mopey, rain-sodden, class-sodden landscape into a different, American space. I know when I came here that was the kind of reaction I had. To see things afresh like that was a real pleasure.
Arts Fuse: What was the interest in upstate New York as a location?
Wood: I think, really, I was just working with what I knew. I’d been on a few trips already, and it’s near enough to where I live that I could go and research it more easily, just walk up and down the main streets and get a sense of things. I’ve been there for readings at Skidmore and there is a summer writing program I go to up to Bennington, Vermont, and I take my drums and do a performance at the end of the ten-day conference with some musician friends, and we have sort of a captive audience. (Laughs) Bennington’s about thirty or forty miles from Saratoga Springs and so it’s fairly characteristic of the area in terms of being fairly depressed, there’s lots of boarded-up shops, and so on. And, remember, Alan’s from an area in the north of England that’s very much like that part of the country. Newcastle had a 19th Century industrial boom, was once thriving, and has since fallen on hard times. So, it felt natural that he would make certain kinds of connections between those places.
Arts Fuse: In some ways, Upstate is a historical novel. It’s set just before Barack Obama is about to become a household name and the characters talk quite a bit about him as an exciting political possibility. What make you want to write about that particular period of time?
Wood: Well, if I’m being very critical, I think that trying to capture that time was one of the hardest things for me to do, to write about the relation of these individuals to their historical moment and decide on the amount of politics that should enter the novel because of that period. It seemed true to the characters of Vanessa and Josh that they would be excited about the Obama candidacy. They would be hopeful, not supporters of Bush but kind of lying in wait to see what would happen. It seemed true that Alan would be somewhat skeptical of Obama, but also because he’s an old Labour English type, he would be no fan of George W Bush because he’d be no fan of Tony Blair. But since the figures themselves aren’t massively political I didn’t want there to be a great deal of politics in it. Nevertheless, I think you’re right to raise that question because it’s set in 2007, just before a huge change in American reality, before the recession.
Arts Fuse: I thought it was a very uniquely charged moment for the country. In some ways, that period seems like the last gasp of something we’re pretty short on now — hope? Civility? There’s a sense that these characters are hopeful about Obama’s potential in a way that people don’t seem to be about any politician anymore.
Wood: I began writing this mostly in 2016, and I’d already decided that I was going to set it back in time a bit. But the bulk of the writing was done after Trump’s election. It’s very mild, but I thought about having a sort of ironic resonance with that moment, when most people are going to be reading it in 2018 and might look back on that moment rather wistfully. One of the characters says something about if Obama’s elected, there will be a lot of repairing to do, in terms of our national moral sense, and so I thought there might be a sort wistful sadness about how a certain amount of repairing was done, and then a fair amount of destruction …
Arts Fuse: A catastrophe!
Wood: Right. (Laughs)
Arts Fuse: There’s an elegiac quality to some of the book, since we know what’s coming and the characters don’t.
Wood: It’s why, even though I slightly disapprove of the pomposity of the gesture, I decided to end the book with “Boston, 2017.” I wanted that little date stamp to show that historical moment.
Arts Fuse: There were some scenes that were very elliptical. Something dramatic seemed to be on the verge of happening, and then sort of faded away. That reminded me of a reference in one of your essays to Antonioni’s film L’Eclisse, specifically that scene where Monica Vitti’s character spontaneously follows an unnamed stockbroker through the streets and eventually we see him at a café, scribbling something down on a pad — we know he’s just lost a lot of money — and it turns out that it’s just a drawing of some flowers. It’s not even treated as if it’s especially symbolic or meaningful, it just sort of happens. Those kinds of moments reappear throughout the book.
Wood: I’m glad you noticed that, because most of the negative reviews the book has gotten tend to argue that it’s modest, dull, boring, that nothing happens. I think we’ve been primed by literary and filmic convention to expect something major to happen, rather more than in life, where we are continually bumping into people, having a few quick words, and then going our separate ways. And I thought, well, let’s pull it back. And I thought about the long, glacial, monotony of failure to work stuff out that sometimes happens in families and that has to do with this long succession of rather locked-in responses…
Arts Fuse: When you’ve known somebody for twenty or thirty years, you sort of already know what they are going to say and do.
Wood: Right. And in every other film that’s made, climactic things happen: huge arguments, violence, things are brought to a head. Maybe there’s some redemption or resolution, growth, character development and so on. But more often than not, in real life, those kinds of things just don’t happen. There’s just a sort of punishing stasis. There is some kind of narrative arc in the book — by the end, we’re not sure if Alan will stay longer, if there will be a real connection between father and daughter — but inside of that arc I wanted there to be not a great deal of event, which I understand can be testing to readers.
At times, it almost helped me to think of it more like a play, maybe a Chekov play like The Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard, where you have a group of people who know each other very well are getting together and failing to work stuff out. It’s something that I really like about Chekov, actually. I like implication very much; there’s a fiction of implication that I think I’ve championed over the fiction of explication. Some writers explain, and then explain again, and then explain their explanation. When I’ve criticized, say, David Foster Wallace or Don DeLillo that’s what I’ve been after.
Arts Fuse: Music is a theme that runs throughout the story. You’ve written about how important music has been in your life, and one of Alan’s daughters is a high-powered music executive. Is there anything you might want to say about the role of music in the book?
Wood: I wanted Helen to be involved in the music industry because, knowing that it would be set in this period- 2006 to 2008- I wanted her posture to be excited, looking ahead, and that she has this passion that maybe Vanessa has lost. Whenever she doubts herself, she thinks “yes, music is the thing I love!” And I don’t think Vanessa has that, even though she used to love teaching philosophy. She has her two thousand books, but she doesn’t quite have that passion, that central driving movement. I always understood that Helen and Alan are allied temperamentally in this regard; that they’re both doers. And because of what they do, they have to be practically, necessarily moving forward. In the book, Alan finds it kind of amusing that Josh uses the American term “what shall we do moving forward, going forward” and it seems like Vanessa is more looking backward — towards philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Camus.
At one point, when she’s talking to her father, she wonders aloud that maybe her problem is that she sees the bones of things a little too well, a little too clearly — when she watches her neighbor methodically eating his food, she’s struck by the repetitiveness of that, of just keeping your body alive. I think she wonders if she’s not living strongly enough in the moment, for the moment. It is a very philosophical way of thinking, seeing everything in its context like this. I think in some ways, I wonder if happiness isn’t practical…
Arts Fuse: Pragmatic?
Wood: Well, almost. I wonder if happiness isn’t really a pragmatic thing. We discover that happy people are people who have somehow turned off certain faculties that you and I treasure, matters of inquiry and self-inquisition. But also, just practical in the sense of these unchangeable inheritances, our bodies. Some people have bodies that plague them, that aren’t the right shape, or they hurt, are more susceptible to illness — I’m thinking of my younger sister, who struggles a lot with chronic fatigue syndrome. Some people are born buoyant and actually stay like that all the way through their lives. It’s one of the questions I had on my mind as I was writing this — what makes one kind of person feel lost, drifting, not very happy, and another person who’s not very self-inquisitive but is, practically speaking, happy enough?
For fiction, it’s an interesting challenge to see if you can write someone who is at times a little histrionic, a little overblown, a little melodramatic, but at the same time isn’t wrong. I do like the irony — and I do mean it to be an irony — of someone who is in the business of studying philosophical texts, who is in the business of self-flourishing, and yet who is sort of crap at it herself.
Arts Fuse: You’re more known for writing criticism than for writing fiction, so do you think there’s a different set of skills required to write criticism instead of fiction or is it, so to speak, just the same muscle you’re working in a different way?
Wood. (Long Pause) I think I’m going to split the difference with my answer and say that it’s often working the same muscle in different ways, along with a few other muscles. It’s clearly been helpful to me to practice certain modes of writing in different kinds of descriptive writing, certain ways of writing a personal essay, that kind of thing have given me some help, I think, in terms of thinking about fiction. There’s an obvious overlap. So, you do need certain muscles. It’s the point at which you have everything in place and where you need to push out into — Bellow has this wonderful phrase where he’s talking at Lake Michigan, which is so enormous, it’s like a sea- — and I think the phrase is “the blue teeter of it.”
There’s some moment where you just have to push out into that open water, where it would seem that nothing very much can help you. Sure, you have your reading, what you might have learned about life, about people, of course that helps. But in the end, I sometimes wonder whether writing fiction, when you’re out in the middle of the water, doesn’t have something to do with a mysterious level of self-confidence and authority. It’s akin, say, to the confidence and authority that a brilliant politician or an actor has — some people are able to find it, to locate it, and others don’t.
Or put it differently, there’s something in this that’s akin to the confidence man, the salesman, the trickster. For most of us, it would be intolerable to go door to door selling stuff. For some people, they’re naturals — they have great confidence in themselves, and they can do it easily. And when I think of myself self critically, after all the time I’ve spent thinking about writing fiction, dreaming about it, I feel like I don’t have faith in myself, that confidence of the trickster. When you look at something you’ve written, and you don’t know if you believe in it or not. It’s a situation perilously close to lunacy — it’s quite possible that you could tell someone in the street that you’ve heard these voices, show them what you’ve written and they’ll tell you that you’re mad. It’s good to remind yourself that some of the writers you admire have their good and bad days, just like the rest of us.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.