July 11, 2007



Oh I wholeheartedly agree with you there!

I got the exact same sensation when listening to Ashbery at a poetry reading some years back, that we are supposed to sit in awe of phrases that heard sound wonderful or poetically deep but upon closer examination make no freaking sense at all. It's so sad. And why do so many writers insist on using "gauzy" beyond its dictionary sense?


p s, DeLillo always sounds a little off when he shoots for the Pynchonesque.

PT Caffe

What's sad isn't that so many writers insist on using "gauzy" beyond its dictionary sense, but that so few do. And, as Woods indicates, the passage cited doesn't sound like anybody but Delillo. Love him or hate him, it's Delillo. He's giving you Delillo (certainly not Pynchon). And I don't think he's "unwittingly funny" at all. He's simply funny. How do I know? Cold-war risk analysis tells me so.


I don't know. Gauzy has always struck me as being a bit too gauzy for my tastes. And "Gauzy manhood" is just such a weird phrase--the Gauzymandias of all weird usages of gauzy--that I suppose only DeLillo could have come up with it.

pj nolan

It seems a bit rich to castigate a storyteller for stretching your preceptions of language? Surely that goes with the job description? Would we criticise an improvising musician for bending notes? Where you see fastidious vagueness, I see the Other.


I agree with pj, and think, moreover, that Wood is misreading the sentence. "Petitioning the dead" refers back to those walking the "preliterate folkways," by which I'd assume Delillo's speaking of fundemental, biology-based urges. Instinct, in other words.


Reactionary critics like Mendelsohn and Wood frequently tsk-tsk the author for bending the notes, so to speak. I'm tired of seeing them admonish authors when they should instead be attempting to understand these new vernaculars and how they fit in with the evolving direction (or lack thereof) of literature. I can only imagine Wood reviewing some of the classics:

"What does Ginsberg mean by 'dragging themelves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix?' If I were forced to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey after several shots of Stoli, I could easily identify this as the kind of prose fashionable among the beret-wearing riff-raff. Streets are not racial! How is a fix angry?"

Steven Augustine

Wood is an auto mechanic looking under the hood of a UFO. DeLillo is very good at a kind of jazzy, flickeringly wry compression. He does in two paragraphs what other writers need a chapter to accomplish. Wood's hysterical attempts to debunk DeLillo are obvious clues to his personal feelings about DeLillo's enormous talent and Wood's own subordinate position as a professional interpreter of DeLillo's Art. Wood falsely interprets a DeLillo trope then knocks the false interpretation...this is a critical method I'm supposed to take seriously? Bitchy, wounded, camouflage erudition.

Steven Augustine

Re: the "dictionary sense" of "gauzy": don't really see how it precludes a pairing of the word with "manhood" or in what way that compound defies interpretation.


Isn't 'negro streets' an example of the transferred epithet? Works pretty well for Ginsberg, and we all use them e.g. 'I sit in my lonely room'. Wood's point, as I take it, is that the effective transferred epithet depends on the the reader's being able to identify from where and to where the epithet has been transferred. In my example it's obvious that it is I that is lonely; in Ginsberg's it is clear that the streets are lived in by negroes. Wood thinks that the adjective-noun combination in De Lillo is often strained - and I think he's picked quite a good example.

Garth Risk Hallberg

"Jumping Jehosephat! Mary and Joseph! Though I think this is on the whole a finely calibrated review, Wood is (despite his reputation as a close reader) at his worst when he cherry-picks and then misrepresents passages in the service of his prosecutorial inclinations. (See also his review of "Underworld.") In the spirit of turnabout as fair play: "pre-literacy," in the Saudi milieu from which some of Falling Man's characters hail, was as recent as 1950 (cf. Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower"; Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy"). Also: for the anthropologically curious, a card game is never just a card game (to state otherwise is to flourish a "bogus...expertise.")
The quoted passage makes no pretension to being free indirect style. Rather, it's DeLillo the narrator using his own rangy diction (characteristically) to take the piss out of some of the sententiousness he and Keith Neudecker are tempted, retrospectively, to foist onto this tableau. The pseudo-scientific phrasing is exactly where the sentences are least in earnest. (Do we believe that DeLillo really wants us to belive that "they used cold war risk analysis?" Of course not. The term of art is hyperbole (not one of James Wood's favorite rhetorical devices, "Book Against God" notwithstanding. Though, in fairness, understatement is the cornerstone of the Oxbridge house style.))

At his most humorless (cf. the endlessly unfunny but otherwise wonderful introduction to "The Irresponsible Self") Wood insists that narrators must either be objectively reporting, exercising free indirection, or directly recording the thoughts of characters. This ignores the possibility of recording the thoughts of characters in subjective language chosen by the narrator--an elaborate paper-folding method which, in the right hands, blossoms into irony. DeLillo's mode of irony may not be Wood's--that it isn't, in fact, seems to be the unacknowledged source of much of Wood's animus against DeLillo--but it is irony. American irony. And if the great Wood (and he is great) is going to be "the best critic" of his adopted home, he's going to have to broaden his palette. Whatever Wood may wish to believe, liking Melville and Bellow (and sometimes Roth) and lumping everyone else doesn't exactly distinguish one as a commentator on American literature. I suggest he start with "Light in August" and work forward and backward.


Wood wrote about Faulkner several times during his stint at The Guardian. He largely sings from the Faulkner hymn sheet (everything between 1929 and 1942 was great; thereafter, oh dear), and has also written that he considers Light in August Faulkner's greatest novel.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."