Wood on Wolfe
Among the pleasures of reading James Wood in the New Yorker are the mini-tutorials on fiction woven into his critiques. A case in point is his piece on Tom Wolfe’s new novel, featured in the current issue. It’s highly entertaining as a review (it really is), but the take-down also comes with instructive examples and a warning on the danger, in fiction, of trusting too much in the power of fact.
Of course, many novelists have done research, or have simply slipped chunks of witnessed or remembered reality into their books. But often their swerves away from research are more interesting than their fidelities… .
The important details, the ones that make fiction’s intimate palpability, cannot simply be scooped up off the sidewalk. Tolstoy, praised as a realist by Tom Wolfe, took the germ of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ from an actual story about a judge in a nearby town who had died of cancer; but one of the most beautiful moments surely came from Tolstoy’s imagination—or rather, from his patient loyalty to Ivan’s invented reality [emphasis added]. I mean the moment when Ivan Ilyich, lying on his couch, in great distress and loneliness, remembers ‘the raw and wrinkly French prunes of his childhood, their special taste, and how his mouth watered when he got down to the stone.’
Too much faith in the force of reality, says Wood, “results in weak fiction and forceful facts.” Information is imparted, but little else—only “the expected detail, the properly stamped sociological receipt.” But the French prunes, Wood says, “come out of nowhere, and surprise us with their singular surplus….”
It’s not just about selecting the right detail. It’s also about resisting the impulse to flood the page with data (the make and model of the cell phone, the vital stats—height, weight, hair color—of the protagonist) in the mistaken belief that it will ensure authenticity or verisimilitude, and that by simple abundance will something essential be conveyed.
Wood’s “singular surplus” sounds a little like Flannery O’Connor’s belief in the power of a properly chosen object to function at both the literal and symbolic levels, “in depth as well as on the surface,” and how just such an object “increases the story in every direction.” She also advised on how to dispense information: “To say that fiction proceeds by the use of detail does not mean the simple, mechanical piling-up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you.”
That purpose apparently isn’t evident in Wolfe’s novel, which is set in Miami. But let Wood make the point himself: “It is useless to feature Russians in your novel, just because they exist in Miami, if this is how you render their speech: ‘You vant to share zees studio?—eet’s yours, my fren!’”