Upstate, a new novel by the literary critic James Wood, asks readers to consider a fundamental question: can one think one’s way into happiness? Or as Vanessa, one of the protagonists and a serially miserable person suspects, does deep, untrammelled thought lead to paralysis at best and at worst to despair? “If one knew how to think and then how to stop thinking, how to open and close the circle of thought, one flourished in life,” she surmises. On the other hand, “what if one’s series of circles just kept on multiplying? What if it was hard to stop thinking about pointlessness, to stop thinking about metaphysical absurdity, to stop thinking about the brevity and meaninglessness of things?” To which Wood adds, “if intelligent people could think themselves into happiness, intellectuals would be the happiest people on earth.” He starts laughing at the fact, evident to anyone who has spent time with either academics or novelists, that the opposite tends to be true.
As it turns out, Wood himself is an exception to this rule. The 52-year-old, who lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Claire Messud, and their two teenage children, describes himself as naturally “buoyant”, a disposition in evidence at a cafe in New York. Wood is in the city to teach a masterclass at Columbia University, a duty he combines with being a book critic at the New Yorker and professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard. It is a life of satisfying intellectual endeavour and no small public acclaim, but even as a boy, says Wood — the son of two teachers who struggled, in an act of what he has called “financial insanity”, to send Wood to Eton — he displayed an essential cheerfulness that others in his family decisively lacked; it’s a concern of Upstate, his second novel and seventh book, to consider where the roots of these variants lie.
It is set partly in Wood’s native Durham and concerns the efforts of Alan, an ageing father, to parent his two adult daughters, Vanessa, a philosopher on the edge whom he goes to visit in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, and her brisk and ostensibly happier sister, Helen. It’s an interesting and little explored subject for fiction — what the job of parenting entails when the children grow up — and the two women are finely drawn, particularly in relation to each other.
“For so long now,” writes Wood, “the closed circuit of their relationship had been that Helen did things while Vanessa thought things.” Alan meanwhile is wry, baffled, as crippled by love for his daughters as he was before they were grown, a man who recognises “the engrossing fanaticism” of family but is powerless to soften its impact. He is also the source of the book’s sharp humour. I have never read a better summation of the general unease of the British person at large in New York than the sense Alan has, at all times in the city, “that something is going to fall on my head”.
The novel grew partly out of the state of mind Wood was in after his mother’s death in 2014. She was a great influence; no-nonsense, Scottish, hugely invested in her four children, above all, religious, and three years later Wood is still trying to figure it all out. “She had many strengths,” he says. “Bravery, fortitude, possessive love, ambition for her children, of which I have absolutely been the beneficiary. But she wasn’t a happy person.” In fact, he continues, “I think she might actually have been closer to the Calvinist idea that it was one’s religious responsibility to be unhappy.”
Wood, by contrast, spent at least the early years of his childhood “very happily sandwiched between older and younger siblings”, a protected middle child in a safe, loving home. (The first few years at Eton would prove tricky, when he was conscious of the class difference between himself and his peers). If this temperament and background can be said to have a stylistic expression, it is there in Wood’s brevity and precision, and in the sense that everything he does is underscored by humour. A great strength of Upstate is its general snap and vigour, and one sees this across Wood’s criticism, too. (He made the point, in a delicious takedown of The Goldfinch a few years ago, that while Donna Tartt herself was ageing along with the rest of the population, her novels seemed to be becoming more childish.)
He is also, of course, his mother’s son and reserves a great deal of admiration for the way she went about things, working an extra job at the weekend to meet the cost of the school fees, and fighting him over his lapsed faith as a teenager — a woman unwilling to give an inch in any area of her life. On the matter of the religion, says Wood, “I couldn’t help but think as a teenager that she had made herself unhappier with her Christian faith. But then I would also think, OK, so if we removed the religiosity, would she overnight become a happy pagan? No. We are the way we are, we’re framed by our parents and the particular set of anxieties — social, political, and others that we have — so that one begins to feel we’re all carrying around a very fixed inheritance; as if there’s a bottle that’s filled up, or half filled up, or a quarter filled up at our birth and that level never changes, which is a terrible thing. That can’t be true, can it? Very miserable people can get less miserable.” He considers this. “I do believe in therapy, and so on.”
A fixed inheritance would also negate all one’s efforts as a parent, something that Alan, in the novel, tries to counteract by persuading his gloomy daughter that his own cheerfulness takes hard work to maintain. “When Alan says that he’s thinking like a parent. He is in effect saying, look, it wasn’t no work having you and raising you. Certain things ran themselves and then certain things decisively didn’t, and the fact you’re not a raving lunatic takes effort. This is the eternal thing: that kids don’t realise until they’re much older, and usually not until they’re parents, how effing hard their parents worked for them.”
And although, says Wood, nothing is ever this clear to a novelist at the time of writing, he can see now that when he wrote that scene it was not with his parents but his children in mind, the kneejerk parental urge to forearm them, however clumsily, against all the terrible things that can happen. “It’s the instinctive thing of saying, yes, life is a bit of labour. You know? It can’t just be sitting around, thinking about Kant.”
When Wood met Messud they were both students at Cambridge University and already set on their careers; Wood’s first freelance review in the Guardian newspaper would appear when he was 21 and by the time she finished her graduate degree Messud would be at work on a novel. The pair moved to the US in 1995 when Wood was offered a job at the New Republic, and for the last 10 years he has worked at the New Yorker, while writing many stylish books of essays, including The Irresponsible Self (2004) and How Fiction Works (2008).
That last title was written when his son and daughter were young children and is divided into short, numbered paragraphs. “I was writing in the evening,” he explains, “and knowing I would have a couple of hours only, it was helpful to know I was only working on a paragraph.” Without discussing it in advance, he and Messud naturally arrange their writing schedules around one another so that they aren’t both finishing a novel at the same time — what he calls “that instinctive marital tact which I suppose is just a slightly more formal version of the tact one needs anyway; you have your egotistical evening and I’ll have mine tomorrow night”. So unavoidable are the interruptions — of children needing to be picked up or helped with homework; of journalistic and teaching deadlines — that it has become a staple gift between the couple “to give each other a little card and it’ll say inside you have been given three nights at a hotel of your choice. Because that’s the most precious thing, to say to your spouse, I’ll take care of it; leave the house now and don’t come back for three days.”
Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published in 2003 to mixed reviews, and there is an inevitable glee to be had in taking a hatchet to the novel of a famous reviewer. ( The New York Times averred that while “Wood writes like a dream and the novel is often wildly funny,” nonetheless it “tries — and, it should be said, fails — to achieve the kind of artistic and moral augustness that it so obviously aims for” and Upstate received similarly snotty notices in the Times and Sunday Times last weekend.) These things are deeply unpleasant and, Wood says, have made him soften towards his own targets, but it is also his habit to move briskly on.
At Eton, after a couple of years of shame and embarrassment — “I dreaded the idea of my parents turning up on the school open day in their old Austin Maxi” — he shrugged it off. “And then in the last couple of years I’d become my own person. I’d found my little niche on the arty and journalistic side and I was proud of it; I thought, ‘Let them come in the Maxi because we don’t have a Porsche’.”
Literary criticism has changed immensely since Wood started out, both commercially and, along with all other types of journalism, in terms of its accommodations with digital media. As a literary editor on the Guardian books desk, he recalls the then editor, the late Peter Preston, mildly remarking to him that it would be nice if not all the books reviewed were by Yale University Press and cost £50. Now, says Wood, it is hard not to write with social media in mind. “Sometimes I think I’ve lost my nerve a little bit. I think it’s growing older, and a certain reservoir of anger literally runs out. That’s fine. So you’re not doing manifestos and slaying people any more. You’re wiser and more generous, and you’re trying to write yourself, and have had the experience of being reviewed yourself.”
Values have changed, too; I mention Sarah Churchwell’s recent essay about revising the canonisation of some male American novelists, and Wood agrees. “So many of those writers, whatever their virtues, are almost unreadable — I have my own particular issues with Updike , say, but I found him essentially unreadable because I really thought he did not like women. Apart from appreciating their bodies, I thought there was no sign that he liked them, and that is hard to deal with.”
There is something else that has changed in criticism, he says, and that is the awareness, over the last 10 years, “that one is instantly being written about and often extremely judgmentally; that there’s a constant critical attention on the judgment that one might be making about someone like Donna Tartt, has crept into my bones. There’s a good and bad side to it; the good side is if you can not ruin someone’s day, month, year, then do so. The bad side is the extent to which one is possibly becoming lily livered.” (On the Donna Tartt thing, he says, there is less anxiety since “you can argue that she’s a grownup, she’s enormously rewarded, and awarded, and I’m sure it stings that I didn’t quite like the novel, but it’s all right.”)
If Wood has a niggling regret as a reviewer, it is for a review he wrote 30 years ago, straight out of the gate. “When I think about the things I did wrong, that I’m ashamed of, the first fiction review I ever wrote for the Guardian was a review of a first novel; the author was Kate Pullinger and the novel was called When the Monster Dies and the first line of my review was ‘Lord, if it only would’. And it proceeded from there. I thought I was having a whale of a time, announcing myself. Then a month or two later someone told me that the review had appeared on the day of her publication and she had spent the launch party in tears. And I don’t think I’ve reviewed a first novel with any hostility since then.”
He quotes the novelist Mary McCarthy, who was still writing venomous book reviews well into her dotage and who, when asked why she continued to be so ferociously unappeased, said, “there is so much to hate”. Wood looks amazed. “And I thought how terrible to go out of one’s life on that note. If that’s what you think, it’s never ending. There’s always crap to get rid of, more than you can clear.” He smiles. “But who wants to do that?”