Book reviews can be so annoying. Often, it seems the reviewer is far more concerned with you, the reader, thinking they are smart-maybe smarter than the person who wrote the book being reviewed. They want, need you to know they are clever, have a wide range of knowledge about books or authors you may never have heard of and really understand why something is or isn’t working in the book. And they’re not doing you any favors because their review is off-putting and sometimes off-topic, which is also not doing the author any favors, because you’ve had an unpleasant experience as a reader and you associate it with their book.
James Wood does a great job of not only talking about why or how a particular piece of fiction works, but he does a great job of turning those observations into a lesson about writing. Behold, his review of John Wray’s Lowboy from the current issue of The New Yorker.
In “Lowboy,” a schizophrenic rides the subway.
Fiction is at once real and imaginary. Not real at one moment and flickeringly illusory the next, like the fading pulse of a dying man, but both at once, as if a ghost had a pulse. Fiction is one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare. Like one of our own lies, it can be completely “wrong” about the world and yet completely revelatory—completely “right”—about the psychology of the person issuing the error. Thus, one of fiction’s most natural areas of inquiry, from Cervantes to Murakami, concerns states of confusion, error, or madness, in which a character’s crazy fictions become intertwined with the novel’s calmer fictions, and the reader’s purchase on the reliable world becomes intermittently tenuous. Think of Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” which opens with a young man writing a letter to his old friend, who has gone to live in St. Petersburg, only to end a few pages later by putting in doubt whether such a friend exists at all.
In standard third-person narration, a tiny slippage often suffices to alert us to a character’s fiction-making. For instance, if I were describing the New York subway, in the third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy, and I wrote, “The doors closed after ten seconds and the station fell away,” I might or might not be exact about how long the train doors stay open (let slip the fact-checkers of war!), but the pseudo-statement would be unexceptionable. If, however, I wrote, “The doors closed after exactly ten seconds and the station fell resignedly away,” the two adverbs might stiffen the reader’s posture. Who is this boy, for whom exactitude is so manically important, yet who also sees the world so lyrically? And if I wrote, “The train fit into the tunnel perfectly,” or “He decided to get out at Columbus Circle. To his surprise it happened very simply,” the reader would sense a world of mental difficulty, in which trains may not always fit properly into tunnels and a teen-age boy may not always negotiate the exiting of a train. When the same boy overhears a man and a woman speaking, and, noticing that the woman waits for the man to finish before she speaks, senses that “their voices never touched,” we might feel privy to a world of extraordinary sensory irritability, as if the pea were always poking through the piled mattresses, however many there were. Sentences like these, almost imperceptible deviations from shared reality, prepare us for much larger and more obvious swerves, such as “Most things that happened didn’t bother him at all, but others got inside of him and stuck: nothing to do then but cough them up,” and “When he thought of it now his tongue stuck to his mouth and he felt so much love that he had to spit part of it out.” And:
The train pulled into the next station and the car began to fill with halfdead people. That’s the tiredness, thought Lowboy. They want to curl up on the ground and go to sleep. He yawned at them as they came in, showing them his teeth, and some of them yawned back.
These are all lines from John Wray’s third novel, “Lowboy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25), an account of one climactic day in the life of Will Heller, known as Lowboy, a sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, who has gone off his medication, eluded the staff at the clinic that was looking after him, and is riding the subway trains, convinced that the “world’s going to die in ten hours.”
The review goes on. Read the rest of it here. Seriously, I learned more about how to casually and subtly establish a character’s grasp of the world while I rode the subway this morning than I have in many writing classes. Thank you, Mr. Wood.