Almost 20 years ago I was smitten by The Broken Estate, an early collection of literary criticism by James Wood that memorably attuned and complicated my reading. So I was ready to be nothing if not critical when I picked up his second novel, Upstate. Fiction sharks can’t help smelling blood in the water when a distinguished critic writes a novel. Indeed, the Times Literary Supplement’s recent review of Upstate promises to judge the book “by its author’s own formidable standards.”
Wood’s critical writing stands upon the godforsaken ground of Romantic spiritual anxiety. What do we human beings do when religious certitudes get emptied out, leaving us with the stress of making our own way and constructing our own idiosyncratic belief systems? The predicament is always vivid and sometimes painful for Wood’s fictional characters. His first novel bears the militant title The Book Against God.
But in Upstate, existential anguish is modulated by loving relation. Englishman Alan Querry and his two daughters, Vanessa and Helen, give the story both a grain of tragedy and a leaven of transatlantic comedy. Alan and Helen rush over from England to upstate New York to “rescue” Vanessa from her relapse into clinical depression. Vanessa’s boyfriend, Josh, alerts her father and sister to the seriousness of the episode. Vanessa’s well-being precariously hinges on Josh’s actions, but the flourishing of both daughters ultimately depends on Alan. It’s the father on whom the moral gravity of this ingenious novel ultimately rests.
I can think of no other 21st-century novel that so unabashedly celebrates paternal love as the complex mainstay of its female characters. Without irony, the story certifies the power of old-fashioned, flawed, patriarchal authority as a redemptive principle. Boy, is James Wood in for it. Read this critically important novel, and have your literary scorecard ready.