The Fast and the Serious

MARK GREIF: I think that Upstate is a beautiful book. Can you say a bit about how you came to write the novel?

JAMES WOOD: I wanted to write about a family, and I wanted to write about the mystery of happiness. Look at any family—in particular, look at any group of siblings—and invariably you find an apparently random distribution of happiness and unhappiness. Why is she confident and buoyant, while he is depressive and unsuccessful in life?

I wanted my novel to be about an older father—Alan is sixty-eight—with two grown-up daughters, who are very different from one another. The elder daughter, Vanessa, who is forty, has been troubled by sadness and uncertainty for much of her life, while her younger sister, Helen, is naturally confident and vital. Their father is a doer rather than a thinker, and is in many ways poorly equipped to answer Vanessa’s spiritual needs.

One shock of the initial part of the book is to render impressions of America—in New York City, and then upstate, in Saratoga Springs—from a standpoint of innocence. Your focal character, Alan Querry, from Newcastle, is worldly and discerning, but simply has no sense of the United States. Was it difficult to peel back your own familiarity to recover this drama of national difference, or is the doubleness always there for you?

I didn’t move to the States till I was thirty, so I was decisively formed by my Englishness. My childhood was English. I’ve made a home in the States, but that’s not quite the same as being at home, whatever that means. I wanted to take someone who has complacently rested on a very standard-issue, reflexive European anti-Americanism, and gradually expose him to an American otherness which at first simply alienates him, and then slowly intrigues and even delights.

The book has a headlong movement that’s a bit unfamiliar to this extremely delicate, largely domestic, emotional and reflective sort of novel. It’s like a one-way trip, where family novels are usually a province of round-trips and repetitions.

I love fiction that is intimate and human and therefore to some extent domestic. But I dislike most of the accoutrements of the domestic realist novel. I mean the fractious dinners, the terrible screaming fights, the eccentric uncle, the murderously abusive mom—and then the carefully paced moment when the narrative “turns” toward resolution.

Insofar as I was thinking of a model—please forgive the hubris—it was the ways Chekhov’s plays drift, or stick in the paralysis of family and household repetitions, while they move forward. In my perhaps very English experience, families don’t have screaming rows which then help to resolve or exhaust age-old issues—Eugene O’Neill–style—they instead fail to really talk about those things, so that family narratives tend to be repetitive, glacial, stubbornly immovable.

And yet, the sense of movement. . . . I marked some of my favorite descriptions. Here’s an early one: “The surging of the cab, as if prodding itself into battle, the wasteful slippage of the big automatic V8, the sadistic achievement of the raked partition, which made every back-seat traveler a giant in a plastic bath, the embattled roads and laughable neglected bridges, on which moved the latest German cars, suddenly futuristic and anomalous.” Which characterizes a taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan. Then some of the most memorable and thrilling late pages in the book come from him cruising through wintry upstate towns, suffering the inadequacy of a Toyota Prius on snow. I sympathized. But I had not pegged you for possessing this Grand Prix consciousness.

I’ve always loved cars and trains. Truth be told, I was a teenaged trainspotter—for about six months. In Durham, where I grew up, our house was very near the train station. I used to go to sleep hearing the big diesel Pullmans leaving the station and accelerating over the viaduct that dominates the town. “This is the night mail crossing the border/ Bringing the cheque and the postal order”—a fairly ordinary bit of Auden poem, it still sends shivers down my spine. Even now, instead of counting sheep, I imagine I’m getting into a car, an extremely fast, extremely glamorous car, not a Prius, in London, at nighttime, and I am about to drive north on a largely deserted motorway, all the way to Durham. That provides the childish cocoon which helps me get to sleep.

But to return to the domestic aspect of the novel—and childhood, too, I guess. I was struck by how it seemed both anti-formulaic and anti-progressive. It didn’t comfortably enter “the tradition of the domestic novel” at all. But neither are you trying to revolutionize or end it.

I gravitate, as a teacher, to unteachable, or less-teachable books. Simplicity can create that: The simple is easy to identify but hard to explain. It’s palpably there, and it’s also somewhat evasive at the same time. I’m not a simple stylist—I’m drawn to abundance, and I’m probably a bit of a show-off—but I was trying to be simple in this book, or unafraid of simplicity, and I suppose that means being unafraid of powerful emotion.

The forceful emotion in the book, curiously, is not emotion for oneself. Not thinking or worrying about one’s own life. It’s to do with children. Whether anyone will really love them the way that you do, therefore the way you feel they deserve to be loved. It’s not small children at stake here—Alan’s daughters Vanessa and Helen are near forty. It’s simply that they are his children, and he can’t preserve them from pain and grief.

It’s this awful paradox—on the one hand, I often think that being a parent is absurdly easy and uncomplicated, and if you just give your children masses of love and support and the right ethical and political framework, nothing very serious will go wrong or can go wrong. On the other hand, as your children get older and more independent, you see all that is mysterious and uncontrollable, and beyond the influence of your ethical framework, beyond the reach of your boundless love. I’m haunted by a line from Norman Rush’s novel Mortals, where he writes that having children exposes you to what he calls “hellmouth”: With children, he says, you create “more thin places in the world for hellmouth to break through.”

When we enter the point of view of Vanessa, a philosophy professor, not to be crass but I thought, “Aha, James wants to address academic philosophy, and its relation to life”—and you do. At first I wondered at the arbitrariness of having the other daughter, Helen, be a Sony music executive. Until I reached the second half of the book—and thought, “Aha, James wants to write about pop music!” And you do. The long chapter meditating on pop music, the power of it, what it does for us all, was one of my favorites. But I found it interesting that you would reach these particular truths about music, not in criticism or memoir, but only “in character”—in a novel. I mean, I suppose the New Yorker would let you write about pop music all day, if you wanted to.

Yes, Vanessa is a professional thinker—a philosopher—which may be, in her case, part of the problem of her happiness. Vanessa thinks backward—toward her books, toward the grand philosophical tradition—while Helen is grappling, in a practical way, with what is ahead in the music industry, with the great changes that digitization brings. I’m delighted that you liked the stuff about pop music. Though I wrote once for the New Yorker about rock music (about Keith Moon), I found it easier to approach music through a younger fictional character—for a fairly simple reason. I’m hampered by a slight sense of embarrassment when writing personally about pop music, in the way that I’m a bit self-conscious when I play the drums onstage with bands.

There’s a dad-rock quality about it. I’m a bald middle-aged bloke. On the other hand, how can we not write, one way or another, about pop music? It’s the revolutionary aesthetic and political force of the last sixty years. Pop music structures and influences and accompanies every minute of our lives, and rock music has the earned prestige that, say, the novel had in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This comes to something I’ve always wanted to ask you. I think I’ve got you on the spot at last. Look, how do you think about this—your orientation to thrills. A strong engine at high speeds on a fast road, or Keith Moon’s drumming for the Who. Both give you a feeling of some quality, bodily, kinetic, thrilling, near-transcendent. But also anti-verbal—something untranslatable to the page. It could only issue in the dumb: like, as an utterance, “Grrrrrrr!” or “Fuck yeah!” Yet your persona, if you’ll forgive me, is also a bit anti-thrills—i.e., hostile to people who think of themselves as primarily thrill-seeking or thrill-giving, and to whizz-bang or funhouse or thrill-ride or the-new-new-thing aesthetics. So?

I like the thrill of speed, I like the thrill of action, and I thrill to the thrilling in prose. I loved poetry before I loved prose, and I loved music before I really loved words, and I guess as a critic I’m always puzzling over how musical—how freely stylish, how lyrical—fiction can be. For me, music has always been about escaping the calculations and repressions and linearity—the mediation—of language. Absolutely, music is “Grrrr!” and “Fuck yeah!” and crazy drumrolls and noise and speed, and ethereal beauty and the nonverbal fusion of counterpoint. I grew up hearing and performing a lot of music, a lot of different kinds of music—classical, jazz, and rock—and music has always been, for me, the measure of visceral bliss. If my persona sometimes seems opposed to this force, it’s maybe partly that I find it hard to express that viscerality on the page. But maybe also because the moralist in me tends to feel that aesthetic bliss must be put into shape, tamed, almost religiously corrected. I don’t much like this corrective side of me, truth be told, but the wrestle between the aesthetic and the moral feels inescapable, and central to the texture of experience.

Let me ask the inescapable question for someone who’s a critic, writing a novel. Do you have a different experience of writing reviews while you’re in the process of composing a novel, or any different relation to other novelists’ work than you do when there isn’t a manuscript novel of your own, on your desk?

In my perhaps unusual case, I’ve always been writing shadow novels, or ghost novels, in my head. I’m always approaching what I am reviewing with an acquisitive hunger. I am greedily interested in why a novel is functioning well—including that finally inexplicable mystery, convincing vitality—why some people seem to have it, others don’t. And I am greedily interested in why a novel fails, or seems to me to fail. The mantra about writers being the ones who can, while critics (like teachers) are the ones who can’t, has always seemed bollocks. The literary tradition is rich in people who do both, with varying degrees of success. There are all sorts of reasons why I might be a rubbish novelist—I’m humbly aware of them—but they have little to do, finally, with being a critic.

Mark Greif is the author of Against Everything (Pantheon, 2016).