Wood will...remain renowned for his criticism and not for his fiction because his criticism, honed over three decades, is superb, while his novels...are 'merely' very good. True to their author’s voice, these are careful works that resist controversy beyond the fact that they exist, show a calm, colorful command of language, and are absorbing to read ... Wood lives in his head and so do his characters, and that will never be everyone’s cup of tea ... But is it paranoid to theorize that in a few cases resentments are at play, scores being settled? ... Might these rare Wood novel releases occasion payback from protective critics avenging the big-game novelists Wood has hunted ... Or might some critics be envious of Wood’s talents ... Upstate displays a master unobtrusively practicing what he preaches. If Wood is guilty of anything, it is a formal conservatism ... His cherished free-indirect narrative approach allows for naturalistic flows of memory ... The prose is easy and confident ... Those seeking heart-stopping plot turns should walk away. That’s not what Wood does ... An unassuming, carefully crafted story about devotion and quiet commitment? In 2018, that is subversive.
It is not necessary that we, the reader, understand, as an analyst might seek to understand, the origin in such a character of a constitution permanently afflicted by the dread of existential nothingness. However, it is very necessary—if the book is to lift itself from the quotidian to the metaphorical—that we feel that dread; and feel it so strongly we connect anew with our own experience of the humdrum anxiety embedded in daily life. If we do not, all is summary and surface. And the latter, I am much afraid, is what prevails in Upstate.
We fathers eventually become like wildlife photographers, quiet but hyperattentive, grateful for any sighting. Upstate, a new novel by the literary critic James Wood, brought this into focus for me as never before. It’s a slim book with a tiny cast doing little in a remote place, but it captures the anxious plight of a loving father with exquisite delicacy. Indeed, Upstate feels like a finely cut rebuttal to the hysterical realism of those sprawling social novels that Wood has famously criticized. But its affections are large, and its wisdom deep—a wonderful exception amid the voluminous literature of bad fathers ... Wood is a master of introspective domesticity. If his palette looks small, his attention to the subtle hues of human emotion is revelatory. He’s attuned to every fluctuation in the room’s frequencies, the frayed wires of sibling rivalry, the cloying taste of parental concern ... Watching can make all the difference on this darkling plain, as Wood’s thoughtful novel shows.
This isn’t a particularly ambitious novel. Wood doesn’t attempt to redeem British fiction ... As a British novelist living in the US he chooses to focus on transatlantic differences, but it’s hard to address these without resort[ing] to cliche ... Nonetheless, Wood does succeed in both achieving verisimilitude and revealing its artifice. Though all the characters verge on caricature, they are convincingly alive in a way that those in his previous novel were not ... it’s also through them that he enables the why question to take on life – and therefore to matter. He creates a world where we can’t know whose point of view to accept, and therefore can’t know whether to dismiss Vanessa’s fear that 'everything that is most dear to you will eventually be taken from you' as hysterical anxiety or to accept it as wisdom.
Upstate is resolutely a novel of character, and the intelligence that animates it is recognizably Wood’s ... its dramatic moments are dealt in little nudges, never jolts. The novel can seem quiet and a game of low stakes in part because, in their evasive English way, the characters aren’t quite facing the fact that one of them may be on the verge of collapse and that for each of them things could soon fall apart ... Family reconfiguration is Upstate’s overt theme, and that is treated with great subtlety and comic grace ... If James Wood the novelist will ever outstrip Wood the critic, Upstate is a promising new start, but just a start.
Upstate, at times, suffers from a superfluity of noticing, from an abundance of detail that leaves the reader unsure what to notice. Like the drifts of snow outside Vanessa’s house, the observations pile up, cumulatively smoothing over the contours of the characters’ interior lives and leaving them strangely featureless. If this is the novel’s weakness, it is also its strength. Upstate is a meditation on happiness, but it offers no neat conclusions or satisfying resolutions. Wood resists any temptation to tie up loose ends, in this respect remaining stubbornly true to life. Things remain infuriatingly and realistically unsaid.
Having never really fancied him much as a reviewer – I dislike the pomposity, and (call me old-fashioned) I’ve learned not to trust his taste – I don’t really have it in me to go on about the impossibly high standards to which he holds other novelists, and his unerring failure to live up to them himself ... But still, what a strange and disappointing novel this is, its nuts and bolts so much in evidence there are times when what it resembles most is a diagram: a scheme, all long arrows and stark oppositions, to be marked out on some college whiteboard ... Fiction should cast a spell, not send you to Google, searching for the names of homeware stores in Morpeth and the Metro centre.
... mov[es] nimbly between the three main characters’ subtly but scrupulously differentiated points of view while never quite relinquishing a modicum of authorial oversight—that is, irony ... Like Stephen Foster’s classic parlor song Hard Times Come Again No More, a favorite of Alan’s, Upstate has 'the wisdom of its mixtures; the fortifying power of dappled things' ... Or it does in part. For all the novel’s roving sympathies, it is Alan’s perspective that dominates ... The problem lies precisely in Wood cleaving so closely to Alan’s point of view ... The novel is full of such tame TripAdvisorish noticings, secondhand quips, and mini-essays on screen addiction, supersize portions, American cheese. Clearly, this is a deliberate flattening ... the mundanity of Alan’s observations is so faithfully preserved that it can’t help but dampen the narration ... Wood might loosen up a little ... The dialogue also suffers from an occasional stiffness and overdetermination ... it’s on the structural level, in the shifting geometries of familial love and loyalty, and Alan’s faltering movement, as the snow thaws, from blithe detachment to understanding, that Upstate comes into its own, and nearest to life.
What distinguished Wood from most of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors was his focus on matters of aesthetic liberty over social justice, and the suggestion that there was a choice to be made between them ... There is something uncomfortable in Wood’s pieces these days, as if he knows he must somehow account for the political turn of novels, but is unsure how to integrate these concerns into his deep aesthetic commitments ... Upstate is a family drama, modest in scope and written, you sense, fully cognizant of the scrutiny that will attend every move made in it.
Say this for Wood: He practices what he preaches. His latest novel, Upstate, is anything but hysterical and gaudy; it's a book that's quiet to a fault. It's a book that doesn't try to do too much; indeed, it doesn't really try to do anything at all. That's not to say it's bad — it's mannered and inoffensive and occasionally pretty ... To be clear, Wood is a fine writer, and there are more than a few admirable passages in Upstate ... But the novel is bogged down with navel-gazing and some weird narrative choices ... It's frustrating, because it's obvious Wood has more tools than the ones he displays in Upstate. His criticism, at its best, is passionate and dynamic; he's a powerful writer who excels at making a case. But none of that passion is on display in this novel — it's the literary equivalent of a soft rock ballad, occasionally pleasant but stubbornly averse to risk-taking.
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.
An understated novel by the eminent literary critic in which a father confronts problems in the lives of his adult daughters during a trip to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York ... A likable novel in many ways but short on the revelatory heft of serious fiction.