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.