Six wintry days in Saratoga Springs: Upstate by James Wood reviewed

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

14 April 2018

9:00 AM

Alan Querry, the central figure in James Wood’s second novel, is someone who, in his own words, doesn’t ‘think about life too much’. His peculiar surname may recall the brooding, godforsaken Querry of Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, but this Querry — who lives in ‘the poshest part of Northumberland’ — isn’t much troubled by God’s presence or absence: ‘he had a notion that “the question of God” might all have been more or less sorted out in his lifetime, like Cyprus or polio.’

Called upon to visit his daughter Vanessa in upstate New York, Alan stops along the way to meet his younger daughter, Helen, and they make the journey together to snowy Saratoga Springs. Alan sees this as an opportunity for bonding. Since his divorce from their mother and her untimely death, the family has struggled to connect in a meaningful way.

The real motive for the visit, however, is to check up on Vanessa’s mental health. According to an email sent to Alan from Vanessa’s boyfriend she is ‘in danger of doing harm to herself’ after tumbling down some stairs and injuring her arm, perhaps intentionally. Vanessa, who teaches philosophy at a liberal arts college, has a history of gloom. In childhood she wrote poems ‘full of despair and lament’, and as a student at Oxford she went through a phase of giving away her possessions. Helen, by contrast, seems to have a knack for happiness. This is what drives Alan to distraction: ‘Why did Helen find happiness easy, when her sister found it hard?’

Readers of Wood’s criticism will be aware that he knows his way around an English sentence, but in fiction his prose, while fluent, is not always convincing. The close third-person narration, which stays mostly with Alan, is a jumble of his colloquial language — ‘the tall black bloke who looked like a policeman’ – and Wood’s own New Yorker-tinged descriptions — a pickup truck on a winter lawn is ‘like one of those brutal modern poems self-consciously surrounded by a lot of white page’. What’s more, Wood is sometimes side-tracked by his own editorialising, for example when he has Alan parroting Wood’s own published observations on the differences between American and British manners, or when he has Vanessa’s tech journalist boyfriend quoting from William Gass’s highly regarded but little read novel, The Tunnel (Wood has used the very same Gass quote in his non-fiction).

Wood is still most comfortable writing in or about the academy, where people politely toil among books and ideas. The best and most moving passage in the novel comes late, when Alan surreptitiously attends a lecture given by Vanessa. She spots him before she starts and, to his surprise, smiles ‘with transparent happiness and confidence’. She proceeds to give a polished, self-deprecating talk — perfectly pitched by Wood — which Alan takes in with a mixture of delight and boredom: ‘Lulled, weary, proud… he got sleepy and had to use his old driving trick — sharply nipping his right earlobe with his nails — to stay alert.’

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