Upstate by James Wood – review

The hero of James Wood’s midlife novel spends too much time with his implausibly well-organised thoughts

Alan Querry is a moderately successful property developer from Northumberland with a couple of largish problems on his plate. First, there is his company, provider of his comfortable life and payer of his elderly mother’s care home bills, which is teetering on the edge of trouble. Second, there is his daughter Vanessa, an emotionally frail philosopher at an American university who is struggling under the weight of depression.

However, as his name suggests – the extra “r” didn’t stop me from reading it as “query” – perhaps his greatest problem is his character, which seems at times to be little more than a repository for high-minded questions mostly to do with happiness and acceptance. Alan Querry thinks, and thinks, and thinks: in bed, in the car, in front of the blue screen of his laptop. How, the reader wonders, did he ever get anything built, let alone find time to meet his accountant? Suddenly you think you know why his business might be inching towards collapse.

In Upstate, the second novel by the literary critic James Wood, we follow Querry from the north-east of England to New York, where he meets his other daughter, Helen, an executive in the music industry, and thence upstate by train to Saratoga Springs, where Vanessa lives in a decrepit clapboard house with her lover, Josh, a journalist whose anxious note was the spur for this family gathering. In this town, snow lies all around, literally and metaphorically; a great thaw, we sense almost from the get-go, is what will pass for a plot in this story.

So many things cannot be discussed, or not easily: the death of Cathy, his daughters’ beloved mother; the continued existence of Querry’s new partner, Candace, a Buddhist psychotherapist of whom Helen and Vanessa do not approve; the motives of the flaky Josh in the matter of Vanessa’s heart; above all, Vanessa’s mental state, the real reason she has a plaster cast on her arm. The novel’s characters spend most of the book skirting delicately around one another. They say little, and do next to nothing; we get to know them courtesy only of their long and almost laughably well-organised internal monologues.

When it comes to Wood, the “best literary critic of his generation” according to the press release, I’m in a seemingly unusual position. 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. (In any case, I admire him for trying at all; too many critics have no book to their name for reasons that may, you suspect, have mostly to do with a certain kind of cowardice.) 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.

Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Springs... ‘snow lies all around, literally and metaphorically’. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

It isn’t that Wood can’t write. Clearly, he can. A hotel sofa has cushions so “buoyantly tight” they are reminiscent of flotation devices; businessmen cradle their mobiles like pet lemurs on their shoulders. But, of course, he wants to write better; an easy sufficiency will not do for him. And so it all begins to feel a bit effortful. Why use the words “a decreasingly facile project” to describe the tricky process, for the ageing Alan, of getting out of the bath? And what on earth does he mean when he goes on about the “mysterious, packeted groins” of male ballet dancers? (Mr Wood: their groins are only as strange, or not, as your own – unless there is something you want to tell us.)

Speaking of groins, one day Alan wakes up with an erection, which makes him very happy: “Old morning friend,” he thinks, fondly. And then (I could hardly believe my eyes): “Penis angelicus.” This might do as a future entry for the Bad Sex award, if it wasn’t for the fact that, as usual, poor old Alan proves himself wholly incapable of action. (The very next line begins with a deflating: “She returned for an early lunch.”)

Poor old Alan, indeed, who is sometimes only poor old James Wood in disguise. He spends, you see, such a weirdly large amount of time thinking about the north, and even about his own definitive northern-ness. It’s a giveaway, for in this he is surely more like his creator, a deracinated northerner (Wood grew up in Durham, but now lives near Harvard, where he is a professor), than a bloke whose lovely stone house stands, we gather, somewhere between Corbridge and Newcastle.

So far, in fact, is Alan from what he purports to be, I began to feel it almost as a physical shock when he referred to his dead father (the son of a miner, of course) as “Da”, and to his ailing mother as “Mam”; it was as if he’d started taking the piss out of himself. Would such a man really have found the solution to all his sleep problems in a firm pillow bought from Laura Ashley? The fact that I began worrying about this, or even noticed it at all, tells you everything. Fiction should cast a spell, not send you to Google, searching for the names of homeware stores in Morpeth and the Metro centre.

• Upstate by James Wood is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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