In a profile of James Wood in The New York Times, Dinitia Smith described him as “the most brutal, the most loathed, the most respected literary critic of his day.” Wood has become renowned in literary circles for praising novelists who create characters with depth and who dramatize, rather than merely state, ideas. These writers include Anton Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro, W. G. Sebald, and Norman Rush. More notoriously, Wood has lambasted the likes of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith for their postmodern excesses. Wood criticizes Toni Morrison for her penchant for sentimentality and John Updike for his “puffy lyricism.” Such a critic leaves himself wide open to criticism by venturing into the field of fiction himself, as Wood has with his first novel, The Book Against God.
Tom Bunting is a disappointment to his parents, a source of exasperation to his wife, Jane, and a pitiable figure to his philosophy students at University College, London. Tom is only a temporary lecturer because he has been unable to finish his Ph.D. dissertation on the influence of Epicureans on early modern English thought, despite working on it fitfully for seven years. In fact, he has, in recent months, spent little time even thinking about his dissertation, spending most of his limited energy on writing “The Book Against God,” a philosophical treatise about the vagaries of theology. Tom could save his failing marriage and redeem himself in the eyes of his parents and friends if he could only bring his dissertation to a conclusion, but he is unable to resist the lure of what he calls the BAG: “It has really become my life’s work.”
According to Jane, however, Tom’s life work is lying and avoiding responsibility. The two are intertwined because he lies to avoid responsibilities, such as meeting deadlines for obituaries of philosophers he is supposed to write for a newspaper, paying taxes on his income from the various part-time jobs (most of them demeaning) he has held over the years, responding to invitations to social engagements, and, of course, finishing his Ph.D. As one excuse, he claims that his father has died, only to be punished when his father actually dies. The Book Against God works best when the tone is comic, and Tom is at times like the antihero of a picaresque novel, resembling a toned-down version of Sebastian Dangerfield in J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955). Tom feels persecuted when he tells the truth and no one believes him: “I felt cheated. When I’m not lying I think I should almost get credit for it.” Lying is a way, he feels, of both protecting the truth and discovering it.
Following his father’s funeral, Tom is put on probation by Jane, who will take him back only if he can prove he is no longer a liar. Tom has difficulty understanding his wife’s attitude because she once considered his refusal to accept adult responsibilities to be charming. Tom also irritates Jane by not taking her career seriously. She teaches piano at the Trinity College of Music and is a concert pianist, but only with great effort can Tom even recognize the pieces she plays. (Wood himself is reputed to be an accomplished pianist.) Jane sees her husband’s refusal to embrace her world as emblematic of his essential selfishness, as is his lack of interest in having a child. Then there is his extravagant spending and inability to earn money. Tom tries to placate Jane with gifts such as jewelry, ignoring the fact that it is her money he is spending.
Ever self-justifying, Tom blames his parents’ financially strained way of living for his extravagant taste and avoidance of the ordinary and claims his bad habits did not begin to develop until he met Jane five years earlier. He blames the Ph.D. for forcing him “into an unnatural and weak position with my wife.” Tom thinks Jane inflates the significance of his lies: “God did the same in Eden. After all, Adam’s sin was actually very small, but God inflated its consequences ridiculously.” He is unusually immature for a thirty-one-year-old because his parents have never been able to see him as an adult: “If they only knew . . . of the existence of . . . my Book Against God. Then they would be sorry.”
For all his evasions of responsibility, however, Tom is able to look at himself objectively. He is even appalled by his lies:
Morality aside, lies add to the general confusion of my life, a confusion I sincerely want to reduce. Quite often, I might be happily minding my own business, and then suddenly a mental...
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