James Wood

Getting to the End

The Road By Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pp., $24) IN ADDITION to the 9/11 novel, and the 9/11 novel that is pretending not to be a 9/11 novel, an old genre has been re-awakened by new fears: the post-apocalyptic novel (which may well be, in fact, the 9/11 novel pretending not to be one). The possibility that familiar, habitual existence might be so disrupted within the next hundred years that crops will fail, warm places will turn into deserts, and species will become extinct—that areas of the earth may become uninhabitable—holds and horrifies the contemporary imagination.

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Jihad and the Novel

TERRORIST By John Updike Alfred A. Knopf, 310 pp. I. John Updike's new novel, which is about a Muslim teenager tempted to become a suicide bomber, is surely a harbinger: in the next few years, one of the central novelistic subjects will be religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society. Dostoevsky and Conrad will cast large, provoking shadows over the writers who approach the subject. Those two writers, along with Nietzsche, were the great analysts of the "underground," seeking out the psychological and ideological sources of resentment and impotence.

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MSM S&M

Was Stephen Colbert funny? No, he was not being funny. He was being ironic, satirical, brutal. Don't you get it? These issues are just too painful for humor. Since Colbert's 20-minute routine at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner two weeks ago, the question has been asked and answered thus in the blogosphere, that underground realm of steaming resentment not exactly famous for the refinement of its irony, where the president is the "chimp," Laura is "his bitch wife," and the press is "the MSM." It is time—it is always time—for some literary criticism.

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The Misreader

Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine By Harold Bloom (Riverhead Books, 256 pp., $24.95) I.   There are certain writers, such as Garry Wills and John Updike, who seem to aspire to a state of continuous publication, as if their readership were constantly reviewing them for tenure. Harold Bloom has been among their number since 1990, when he aimed The Book of J at a general readership. It is admirable to want to write criticism for someone other than one's colleagues and graduate students, and Bloom's intelligence, erudition, and charm have made him America's best-known man of letters.

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The Moral Baby

Wodehouse: A Life By Robert McCrum (W.W. Norton, 530 pp., $27.95) I.Deliberately unserious writers are very rare in literature; even most children's books are dark with agenda. Sheer play is much rarer than great seriousness, for nonsense demands from most of us an unlearning of adult lessons, a return to childhood--which anyway, being a return, lacks childhood's innocent originality. P.G. Wodehouse, who was always described by those who knew him best as an arrested schoolboy, must be the gentlest, most playful comedian in the English novel.

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Textual Harassment

After Theory By Terry Eagleton (Basic Books, 231 pp., $25)   I. When I attended Cambridge in the mid-1980s, "theory" was sickly ripe. What looked like its fiercest flush of life, the red of its triumph, was in fact the unnatural coloring of fever. Paul de Man had just died, Harold Bloom was preparing his second career as a weak misreader of Clifton Fadiman, Roland Barthes was gone, the Yale gang of deconstructionists was breaking up, and much postmodern silliness among the signifiers was just around the corner.

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Spaldeen Dreams

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem(Doubleday, 511 pp., $26) I.  Jonathan Lethem’s new novel is a bohemian rhapsody about an unwilling bohemian—a delicate little white pioneer named Dylan Ebdus, whose right- thinking parents decide, in the early 1970s, that a ragged street in swinish Brooklyn is the place before which to cast their only jewel.

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The Trick of Truth

Atonement By Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 400 pp., $26) Ian McEwan is one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive—where storytelling means kinesis, momentum, prowl, suspense, charge. His paragraphs are mined with menace. He is a master of the undetonated bomb and the slow-acting detail: the fizzing fact that slowly dissolves throughout a novel and perturbs everything in its wake, the apparently buried secret that will not stay dead and must have its vampiric midnight.

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Damage

Half a Life By V.S. Naipaul (Alfred A.

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Abhorring a Vacuum

I. If anyone still had a longing for the great American "social novel," the events of September 11 may have corrected it, merely through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the "culture" can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts—in sum, the contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form—are the novel's chosen sport, then the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own streaking material. The novel may well be, as Stendhal wrot

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