In one of my worst parenting moments, my younger daughter screamed, “Why are you always criticizing me?” and I screamed back, “Because you never do anything right!”
We laugh about it now — I do, anyway. She lives in New York City, studying acting and working as a modern dancer; waitressing pays the bills. I know enough to keep my concerns vague and my support enthusiastic. 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.
The story takes place over a few days in early 2007 when a British real estate developer named Alan Querry is just starting to smell the smoke that will eventually burst into flame and destroy the world’s economy. At the moment, though, Alan is more alarmed by a cryptic message about his 40-year-old daughter in Upstate New York. Vanessa, a philosophy professor at Skidmore College, seems to have fallen into a dangerous bout of depression. Determined to figure out what’s wrong, he and his younger daughter, Helen, go for a visit.
If there were any tragedy grinding away in Vanessa’s house, it appears to have ended before Alan and Helen arrive. Vanessa is delighted to see them. She brushes off their concern. She displays her handsome new boyfriend. Alan wants to believe in this tableau of romantic bliss, but he knows his daughter’s mental history; he’s sensitive to the spores of despair floating around her house. And so what unfolds is a week of sideways investigation calibrated not to arouse suspicion or give offense: a typical endeavor in the endless comedy of parental affection that any good father will recognize. Alan is determined to “act as that Pope, the liberal one from the 1960s, put it: see everything, correct a little.”
Vanessa’s house in the frozen little town of Saratoga Springs can feel claustrophobic, but 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.
To read “Upstate” is to realize just how much of each other we usually miss or ignore. For instance, in a rare tense conversation with Helen, Alan says, “You know you’re being hurtful and completely impossible, and above all . . . extremely unhelpful.” And then Wood adds, “He hadn’t meant to use that last word and it struck them both comically. But because they were imprisoned in their argument they were not permitted to smile, and instead lapsed into a childish, stubborn silence.” Such wry observations are the currency of this novel, and one can’t help but feel enriched by the treasure of Wood’s sweet-tempered wit.
Despite living in this country for years — he was born in England in 1965 — Wood still demonstrates an ironic attitude toward the peculiarities of the United States. “Upstate” is flecked with amusing if slightly worn comments about the country’s cheeriness, its obsession with weather and especially its outsize consumption. “He’d read somewhere,” Wood writes, “that Americans used, per capita, three times as many sheets of toilet paper a day as the global average, which told him what he needed to know. It was an enormous, religious, largely reactionary place, with no real tradition of socialism, where the car parks were larger than many European villages.”
But in “Upstate,” Wood never abandons the darker concern of Alan’s visit, and the novel’s real substance stems from its tender exploration of the mystery of temperament. “Is happiness just a trick of birth,” Vanessa wonders, “a completely accidental blessing, like having perfect pitch?” Alan isn’t sure, but he’s still afraid for his daughter. “Despair was the color blindness that afflicted those who could not see hope,” he thinks with a rising sense of helplessness. “Why did Helen find happiness easy, when her sister found it hard? The girls had always been so different. . . .What could Alan possibly do? That has always been his torment; how little he could do. He couldn’t make Van see life through his eyes.”
In 2009, Richard Powers explored happiness in a provocative novel called “Generosity,” but his approach was concerned largely with genetics and pharmaceuticals. For Wood, raised as a Christian, the battle remains essentially spiritual and philosophical. “Despair was like a sea,” Alan thinks of his daughter’s struggle. “It threshed restlessly, just out of sight, always there: the deep enemy of human flourishing, inching away at its borders.”
You don’t have to catch the allusion to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to hear the profound vibrations of that metaphor.
“To see them grow older was to realize that they would only climb higher and higher,” Alan thinks, “and that all he could do was silently watch, as they jumped.”
But watching is not nothing. Watching can make all the difference on this darkling plain, as Wood’s thoughtful novel shows.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post, where he hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By James Wood
Farrar Straus Giroux. 224 pp. $26