MOST OF THE ESSAYS in James Wood's new collection The Fun Stuff are examples of a certain kind of literary criticism—the Wood style is playful, rude, unaccountably subtle, and brilliant. A title essay about Keith Moon, the manic, novelty-obsessed drummer of the Who, then, seems a bit from left field. But in the combine of Wood's criticism, Moon is threshed up with the whole of literature. Wood focuses on Moon's "addiction" to fun, but everything in Wood's essays is grounded in—and ground into—the rest of his knowledge. Thus in praising Moon's style of drumming—of playing fills over and through the time a drummer is meant to keep—Wood borrows a word from poetry and calls him "the drummer of enjambment," for the way Moon seemingly ignores the boundaries of musical measures.
In the same essay, Wood disparages Supertramp and the Eagles, implying that "elves are apparently squeezing the singers' testicles." It's this willingness to be funny, base, and downright rude that makes Wood an appealing postmodern critic. The same critic who can write incisive literary portraiture about literary portraitist Edmund Wilson, or an unexpectedly necessary defense of Tolstoy against Tolstoy's supporters, or a stunned close reading of László Krasznahorkai's insane prose, always delivering history and criticism within the same honest package, can write a cruel parody of Paul Auster, nearly a page long, as the introduction to an essay unironically titled "Paul Auster's Shallowness." (He has the righteous audacity to refer to this parody as "unfair, but diligently so.")
Wood is funny when he hates something (Auster's "accidents attack the narrative like automobiles falling from the sky") and honest when he loves it (frequently praise is handed out in the first person "I admire..."), but he is a careful and showy stylist always. His description of Richard Yates' lifestyle is too clever to be poignant: "Around the compulsion of writing he shaped everything else. There were two other compulsions, smoking and drinking, but they only killed him, while writing plainly kept him alive."
The collection is caught between two cornerstone personal essays, conveniently placed at the beginning and end. "The Fun Stuff" is one, and "Packing up My Father-in-Law's Library" is the other. If Wood is the Keith Moon of literary criticism, obsessively playful, addicted to fun, then he is also his father-in-law, a collector of books, devourer of knowledge, and uncomfortably proud of the anonymous ruins ("broken columns") of the read and unread books in his library. At the end of that essay, after Wood has sworn off collecting books, a page of handwritten notes falls from one of his father-in-law's books. Wood offers no commentary on it, but it is a reminder that ruins are also rubbish, byproducts of life—and among those broken columns are played games of brilliant, silly fun.