James Wood is a titan of literary criticism whose early collections of essays, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, sit on my bookshelves, their spines wearily striated from endless rereadings. Since 2014 he has been Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Given that another book of his is titled How Fiction Works, he’s a writer whose résumé virtually compels you to judge his creative work through the lens of his own criticism.
Upstate is his second novel, following The Book Against God (2003). It tells the story of Alan Querry, a 68-year-old property developer from Northumberland who, in early 2007, heads to snow-blanketed Saratoga Springs in upstate New York to visit one of his daughters, Vanessa, a professor of philosophy who teaches at the local university and is going through a personal crisis. Along for the ride is Alan’s younger daughter, Helen, a record company executive based in London and mother of two. They have been summoned by Josh, Vanessa’s American lover, who worries that the recent fall she took down some stairs may not have been an accident. Such interventions have been a feature of Vanessa’s life since she ‘withdrew’ as a teenager after her mother (now dead) left Alan for another man. There follow six days of car journeys, meals, minor squabbles and much complaining about the quality of American pastries.
As Wood might put it himself, how well does it work? How successfully does he master the elements of the novel that make up some of the chapter headings in How Fiction Works – narration, character, sympathy, style? And how