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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book Against God

James Wood

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book Against God

Title: The Book Against God
Author: James Wood
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 247 pages
Availability: The Book Against God - US
The Book Against God - UK
The Book Against God - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : decent novel around an unappealing protagonist

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B+ 10/4/2003 .
The Guardian A- 12/4/2003 Galen Strawson
Harper's Magazine . 7/2003 Wyatt Mason
Independent on Sunday B+ 11/4/2004 Murrough O'Brien
The LA Times . 8/6/2003 Jeffrey Meyers
The New Criterion . 6/2003 David Propson
New Statesman . 31/3/2003 William Skidelsky
The NY Observer . 2/6/2003 Adam Begley
The NY Rev. of Books . 17/7/2003 Jennifer Schuessler
The NY Times . 2/7/2003 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/7/2003 Daniel Mendelsohn
The New Yorker . 16/6/2003 .
The Observer . 6/4/2003 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle . 15/6/2003 Allen Barra
Sunday Telegraph . 13/4/2003 Caroline Moore
Sunday Telegraph . 27/4/2003 Lewis Jones
The Times . 9/4/2003 Ian Brunskill
TLS . 11/4/2003 Michael A. Bernstein
VLS . 5/2003 Heidi Julavits
The Washington Post . 15/6/2003 Alice K. Turner

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but most find it a solid accomplishment

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Wood has created an unsettling narrator about whom he himself seems undecided. (...) How good is it really ? The answer is that it is good enough. It is not a masterpiece, but rather a work of skilful craftsmanship, which teasingly engages and disengages one's sympathies but leaves the reader with curiously mixed feelings." - The Economist

  • "The Book Against God is striking for being so entirely ungrand and unassuming. It has an absolute, English smallness of frame. There is no push to impress, in spite of a couple of odd porphyrial passages and, among the fine images, some that are too strenuous. The book is humble, in whatever sense humbleness (understandable in one who has lived so long in the great halls of literature) is a virtue. It is rich, and clever, but quietly." - Galen Strawson, The Guardian

  • "Wood is quietly implicating his narrator in blindness to his own vulgarity. Bunting's language is made to be as inadequate as his arguments. (...) (T)his is not a novel that wants to be loved, and a reader who supposes Bunting's failings to be the authors would not be taking the book on its own demanding interior terms." - Wyatt Mason, Harper's Magazine

  • "After a stark and brilliant first sentence, this book takes an awfully long time to become anything. (...) But the ending redeems much. The tragedy of a soul too gentle for malice but too timid for virtue, always longing for a heaven it never knew, is evoked with utter conviction." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday

  • "No reader is likely to confuse Thomas Bunting with James Wood for the simple reason that he is nowhere near as intelligent; Wood has made him in his image, but withheld the spark." - David Propson, The New Criterion

  • "As a critic, Wood's accomplishment lies in his sense of aesthetic certainty, his conviction that there is a right way for novelists to proceed. As a novelist, the evidence is that he lacks this confidence. The Book Against God is an interesting and entertaining debut, but in contrast with the superb fluency of his criticism it is timid and awkward." - William Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "I found Thomas witty and perceptive and entertaining enough to keep me reading perfectly happily for the 250 pages it takes to summarize his predicament and identify its proximate causes -- but most readers are partial to plot; they like, at least, to encounter a succession of dramatic incidents. In Mr. Wood’s novel, as you might have guessed from the title, theological argument substitutes for action." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "As the BAG overwhelms Tom's life, his God-talk overwhelms the bok's initial charm and comic delicacy and the sense of free play between the characters. The novel becomes intellectually muscle-bound." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Review of Books

  • "It is neither DeLillo nor Dickens, but a silky work, part satire and part picaresque and, underneath, a novel of ideas. It is his own seven-veils entertainment (decidedly entertaining despite a plot more cerebral than dramatic), and it has holes of its own, strategically placed." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "Much of the novel follows a vaguely allegorical schema designed to force the characters and all that they ostentatiously symbolize (faith, doubt, art, etc.) into a culminating conflict. Among the many reasons you don't necessarily mind having your arm twisted in this way is the fact that, first, Wood writes like a dream, and second, the novel is often wildly funny." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(S)lyly comic" - The New Yorker

  • "If only so much of the book didn't happen in the narrator's head ! Sometimes Tom's musings overlap with Wood's, particularly in the title essay from Wood's collection The Broken Estate, apart from being less well written. The most elevated passage in each book is a refutation of the argument that free will requires the existence of pain and evil. Above all, it is hard to be engaged by a novelist so awkward with figurative language" - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "The Book Against God isn't stilted, safe or derivative; it's real flesh and blood, rather old-fashioned, considering Wood's tastes as a critic, with humor, passion and some serious flaws that strangely serve to make the novel more endearing." - Allen Barra, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is written with lovely, controlled precision. His descriptions deliver little aesthetic shock-charges of pleasure, deploying smart-metaphors, as it were, which operate very precisely on the levels at which they are aimed. There are the delights of simple recognition (...) but there are also deeper emotional depth-charges. (...) Now, you might not think that you would want to read at length about such an exasperating waster and whiner. The quality of Wood's writing, however, sustains our interest." - Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Book Against God has the virtues of a first novel -- discovering a new voice, a new world. It also has the besetting vice of the first novel -- an over-indulged hero. (...) Completely lacking in Satanic glamour, he begins as a bloke and ends as a bore. (...) James Wood has written a very clever book about a very stupid man; I'm not sure if he's been too clever, or not quite clever enough." - Lewis Jones, Sunday Telegraph

  • "But more than a novel of character, this is a novel of ideas. (These are oddly old-fashioned terms, for an oddly old-fashioned book.) The quality of those ideas fails finally to persuade." - Ian Brunskill, The Times

  • "The Book Against God, James Wood's much-awaited first novel, is so intriguing in part because of the technical resourcefulness with which it unites two hitherto distinct literary traditions: the familiar story of a young man's principled revolt against the faith in which he was raised, and the extravagant self-revelations of a tormented underground soul. (...) Moreover, The Book Against God is sufficiently dense with acute local observations and characters that, for all its obsessive intellectual wrestling with questions of faith and unbelief, it does not feel thinly academic or emotionally desiccated." - Michael A. Bernstein, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Wood is a little too polite as a fiction writer. His wounds have been wrapped in bunting, his pain has been dulled, and so has the book's emotional impact on this reader." - Heidi Julavits, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "He mixes serious questions of theology and family relationships so tactfully, cunningly even, that they go down as smoothly as the scotch Tom keeps hidden in the bottle under his bed." - Alice K. Turner, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book Against God is narrated by Thomas Bunting who, at age 31, still hasn't really grown up. The book chronicles something of a mid-life crisis: the collapse of his marriage, the death of his father, his inability to achieve absolutely anything. But Bunting never really seems to have gotten started in life.
       Theoretically Bunting is at work on his PhD ("on the influence of the Epicureans on early modern English thought"), but he got bogged down in that years earlier, and it seems highly unlikely he'll ever get anywhere with it. Instead, he has increasingly occupied himself with his 'Book against God' (his BAG, as he calls it), notebooks filled with quotations and his own arguments "about theological and philosophical matters", but even that project isn't something he can fashion into an actual, complete work.
       But it's not just terminal indolence that he suffers from. He's an inveterate liar, terrible with money (which, considering he eventually is earning none on his own, is a big problem), and an all-around unlikable guy. Why his wife, Jane, puts up with as long as she does is a mystery (well, Wood explains it simply as her being in love with him, but the idea that anyone could even like this bum -- who pretty much does his best to alienate his wife as thoroughly as possible -- is hard to believe). Oh, yes, and Bunting is also an atheist; no doubt, that is meant to be part of his problem.
       Bunting does have this problem with God, and that hits fairly close to home, since his father long ago quit an academic career (albeit already in theology) to become a priest. Bunting's not very good with relationships in general, but his father-issues (with his father, and the big father in the sky) are central to the novel.
       In his youth, Bunting and a friend formed the Pitmatic Philosophical Society, "dedicated to the frank discussion of atheism, amorality and decadence." His friend, Max, slowly warms to religion in adulthood -- accepting, for example, the desire to pray as "a need, a hunger, not an idea" -- and thinks Bunting also isn't quite the atheist he claims to be: "Isn't God your intended reader ?" he tells him after reading a section of the BAG. Bunting isn't willing to accept that -- but then being oblivious is one of his few talents.
       Bunting shares the part of the BAG that Max read with the reader. It deals with Kierkegaard, and his idea that "against God we are always in the wrong", and no doubt this is something Bunting battles with throughout the novel. Perhaps the reason Wood presents him as such an unpleasant fellow is because he only can accept this notion is if he is in the wrong against all the people who care for him, unable to accept their (near-) unconditional love in any other way.
       The Book Against God is a small book, with little bombast. It's ambitious, but Wood doesn't force anything, not puffing up the story (or philosophy) to make it sound or appear more grave or (self-)important. It's an almost everyday tale -- scenes from a life -- and if Bunting is a loathsome buffoon, Wood does (just) avoid making him entirely a cartoon figure. The writing and presentation are solid enough, and the story does have some resonance. The theological debates are only a small part of the novel and don't overwhelm it, the characters are decently drawn (if almost all too understanding and forgiving of Bunting).
       The book doesn't fail, but it does fall short, and that's largely the fault of its unsympathetic narrator. He's not very smart, he's very unkind, and his self-analysis (and -mockery) doesn't go anywhere near far enough to excuse his failings.
       The Book Against God isn't a bad book, but there's no good reason to go out of one's way to read it either.

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The Book Against God: Reviews: James Wood: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British literary critic James Wood was born in 1965.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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