James Wood's first book of essays, The Broken Estate, established him as the leading critic of his generation, one whose judgments "are distinguished by their originality and precision, the depth of reading that informs them, and the metaphorical ...
horical richness of their language" (Harper's). Its successor, The Irresponsible Self, confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of novels, with a special interest in the ways they make us laugh. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling dispatches, he defends what he calls "secular comedy"-human, tragicomic, forgiving, bound up with the very origins of the novel -against the narrower "religious comedy" of satire and farce, which is corrective, punitive, and theatrical. Ranging over such crucial comic writers as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Waugh, Bellow, and Naipaul, Wood offers a broad history of comedy while examining each chosen writer with his customary care and intense focus. This collection (which includes Wood's much-discussed attack on "hysterical realism") is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about modern fiction or criticism today.