Detail: Applying a James Wood Lens to Deborah Eisenberg’s “Like It or Not”
By Christopher Hathaway •
In reading James Wood’s literary criticism, specifically the essays “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” “Serious Noticing,” and “Anna Karenina and Characterisation” from his latest collection, Serious Noticing, one comes to understand how detail functions in a well-written literary story. Specifically, detail provides a sense of verisimilitude for a constructed world and its inhabitants, and helps to illuminate the way in which a character’s interaction with their environment leads to story. Whether it’s a good story or not depends on myriad elements, but literary writers make use of detail to ground the work and give it authority. To examine this theory in greater depth, let’s apply key takeaways from James Wood’s literary criticism to Deborah Eisenberg’s short story, “Like It or Not.”
As Wood writes in “Anna Karenina and Characterisation,” the most effective details are “vividly and exactly true…almost always propelled by function, by life-movement—by work.” Detail encourages the reader to engage with a story on its own terms, learning how to navigate the prepared world in which its inhabitants act and react. In “Like It or Not,” the protagonist, Kate, is “sitting on the sofa, shoes off,” when she learns of her ex-husband’s illness and registers the date because it is written “on the quizzes she is grading.” These details allow us to see Kate in her natural state—shoes off, grading papers. When her university friend, Giovanna, invites Kate to stay abroad with her, Eisenberg reinforces Kate’s characterization by informing us that Kate “had been sent [to the university] for its patrician reputation and its august location,” while Giovanna “had been exiled [from Europe to the university] for its puritanical reputation and backwater location.” These contrasting descriptions illuminate the difference in Kate’s and Giovanna’s values and behaviors, information necessary for the reader to appreciate how uncomfortable Kate must be when thrust into Giovanna’s unfamiliar (and relatively sordid) world.
When Kate first arrives abroad, she walks “dutifully” around the city, looking at “churches, paintings, and fountains.” This detail reinforces Kate’s character as (at least in the context of this story) predictably boring, but it also lays the foundation for her ostensible compatibility with Giovanna’s friend, Harry, who at Giovanna’s suggestion agrees to take Kate with him on an excursion to the coast. On the trip out, while Harry expounds upon every “stone, arch, column pediment, square inch of painting in the vicinity,” Kate dreams about his exotic lifestyle, sourcing rare art for collectors and fancy hotels. But after hinting at Kate’s interest in Harry, Eisenberg undermines it by having her acknowledge that she is “a grunting barbarian” in comparison to him. We are reminded of her sense of insecurity and dislocation moments before their car nearly collides with a tour bus, which “braked shudderingly on the precipitous incline.” Since Eisenberg has already established Kate as something of a tourist in this world—her peers, at least from an economic standpoint, likely fill that bus—it is appropriate that she notice her proximity to the edge of a precipice.
This type of external noticing, according to Wood in “Serious Noticing,” is “simultaneously internal noticing,” which tells us about the character, and the prospect and trajectory of their impending change. After a lovely outing with Harry, Kate settles into her hotel room and describes how “[w]ater gleams fleeted in, rocking the room gently; the high ceiling curved above her, and the stone floors floated underfoot.” The ethereal quality of this description reflects how Kate is swept up in the moment, ready to have a transformative experience if it comes to find her. Eisenberg furthers this feeling when Kate unveils the dress she intends to wear that night, the cost of which made her “cover her face in embarrassment” when she bought it, but which she decides not to return after seeing it “swathed in its tissue paper.” The description allows us to see the black dress as she sees it, as a means of transcendence, while also informing us of her essence; she is a rational and responsible individual who appreciates beauty and has a latent desire for this life of luxury and leisure. The dress makes her (and us) feel as though she is capable of anything, and as she puts it on, she admits, “It [is] now or never.” Both Kate and the reader exit her hotel room with certain expectations for the evening ahead.
In “Serious Noticing,” Wood reminds us that “[d]etail is always someone’s detail,” and while the author can get “us to look harder than we usually do,” it is essential for a character to make “the story her own by seeing her details, using her words and similes.” As she dresses for dinner, Kate quietly hopes that she and Harry will share a romantic evening together, only to arrive at the bar to find him in the company of the Reitz family, friends of his from Paris. As with the water gleams playing on the walls of Kate’s hotel room, the description of Mrs. Reitz’s perfume, which “continue[s] to loiter thuggishly around Kate” in the bar, is filtered through Kate’s consciousness. While the word thuggish would be over-the-top from an objective narrator, it is appropriate to Kate as she describes this woman with whom she is in ostensible competition. To calm her nerves, Kate overindulges in alcohol (as can be expected in this fish-out-of-water scenario), and wanders along the aforementioned precipice in her impaired judgment. At dinner, her confidence restored after Harry dismisses the Reitz family, Kate questions whether Harry is, “in fact, interested,” before she notices “his hand resting on the table, three, maybe four inches from hers.” The precision of this detail—motivated by “life-movement”—heightens tension as it reminds us how close Kate is to making an uncharacteristic and regrettable decision, one that Harry unwittingly prevents through his infatuation with the Reitzes’ daughter. Notably, in the morning, once the competition ends and Kate returns to her pragmatic self, Mrs. Reitz’s skin is described as being “dry and fragile.” We understand in this unflattering description that Kate no longer feels threatened, having disengaged from this foreign world and its contemptible inhabitants.
Of all the craft elements at a writer’s disposal, detail more than any other enables the author to establish a world in which authentic characters roam, to set the stage for expansive storytelling. It gives readers something to latch on to in the absence of a neatly packaged ending. In speaking about Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” Wood suggests in “Serious Noticing” that stories are “disappointing because they must end, and disappointing because they cannot really end.” In the latter section of “Like It or Not,” Eisenberg puts Kate to bed in order to switch point of view and recount Harry’s evening with the Reitzes’ daughter. The anticipation, consummation, and inevitable despair of this encounter (the latter is not written, thus it becomes one aspect of the story’s expansiveness), is almost the opposite of Kate’s experience, where the lack of any consummation facilitates a recovering of self. While Harry slips deeper into his ungratifying, vapid existence, Kate returns home with a greater sense of awareness, and perhaps a bit more confidence in knowing that she has traveled through the gauntlet of privilege and carnality and emerged stronger for it.
CHRISTOPHER HATHAWAY is an MFA candidate in The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He currently lives in Southern California.