The other James Wood (no 's') gives a close analysis of the free indirect style in a passage from Henry James's What Maisie Knew. He focuses on one word in one passage that shows James's true mastery; that is to say, he shows us how James steps back and allows us to see the scene through the eyes of Maisie through the use of one perfectly-modulated word: embarrassingly. [Of course, you can hear the chorus of MFA students bellowing in the background about the use of -ly adverbs.] Wood then traces the use of this technique back, interestingly, to the mock-heroic poetry of Alexander Pope. All he is really saying is: the writer needs to stand back and let the language reflect the character's own POV. The writer's style interferes with our being able to see the world through the eyes of the characters. With any given word or phrase or literary device, as a writer, ask yourself: "Is this my character speaking or am I intruding?" Call it "method writing"—after so-called method acting. The greater artistry, Wood is telling us, comes in getting the characters just right.
Now, what's fun about Wood's first chapter, called "Narrating", is his delicious take on other writers. He takes Updike to task for grievous authorial interference (or, offsides in soccer jargon) in Terrorist. He takes a first run at Nabokov, in Pnin saying: " Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it." I guess VN got lucky, huh? Wood notes how Faulkner's, Joyce's, and Shakespeare's characters all manage to sound like Faulkner, Joyce, and Shakespeare respectively.
But then, then my friends, he breaks out the stiletto: "David Foster Wallace is very good at becoming the whole of boredom." Pow! Do you get the feeling he doesn't particularly care for DFW? Wood praises Chekhov's use of what he calls the unidentified free indirect style, or the "village chorus." Then, he shows how Wallace takes that style to extremes in imitating the jargon and mangled lingo of Madison Avenue. Wallace's predecessors, he notes, include Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Pynchon, and DeLillo who let the "debased" language of the contemporary American idiom debase their own language. His point is a good one. There really is a balancing act, let's call it 'artistry', involved. But, then, Wood really drives the point through the heart of DFW. And twists.
In concluding this section, Wood gets it just right, I think:
So the novelist is always working with at least three languages. There is the author's own language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; there is the character's presumed language, style, perceptual equipment, and so on; and there is what we could call the language of the world—the language which fiction inherits before it gets to turn it into novelistic style, the language of daily speech, of newspapers, of offices, of advertising, of the blogosphere and text messaging.
In essence, the novelist is a bit of a juggler. The balancing act is to keep these three balls (if you will) of language in the air simultaneously. Writers often talk about getting the words just right. Wood provides the matrix, or context, in which we can locate this rightness.