Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tom Wolfe wrestles big ideas with an erratic syntax

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I doubt that there's been a writer my age who hasn't been influenced by the hyperventilated prose of Tom Wolfe. He was a must read in the Sixties through the Eighties, journalist, critic, wise guy who got the Zeitgeist. His high octane paragraphs were masterpieces of overstatement, a mockery of nonsense and balderdash, a fun read combined with some potent talking points to whatever conventional wisdom happened to be in circulation at the moment. The problem, of course, is that as one gets older, youthful exuberance and stylistic license turn into mannerisms if one continues to use them into their senior years.

Wolfe,84, has continued his manner of composition, ratcheted up his disgust with cultural habits of the moment and has become, in fact, a cranky old cuss who is no longer the refreshing breath of fresh air blowing into a room full of overheated bloviating.  Wolfe's tirades have become the overheated blather he lampooned. I've not yet read his new book "The Kingdom of Speech", wherein he takes on Darwin and his theories on Evolution and the work and ideas of  Noam Chomsky. I will read it, to be sure, as there is not a Wolfe book that does reward with a solid phase, a brilliant metaphor, even a pertinent question that needed to be asked in the arena of ideas. But when Wolfe, who has a doctorate in American Studies from Yale, decides to get theoretical and trades realm of ideas rather than be the mere journalist or novelist, his reasoning gets skewed, confused, and seems little else than perpetual wallow in sarcasm and an unnamed source of bitterness. The open sequence is distressing for reasons that make you think less of James Joyce, who seems an obvious model, than it does of a man who lost his glasses, rummaging through drawers and desktops, making a mess until he finds the crucial lenses.  So that you know, Wolfe is attempting to broach the subject of Rice University. A sample of the slew:
 I surfed and Safaried and finally moused upon the only academic I could find who disagreed with the eight failures, a chemist at Rice University … Rice … Rice used to have a big-time football team … the Rice Owls … wonder how they’re doing now? I moused around on the Rice site some more, and uh-oh … not so great last season, the Owls … football … and I surfed to football concussions … exactly as I thought!” 
Some will find genius, as Wolfe diehards customarily do, but these are variations of a theme being played on an untuned piano. Wolfe is given to rants in these slim volumes he's produced over the decades, single essays on subjects like contemporary art (The Painted Word) and modern architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House) where he could handily lampoon the pretentiousness and walled off cosmologies of disciplines that confound and irritate the Little Guy. Unfair but effective, he entertained and forced readers to consider the babble and cant of vested interest they may have purchased the whole hog, critically uninspected. Lately, though, he seems less a bomb thrower than an old grouch hard-wired to complain, with or without a point or a quotable phrase. Figuratively speaking, of course, Digression is my middle name with regards to stylish prose concentrating on little more than what interests the author at the moment, but this seems more a stumble or a stall. All told, I will read this book and pray that there is a bit of lucidity lurking under the encrusted sarcasm that has become Wolfe's worldview.

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