Friday, July 31, 2020


I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom WolfeTom Wolfe had his strengths as journalist and social critic , and did write a few brilliant books of flashy and exciting prose revealing the vanities and conceits of his countryman, particularly the wealthy, the smart, virtually anyone who thought they could outsmart the Game. The Right Suff, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang, Radical Chic--without going into specifics as to why these non fiction accounts of the times and activities of Americans during the various periods display genius, I will merely stipulate that they splendid, dynamic, caustic, witty, flashy in ways that bring you back and force you to remember the underlying thesis/critic Wolfe was getting at. But that is his non-fiction. As a novelist, he was awful, ham handed, verbose, plodding in ways, I think, since Dreiser. His novels have their fans who make good defenses of the material, but for me the apologies amount to better writing than the volumes they praise. I Am Charlotte Simmons is only the latest in Tom Wolfe's failing attempts to assert his relevance in American literature as a novelist. It's a lost cause, really, because the very talent that made his non-fiction work, for the most part, such wonderfully acidic and last portraits of a consumer culture is the same things that make his fiction elephantine bores. Supreme inspection of ticks and toilet can elevate personality pieces to the stage of writing art, but it produces flat characters, static situations, and rather desperate stretches of over writing to compensate for undeniable inertia.Wolfe seems to want to assume the position of the late William Gaddis in being America's greatest comic social novelist, but the distinction between the two writers is crucial; Gaddis was a virtuoso with language, dialogue and character, and was more than able to make use of copious research in his fiction in ways that made his fiction's famous complexity actually worth sussing through.  The Recognitions  by William Gaddis is precisely the complex New York comic novel of art, commerce, greed and religion that Wolfe is incapable of writing. Wolfe insists that he's culturally conservative, yet isn't ready to make like John Dos Passos and tone down his writing; something in him desires to remain "edgy", or at least wants to thought of as beings so. On the one hand he produces literary manifestos denouncing academic and experimental novelists who've forsaken their calling to produce moral fiction, and on the other he produces ham-handed vulgarity under the guise of satire with Charlotte Simmons. He seems unaware that his novels are as bad as Brett Easton Ellis's, and his rationale for writing fiction the way he does is just as thin.

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