Tom 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.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Worse, I think, were his novels, where the snappy prose style vanished all told as he attempted to refashion himself as a master of the 19th Century social novel, best revealed in his first effort "Bonfire of the Vanities," a long, very long slog about how NYC corrupts the soul on all levels of society, from politicians, bankers, gangsters, civil rights activists...It was a festival of straw-men, as wearisome to read as the volume of "Atlas Shrugged" you found yourself slogging through for a book club. Wolfe was a mixed bag of results, but what he did well will remain in our canon. The best of his work, his nonfiction, in my view, will need to be read by generations to come for readers who are looking for some salient clues on what America was thinking at a critical period.
As a novelist, Wolfe aligned himself with 19th-century social novelists Balzac and Dickens, with a strong dose of the 20th-century American novelist Dreiser. His aim was to become engaged with society at all its levels and with the citizens of all its sectors, high and low. Nice ambition, I think, but his novels for me seemed more like exercises of sheer will rather than genuinely felt inspiration. When he ceased being a journalist, Wolfe became a polemicist, in essence, albeit with a Ph.D. He seems to be the case of a man of obvious gifts, occasionally used to brilliant effect, who wrote fiction so that he would have a shiny example of the very thing any thesis he developed would have us think is the preferred kind of fiction America deserved.
As an artist/critic (or critic/artist), I never got much farther than thinking that Wolfe needed to write novels so he could construct an all-encompassing proposal to cure the aesthetic missteps that were preventing artists from producing narratives that actually matter. That polemic he wrote was called "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," again chastising the current crop of writers, circa 1989, and proposing they follow the example he provides them with "Bonfire." Wolfe could certainly toot his own horn, and he could certainly switch arguments when it suited him; in 1973, he co-edited a non-fiction anthology called The New Journalism, which featured articles by Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and others, journalists and novelists who created a new kind of journalism that employed fiction-techniques.In his introduction, Wolfe declared, more or less, that the conventional novel, the novel made up entirely from the imagination, had run its course historically, and the vivid nonfiction of New Journalism would replace it altogether.
To be fair, this is not a case of Wolfe jumping onto bandwagons as much as it is him building the bandwagon itself. Never without an interesting thought, never sans a flash of real insight and snappy verbs and matchless similes, Wolfe was, in my view, a failed novelist, artistically, something that can be measured by the fact that over the last couple of decades, the discussion of the late writer's four novels has been virtually non-existent. His novels seemed like the results of arduous labor, strained, repetitive, increasingly lazy in their verbal aberrations; his inventiveness turned into indulgence and dithering.
Barry Alfonso, a writer, based in Pittsburgh, sent me a note that added a crucial context for Wolfe in American intellectual tradition. He writes:
It strikes me that Wolfe is comparable in some ways to T.S. Eliot. Both of them appropriated the razzle-dazzle split-screen jazziness of their modernist moments to ridicule and attack modernism itself. They won huge audiences that were uneasy about the changing societies they lived in and uncomfortable with their roles in it. They played with the lingering guilt sophisticated people feel about rejecting cultural traditions even as they chopped, channeled and mutated those traditions themselves. Wolfe and Eliot had their avant garde cakes and ate them too while they stuffed them up the dilated hyper-stimulated noses of the public.
A sound comparison to Eliot, Mr.Alfonso. I thought of John Dos Passos myself, a left-leaning novelist who was revolutionary in subject and experimental in the structure in his early fiction, especially in this USA Trilogy, but who later turned more conservative in his politics writing a blander fiction for most of his remaining career. Dos Passos even came to become a regular contributor to the National Review. However, I think Wolfe as a writer was undone not by politics--a smart and perceptive conservative thinker is worth a read--but by his style. It goes without saying, usually, that writers with careers that span over several decades sees a decline in their work; some escape this curse by changing styles or expanding their worldview. Mailer, Updike, DeLillo, and Didion have done this. Wolfe began, I believe, with a flashy, impressive, dazzling virtuosity and never strayed from it, and seemed caught up in the challenge about how he was going to keep up the pace, top what he'd already published, how to go further than he had before. He gave up on finessing his sentences and became lazy and diffuse. I dare say his last book, The Kingdom of Speech, was a challenge to linguistics in general, and Noam Chomsky, in particular, was incoherent through and through and factually incorrect on the history and practice of the subject matter.
Barry Alfonso adds this in a subsequent message:
I think the Dos Passos comparison is apt -- the USA Trilogy used motion picture techniques to describe the fractured realities of its era just as Wolfe adopted the lurid colors and cartoonish gestures of '60s pop culture to capture the passing scene. Something you said about style prompts the following...your co-favorite chew toy (with Bob Dylan) Jack Kerouac was once asked which was more important: style or content. Kerouac said style because it CONTAINS content. This is similar to the McLuhan slogan that the medium is the message. I think this applies to Wolfe's journalism in the '60s -- the way he wrote embodied the essence of what he wrote about. And, as a critic, he was COMPLICIT in the cultural scams and absurdities he wrote about -- in fact, he had a hand in CREATING them. I suspect Kesey and company realized this. Ultimately, Wolfe was a cultural liberal facilitator/fellow traveler -- no, he was a cultural liberal PERIOD, even if he wouldn't admit to it. You can't make fun of executions by cutting off somebody's head, as a wiseguy once opined.
Wolfe was at his best at his craft when he was a journalist, more the observer than the commentator. We realize his brilliance was how he used his verbal razzle-dazzle to characterize the accumulation of details and incidents. The scenery and he had a knack for getting the revealing quote and those statements that gave his subjects the gift of personality. And for all his novelistic exuberance, he was anchored to the facts; the story arc, whether he liked it or not, was being drawn for him, and his inventions had to be restrained and made to cohere to what actually occurred. This isn't to diminish his achievement as a craftsman--he does indeed elevate journalism to art, as he does with Electric Kool-aid and The Right Stuff, two masterpieces that survive the hard judgment of time. As a critic, though, he began as a fun read, an amusing grouser on things that confounded him, ingeniously entering into a conspiratorial alliance with his readers who likewise were suspect of the claims and posturings of modern artists, architects, and the communities of critics and taste-makers who made those careers. Possible. He too quickly, though, became a habitual and distressingly imprecise curmudgeon whose complaints had less impact on contemporary thinking about cultural matters; imprecise because one wasn't always sure what he was trying to find fault with and because his writing became alarmingly diffuse, more rhetorical bombast, sound, and fury, lots of grandiloquent throat clearing. He was making less sense as a critic, but it was obvious he was bitter. His last essay sparked any significant conversation was his piece "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," his manifesto extolling novelists to become engaged with the world around them rather than write fictions that take readers out of the world and into an author's metaphorical neurosis. Beyond that, Wolfe's fabled gifts were all but useless in gauging how insane the world was behaving.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
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.