Monday, 26 July 2010

Unpleasant characters

A bit of an ostensible modern classic this time, The Bonfire of the Vanities by the American journalist Tom Wolfe.

Sherman McCoy is a Master of the Universe, a Wall Street trader with the world at his feet. He has a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter, a Park Avenue town house and a sexy southern mistress, Maria. However, lost one night in the Bronx with the latter, he also has an traffic accident that leaves a young black man in a coma. Persuaded by Maria and his own self-confidence, Sherman decides not to report the accident, reframing it in his mind as a botched car-jacking. But he has set in motion a chain of events that will threaten his reign, and in which his high-flying status becomes more of a liability than an advantage. This change in fortune is driven by a scheming minister eager for a crusade, a drunken English journalist desperate for a story, and an envious assistant District Attorney keen for a dash of fame with which to impress an attractive juror.

As I've noted above, this book seems generally viewed as something of a giant in modern American literature, at least in the comedic farce sub-genre section. A giant painfully shackled, in the public consciousness at any rate, to a terrible film version (which I've not seen; though the casting seems bizarrely at odds with the novel). Nonetheless, it comes with quite a bit of pomp and ceremony (= baggage).

There are definitely things to like, or at least admire, about it. The writing is good, and Wolfe does a great job sketching out the worlds and perspectives of the various leading characters. One very well-executed running gag is how Maria's southern drawl is translated to the page, and interpreted by different characters. And the novel definitely catches something of its time and place, with McCoy standing in for the triumphalism of 1980s western capitalism. It even has some amusing contemporary relevance, as when McCoy tries, and fails, to explain the mechanisms of his high-faluting financial work to his daughter, with echoes of derivatives.

But it's also an over-long book that, after slowly and carefully advancing its plot to crescendo, wraps up all of the fallout in a five page coda framed as a newspaper story. After wading through 715 pages, this was something of a let-down, and it smacks of a novelist eager to wrap things up and make way for a new project. Admittedly, I'm not terribly patient with long books, but so long as a novel is structurally balanced and its pay-off is handled well (cf. The Poisonwood Bible), I can be extremely tolerant. Here, I didn't find the sudden end, and the seemingly tacked-on coda, to entirely satisfy.

A related hindrance is the novel's population by unpleasant characters, at least those from whose perspective its told. This would work really well in a shorter book, but played out over 700+ pages it just ramped up my antagonism towards the novel. It's the unremittingly dismal view it paints of, well, everyone that's a little wearing. Now, I can see why Wolfe is doing this, and it's a great exercise in writing for him, but I found my patience stretched as the novel wore on. It's perhaps telling, on this point, that the novel originally appeared as serialised instalments in Rolling Stone. I can see that periodic dipping into it might work better than the long bath that the novel provides.

Wolfe uses the egotism of the characters who surround and seek a piece of McCoy to portray a society debased at every level, and in every institution. This makes for an enjoyable satirical read, but Wolfe presses it to make McCoy gradually emerge almost as a flawed hero, albeit in a comedic tragedy of his own making. For me, this pushed the satire too far, since McCoy, leaving aside his occasional flashes of insight and late-onset-morality, is not a heroic character. By painting everyone as corruptly chasing personal gain rather than, say, examining institutional failings that conspire against doing the right thing, Wolfe's portrayal of New York seems steeped in a reactionary cynicism that's not easy to share.

Putting the boot in just a little more ... for a novel that appears to be aiming to draw in the whole of New York, it is singularly remiss in its treatment of female and black characters. Women appear more or less as ornaments, and the novel never seriously presents their perspective. That said, at least they occur in the same world as the central characters, even if only as objects, which is more than can be said for non-white characters. At first, the novel's near-complete marginalisation of black characters could be read as part of the satire (i.e. a reflection of the worldviews of the novel's cast), but after 700 pages Wolfe's steadfast segregation seems to suggest that the antipathy or disinterest shown by the novel's characters may also extend to its author. I'm sure that's not the case, but the novel doesn't exactly help Wolfe on this point.

Anyway, all that said, I'd return to my first remarks about the novel definitely having aspects to recommend it. It is largely enjoyable but, equally, it's weighed down by other aspects, not least of which are its length and the way it fritters away any remaining good will from the reader at the end [*]. Which is a shame really, since Wolfe, in small doses (and judging solely from this novel), is a great observer, commentator and humourist.

[*] I also can't let the author's introduction to the novel pass by without comment. Being at the front of the book, it's what I read first, and as well as being over-long (surprise, surprise), it's a rather self-congratulatory affair in which Wolfe shamelessly blows his own trumpet. He could have at least done the decent thing and gotten a crony to do this for him. Or, since it's clear he wanted to hold the reader's attention even longer, he could have put his thoughts at the end of the novel. Self-aggrandising from the get-go is just plain stupid.


Deditos said...

This is one of those book titles that I've never been able to parse, so it just ends up as a meaningless label. (Like The Inheritance of Loss, The Audacity of Hope, or even Gone With the Wind.)

I read it about five years ago after confusing the "modern classic" tag with the film version (not that I'd seen it) and thinking, maybe the book of that Tom Hanks film is okay as well.

Broadly agree with your comments. It is funny, it is long (enough that I recommended to a friend who doesn't read often that she avoid it), and it's a reasonable snap-shot of that place at that time (I imagine). The thing that really bugged me though was Wolfe's fragmented prose. All ... those ... ellipses, and switching to UPPER CASE and italics drove me nuts. He does it in other books, so it's not as if you can put down as part of Sherman's character. In my head, I kept going all Michael Winner about it. Still, it wasn't enough to put me off wanting to read some of his non-fiction, like the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Plumbago said...

The ellipses, etc., are a bit much, I agree. It's interesting to hear that he does it elsewhere too - I was thinking it was supposed to be part of his characterisation!

Anyway, it hasn't really put me off of reading his other books, but I will be calibrating my buying decisions based on page count. I think I would have forgiven all of BotV's failings if it had been shorter.

I've heard good things about Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test before, so I'll try to check that out sometime. I've still got a mountain of books from Christmas to wade through though - Fallout 3 ate a huge hole in my evening reading for about 3 months!