Monday 16 September 2019

Wolfe: a master at facing the completely obvious

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

When I heard last week that Tom Wolfe had died, I re-read his introduction to an edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities, which I acquired when it was already a massive bestseller and regarded by most intelligent people as a very good book.

It wouldn't have been the first time that I re-read this introduction, entitled 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' - because apart from its general excellence in explaining why he had written a novel about New York City, the more that I re-read it, the more I found myself agreeing with every line of it, every time.

When I say that I agreed with it, I don't mean that I had already formed these views, and Wolfe was just confirming how right I had been. It's more that he had formed the views, and had formed them so perfectly that the reader simply had to accept them.

Which is a pretty fair definition of great writing: this quality whereby a piece is great not just in a technical or an aesthetic sense, but because it makes the reader feel that all this was completely obvious, it just needed to be written down - though of course it wasn't so obvious, that anyone had managed to write it down before Wolfe or some similarly gifted individual actually did it.

Moreover, 'Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast' wasn't just identifying some of these completely obvious truths when I read it in 1988, and when I re-read it at various times after that. It was still completely obviously true when I re-read it last week. By which I mean it was not just a true reflection of things as they were in 1988 - though, of course, it was still that - it was also saying things about journalism and literature and about the state of the world that sound tremendously true in 2018.

And to add the final flourish, Wolfe even predicted that this would happen, quoting Castro's line that "history will absolve me". Though now that I look at it again, he was referring there to something he had written 15 years before that in The New Journalism. Which means that he was putting forward ideas in 1973 that would sound quite smart if they'd been written last Tuesday.

You may have noticed, for example, that almost all of the excellent writing about the age of Trump is being done by journalists, or at least by people writing in a broadly journalistic form in what used to be known as newspapers and magazines.

If you're wondering why many of the most celebrated novelists or playwrights seem to be uninvolved in this rolling catastrophe, well, Tom Wolfe was wondering the same thing a long time ago, when he was trying to write his big book about New York in the 1980s, convinced all the time that surely the "real" writers, the leading novelists of America, would get there before him.

Except they never did.

Looking back, what Wolfe was looking for seems quite reasonable, even terribly simple as these profound insights usually are - he wanted journalism to read more like fiction, and fiction to read more like journalism. He wanted them both to be a bit better, essentially, by feeling free to use one another without shame or prejudice. He wanted to read articles that were as well-written and as entertaining as the best novels, and he wanted novelists to pay attention to what was happening in the world, to just know more than they seemed to do about life.

How hard is that?

Too hard, apparently, with Wolfe lamenting the fact that "writers in the university creative writing programmes had long, phenomenological discussions in which they decided that the act of writing words on a page was the real thing, and the so-called real world of America was the fiction, requiring the suspension of disbelief. The so-called real world became a favourite phrase".

That so-called real world contained the billion-footed beast that so enthralled Wolfe, the enormous madhouse that was New York in the 1980s, which for all its titanic energies did not attract the maestros of American fiction, who tended to view it all from a distance, who decided it was just absurd. They had gone beyond all that, to the extent that they almost pitied those writers such as Wolfe or Faulkner and Hemingway before him "who actually thought you could take real life and spread it across the pages of a book", who "never comprehended the fact that the novel is a sublime literary game".

Ah, he was enjoying this, was Wolfe, enjoying how right he was, and perhaps even starting to realise how right he would still be, 30 years later. Enjoying too that with The Bonfire of the Vanities he had succeeded so spectacularly in proving his point, in demonstrating that he could bring all his talents as a reporter to the "sublime literary game", to write a novel that was both brilliant and popular, a book that really mattered.

"Of one thing I am sure," he wrote, "if fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the 20th Century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain but also seized the high ground of literature itself... in at least four years out of five the best non-fiction books have been better literature than the most highly praised books of fiction."

Likewise, the literary history of the first quarter of the 21st Century will record that the most meaningful opposition to the monstrosities of Trump, outside of certain branches of the law enforcement agencies, has come from journalism in its various forms, the best of which is feared by Trump to the extent that he yearns to destroy it - he seems to have no such fears of what may emanate from the universities in which much of America's literary fiction is being honed: the novels which, in the words of Will Self, have become "a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony".

That said, some of the strongest support for Trump is also coming from what might loosely be called journalism, one of the lower forms of which was recently shown up at that White House Correspondents' Dinner - ah, how those "correspondents" love to be on the inside of the ropes.

Wolfe was neither an insider nor an outsider, he sort-of hung around in his white suits and spats, which he wore partly because he found that if people think you're eccentric - even something of an eejit, as we would call it - they tend to tell you things that they mightn't tell a normal person.

Then it was a matter of "facing the obvious". Anyone even thinking of engaging in this occupation, or just thinking in general, must read The Kandy-Koloured Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and The Painted Word and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff.

You might think that these books are about a time long gone, but you'll probably find that even now, there's hardly a false note in them. That here was a giant of the game.

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