The Book Club

Uplift, Shmuplift

Dear Tim,

Your note offered far too many fruitful subjects to explore. I’ll pick up on just one, and maybe add one of my own:

On Epictetus: I’m in the Michiko Kakutani camp here. I thought the whole subplot of Stoic Evangelism (which eventually becomes the entire plot) was a lot of hooey. It served nicely enough to get Conrad through his nasty prison stay, but Wolfe lost me when Conrad moves to Atlanta and ultimately sees a chance to convert Charlie Croker to the service of Zeus. For one thing, the epiphanic moments are all told from the outside, rather than from inside Charlie’s stunted conscience, which struck me as a narrative blunder. Here we’ve spent close to 700 pages entertaining every burp and fart of Charlie’s jolly egotism, and suddenly we’re expected just to accept in broad outline his total conversion to a life of stoicism and self-denial? The only way this works for me at all is if I can read it as more satire; are you serious in suggesting that this ending is intended as moral uplift, an “unfashionable idealism”? You sure are easy.

The Epictetus Question is really about Why Wolfe Can’t Write Endings. Some reviewers (notably Michael Lewis in The New York Times Book Review) have taken the view that this is simply a Wolfean tic, one of those teeth it isn’t fair to seek in the gift horse’s mouth. And it certainly doesn’t hurt while you’re reading him, because–well, because you haven’t gotten to the end yet. But it’s one of the chief reasons I feel so much less enthusiastic after finishing the book than I did while I was in the midst of it. When you come to a then-they-all-got-run-over-by-a-bus ending like this one, it casts a retrospective, seam-showing light back over the whole enterprise. I’d venture a guess that the root of the problem is Wolfe’s entire Big Theory approach to fiction: As he spelled out so explicitly in his famous 1989 Harper’s essay, his aim is less to write a great novel than to write a novel that will take him where journalism can’t, enabling him to combine strata of society that don’t spontaneously and conveniently come together in life.

I don’t at all mind that this is his aim. As I said at length yesterday, he gives more than good value. But no, we shouldn’t mourn his departure from journalism, because in many ways he’s still writing journalism. Which may be another way of arguing that our colleague Jacob Weisberg is right, in his Slate review of A Man in Full, in identifying Wolfe’s weakness as a novelist: his lack of human sympathy. Just because this is the party line on Tom Wolfe’s novels doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I think Wolfe loves his creations and winds them up and makes them as interesting as hell. But when he has to find a way to close his book and the pyrotechnics die down, it’s too easy to see the utilitarianism that has been animating his characters all along.

Wolfe came in for a lot of bashing over his Harper’s essay, mostly because it seemed to suggest that only Tom Wolfe was up to the job of writing Big, Bold, Realistic narrative fiction. He does have the gadfly’s irritating tendency to exaggerate, and perhaps his fans do him a disservice in talking up that suggestion. In truth, our recent fiction is full of examples–Richard Price’s Freedomland is my favorite recent one–of books that are built on great reportage and steeped in a particular social milieu. (And in any competition for Best White-Guy’s Rendition of Black America, Price wins in a walk.) Not to mention the factual specificity that has gone into a lot of modernist work: Anyone remember the nose-job scene in Thomas Pynchon’s V .?

It is true, though–to get back to Wolfe’s virtues–that no one else does it on his scale, packing the material of several novels into a single book. But as Wolfe’s characters so eloquently show us, every ambition has its price.

Finally, the trapezius muscles are the two big, triangular muscles that run from the base of the skull down to the middle of the back. You brought it up because Wolfe has a weird hang-up about men’s shoulders and backs and necks and sometimes arms. I don’t think there’s a single man in the book who isn’t introduced by way of these muscle groups. Of course yours are big enough, sweetheart, but isn’t that just what a woman would say? (In other words, let’s talk soon about this he-man stuff, and why women are such nonentities in Wolfe’s world.)