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Previously in American Graffiti:

"Escape from Pleasantville!" (November, 1998), by Sven Birkerts
"Do the writers and concept people in Hollywood routinely take tea together, or are they all honing in separately on our most latent anxieties?"

"Symptoms of the Culture Wars" (September, 1998), by Scott Stossel
The much-publicized intellectual conflicts of the past decade may have lost their intensity, but they haven't lost their importance. A book like Marjorie Garber's latest reminds us why.

"The View from the Cheap Seats" (March, 1998), by Charles Hutchinson
Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation.

"Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age" (August, 1997), by Sven Birkerts
Birkerts looks at Hunter S. Thompson's The Proud Highway and wonders whatever happened to sex, drugs, and the New Journalism. Plus, a multimedia interview with Hunter S. Thompson, scourge of Presidents, the press, and the politically correct.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
That's Entertainment
Somehow, amid the celebration of Tom Wolfe's new novel, there seems to have been a slight misunderstanding

by Sven Birkerts


December 2, 1998

wolfecov picture The Tom Wolfe phenomenon -- what else to call it? It is a phenomenon. Certainly no other contemporary novelist -- not John Updike, not Don DeLillo, not even Toni Morrison -- grabs the covers and inside pages the way Wolfe does. Time magazine recently gave the man in white full frontal exposure to commemorate the publication of A Man in Full. The New York Times Book Review, also in a cover feature, had Michael Lewis saying, "The novel ... contains passages as powerful and as beautiful as anything written not merely by contemporary American novelists but by any American novelist." Lewis presumably includes writers like Melville, Faulkner, Cather, and Fitzgerald in his estimate.

True, there have been demurrals -- most notably John Updike's refusal in the pages of The New Yorker to grant Wolfe the literary status he so clearly covets -- but the novel has already vaulted to the top of the best-seller lists, and is likely to stay there for a good long time. That the jury of this year's National Book Awards surprised everyone by giving the nod to Alice McDermott's Charming Billy will not matter a bit to continuing hype and sales -- every third dad in America is slated to get the novel for Christmas.

Which is nice, really. A Man in Full is a terrific read. Riding on the high tide of its energies, building around us a vivid-seeming hyperreality, where every last consumable item is tagged and served up for our delectation, the whole large drama of its intersecting plot lines makes prodigious page turners of us all. We take pleasure in reading it and look good to ourselves in the process. So what's the beef?

Simply, I suppose, that there has been a misunderstanding. Somewhere, I sense, the mass of American readers has gotten the idea not only that Wolfe is fashionable but also that his work is legitimate literature. Updike notwithstanding, people have begun to believe that they can enjoy themselves and be doing some serious cultural lifting at the same time. After all, Updike did write about it, as did Harold Bloom in the pages of the New York Observer, so it must have something to do with art, right?

Sorry, no. The bad news is that it doesn't happen that way. Serious art is only enjoyable up to a point, and then it becomes work: perceiving, judging, and knowing. Yes, these things can give pleasure, but of a different sort; they are pleasures that push us against the grain of our ease. If it's too much fun, it can't be art. Nor will it quite do to say that a novel like Wolfe's comes close. In art, as in horseshoes, close doesn't count. A novel either manifests artistic vision or it doesn't.

A Man in Full is a box-office enterprise from start to finish, and Wolfe's deft appeals to the spirit of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus cannot change that. Nor does it matter that Wolfe has turned some scenes that his boosters are ready to compare with the best of Dickens and Balzac. Why not? Because Wolfe has written for the collective readership, the mass. A dread word, that. We don't hear it much these days: people are even more sensitive about being seen as members of an undifferentiated herd than belonging to some formerly maligned minority.

The fact remains: Wolfe's novel -- like Titanic, or any other blockbuster entertainment -- was generated not to express a necessary truth but to capture the attention of the reading public by force. It was written to appeal not just to the general reader but also to what is general (that is, collective) in the reader -- and that is precisely the mentality of Hollywood. Real art (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing) never aims at the collective, but addresses itself to the individual, and what makes it universal is that it discovers how the being of one individual in essential ways echoes the being of another. This is not the same thing as pitching to the collective; it is the exact opposite.

Don't get me wrong. I read A Man in Full with a zealous absorption that is rare for me in these distracted days. Indeed, I was so caught up in the novel, turning pages at such a gratifying clip, that I decided to time myself. While sitting imprisoned in an American Airlines jet on my way to Los Angeles, with nothing but the in-flight screening of Godzilla to pose possible competition, I clocked myself at an astonishing sixty pages an hour, which for me is something of a speed record. But even as I was welcoming myself back into the ranks of the marathon readers, I knew something was wrong. Art cannot be had thus. You cannot read a page a minute of anything and pretend that you are having a full aesthetic experience. You cannot, realistically, have thoughts of any complexity or sensations of any genuine particularity at that clip. Never mind the "I know what I like" and "Different strokes for different folks" arguments. Art -- literature -- is a statement about the human that takes into account the extraordinary complexity of that subject. It finds an engaging or compelling shape for discovered insights; it speaks, always, right to the individual soul.

These are high-flown sentiments, I realize, but the literature that lives on the far side of chatter is serious business -- or should be. It is vital that certain distinctions be drawn. I would propose that the features that make A Man in Full so very readable are its glibness, its confident stereotyping of characters, and its ginned-up plot turns -- and that all of these attributes run counter to the central demands of art. As so often with written things, the proof is in the language on the page. Admiring as I am of Wolfe's ability to model high-voltage panoramic scenarios, I find that his presentations are always given at the expense of individualized human nuance.

Let me cite two representative instances. First, a short bit of a scene in which magnate-on-the-run Charlie Croker, Wolfe's protagonist, sits in his personal jet and tries to rally after a public humiliation:
And so now, as the aircraft reared and strained to get altitude, Charlie concentrated on the painting of Jim Bowie [his own N. C. Wyeth which he keeps in his plane] and tried to draw strength from it, as he had so many times before in moments of stress. The knee was aching so goddamned much -- Oh, he was like a lot of old football players ... It had been great and glorious stuff, playing football for Tech, for the Ramblin' Wreck back in the fifties and early sixties ... and now he was a worn-out arthritic wreck himself. [Wolfe's ellipses.]
I picked this passage because it shows as clearly as any other how Wolfe presents his protagonist, Charlie, more or less throughout the novel. It is not that he has tried for some higher definition of the particular and failed. No, this is what Wolfe wants to give us: a generalized cluster of characterizations that force us to keep Charlie in our minds as a sketch. His drawing strength from a painting of Jim Bowie, the knee aching "so goddamned much," and how that sends him into a reflexive burst of obvious self-rationalization -- there is not a whiff of real ambiguity here, or elsewhere. Indeed the kind of psychological penetration we would consider essential to more serious literary works -- essential because it is faithful to the grain of human nature -- could not be sustained within the Wolfean worldview. The highly dramatic, brightly backlit rendition of "significant" confrontations, depending as it does on representative figures locked in representative struggles, would wither away if a unique and credible human being were given the part. Without his major face-offs (there are more than a few in this novel), Wolfe could not give his prose the propulsion that makes it so compulsively readable.

The second passage, from the very beginning of the novel, is part of a description of the entourage at a quail hunt at Charlie's country estate, Turpmtine:
One wagon was a rolling dog kennel containing cages for three more pairs of pointers to take turns in the ceaseless roaming of the sedge, plus a pair of golden retrievers that had been born in the same litter and were known as Ronald and Roland. A team of La Mancha mules, adorned in brass knobbed yokes and studded harnessing, pulled the wagon, and two of Charlie's dog handlers, both of them black, attired in thornproof yellow overalls, drove them.... Two more of Charlie's black employees, wearing the yellow overalls, drove the La Manchas that pulled the buckboard and served food and drink from an Igloo cooler built into the back. [My ellipses.]
This passage shows off what are deemed to be the characteristic Wolfe strengths -- the highly visual construction coupled with the close delineation of signifying things. This is the legacy of the New Journalism -- part of it, anyway. The care given to noting the "brass knobbed yokes" and the "Igloo cooler built into the back of the cart." Would that Wolfe had the art, or will, to focus in on human nature at such a level of particularity, but he does not. There is so much fussing over the materiality of the world, but no commensurate care is lavished upon psychological detail. Even the smallest personal interaction has a bull-in-the-china-shop feel -- all broad gestures and exclamation marks. We speed along but are able to keep no deeper record: this drama casts no shadows.

There is nothing wrong with the writing as writing. The more descriptive passages have a brocaded density that would seem to justify the comparisons made (many by Wolfe himself) of the author with the great nineteenth-century realists. But if the touchstone of stylistic excellence is something more than just the skilled management of sentence elements, if it asks some higher degree of comprehension of the human, then this work does not make the final cut. Dress it up how you will, I say it's entertainment, and I say let's celebrate it for that.

So why is there such an insistence on having it the other way? Why this push to credential the work -- by journalists, by awards committees, indeed by Wolfe himself? (His controversial 1989 Harper's essay, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," was an elaborately mounted argument on behalf of his own literary importance.) Looking from the author's point of view, we find no great mystery. Ambition overreaches, wants the next thing -- Wolfe has anatomized the impulse on the page, and he seems to manifest it himself. Contrary to what many of us might suppose, the immediate spoils of success -- money and fame -- are not enough. When these things have been bestowed on a writer (call it the Stephen King syndrome), he or she begins to long for the one thing that true artistic status confers: renewability, the possibility of an ongoing life in time. Alas, no public affirmation of that status by reviewers or awards judges will guarantee it. The vote is cast over time in the court of readers, and judgment is awarded by a long-term consensus, after the merely topical and ephemeral attributes have fallen away. Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe's previous novel, could not transcend its season, and A Man in Full will remain, fly in amber, in its.

As for the public pressure to assign higher status, my guess is that it has something to do with a desire in many lofty quarters to see the Wolfean view of things (life as material survival struggle, where fates are driven by market forces) validated. Wolfe is, after all, the avatar of materialism, a fact which even the shuddering falls of his hubristically overextended protagonists (Charlie Croker and Sherman McCoy) cannot undercut. Charlie does not have the individual force of a character drawn by Wharton or Dreiser or Fitzgerald. Though billed as a "man in full," he is not full in the right way. He is not real enough to pull down the trappings of his former glory when he falls. The trappings are more vivid, more substantial, than he is. Here is the sovereignty of things external. Here is the very message that some people want to hear.


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Sven Birkerts will publish
Readings, his fifth book of essays, in January. He contributes frequently to Atlantic Unbound.

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