Sunday, December 16, 2007

What's Wrong with The Bonfire of the Vanities

I'm a fan of Tom Wolfe's, if by that you mean a fan of his classic journalism - The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and The Right Stuff, both of which I read in high school. And though I don't agree with his anti-Modernist ranting in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, I enjoy his brio.

What soured me on his work was The Bonfire of the Vanities, in part because I found his ideas about what novels should be terribly limiting. What with all the hoopla over his Harper's essay on this topic that presaged the appearance of "Bonfire," and the subsequent barrage of publicity that accompanied the book's eventual publication, I began to realize that Wolfe was an aesthetic and moral bully. And truth be told, when I read the book in 1988, I wasn't terribly impressed: it was engrossing, but it was populated with thinly-drawn characters, mere counters to be moved around the board in the service of Wolfe's satire. It didn't stick with me.

How satisfying, then, to learn that I wasn't alone in my feelings about it when I ran across Terrence Rafferty's respectful demolition of Bonfire, which came out at the time. Rafferty begins his review by addressing the bold panache with which Wolfe debuted as a novelist:

... he's not about to come on all insecure and timid and terrified of committing a gaffe, as if he were just another eager arriviste. Bearing this gigantic book, he crashes the novelists' party, and it's as if a professional wrestler in full signature regalia had suddenly appeared, waving his arms and declaiming and hurling people to the floor: he makes a big impression.
The book, Rafferty says,
... allows Wolfe to show off his talents as a listener and an observer: he knows how to cram scenes full of visual and verbal details without slowing the momentum of the narrative, so the novel seems rich and generous while we're reading it. But why does it feel so thin when we're done with it? Dazzled by the flamboyant performance, we may still wonder, when the wrestler has finally left the room, what the hell that was all about.
Aye, laddie. Done and dusted.

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