September 15, 2012

OF COURSE, THE ONLY GREAT THING UPDIKE EVER WROTE WAS A PIECE OF JOURNALISM:

Tom Wolfe: America's all-seeing eye : He has dazzled, and he has disappointed. Will his new novel put him back on top of the literary pedestal? (JOHN WALSH, 15 SEPTEMBER 2012, Independent)

All his books open with crowd scenes: a riot at a political meeting, a street festival, a university party. He has a fetish for size: the bigger the canvas, the better; the richer the protagonist, the greater the target. Hugeness and its relation to the American soul drives A Man in Full. It concerns Charlie Croker, a property mogul in Atlanta, Georgia, who basks in phenomenal wealth, runs a 29,000-acre quail plantation and lies awake at 3am worrying about his half-billion-dollar debt. The book offers 700 pages of extremes: big acres, big shoulders, big hi-fi speakers, big breasts, big factories, big weights, even big snakes.

"Everything in this book began with my discovery of the plantations," Wolfe told me in 1999. "Before that, I thought the final extreme of conspicuous consumption was owning your own jet. But when I started hanging out with plantation owners, and learning about their extreme wealth, I knew it had to be the core of the book. And I discovered that you don't become a plantation baron by having money. You have to be 'man enough' for the job." Croker is contrasted in the novel by an idealistic blue-collar worker called Conrad who is laid off from Croker's meat plant, falls through the legal system but ends up in jail. A good man - but is he or Charlie the "man in full"?

There's something Dickensian about Wolfe's moral cruxes of the book, and among his first experiments with writing were brief character studies along the lines of Sketches by Boz. He also admires Zola and Balzac, and their multi-volume anatomisings of French society from top to bottom. He does the same. "Wolfe may live in a fancy block-long apartment on the Upper East Side, but he clearly does not stay indoors," remarked New York magazine. "He walks his white suit into the dark corners of American social, sexual, and criminal life and returns with an intuitive, empirical, and arresting grasp of his fellow citizens."

Not everyone has been so impressed. Some of Wolfe's fellow authors wrote off his approach as merely well-researched journalism. John Updike called A Man in Full "entertainment not literature", Norman Mailer reviewed it with condescension. Wolfe retaliated with asperity, calling the two literary titans "washed-up windbags". He defended the novelist's right to deal in the everyday. "It's important for the novelist to bring alive what Hegel called the zeitgeist," he told me. "He thought every era had its own moral tone, that presses down on everyone living at the time."

There, in a nutshell is why modern art is so awful--the intelligentsia believe it's wrong for art to entertain and instruct.

Posted by at September 15, 2012 8:03 AM
  

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