A couple of years ago ago, when everyone in Silicon Valley suddenly discovered classical Stoicism, the philosophy that one can only change oneself, not one’s circumstances, you had to ask: where was Tom Wolfe? In the late 1990s, he anticipated this obsession - sort of - in A Man In Full, his second novel. A prisoner who requests a spy thriller gets sent the work of the philosopher Epictetus instead. His life changes; so does the course of the novel. The prisoner is from California. Of course.
We were lucky to have Wolfe, who died this week at the age of 88, hopefully dressed every bit as spotlessly as he appeared in life. He was one of a small number of American writers who changed journalism around the world. He may have spawned a million awful copycats, but he helped to make journalism new with what he called Saturation Reporting. You got not just the facts but “scene-by-scene construction; dialogues in full; third-person point of view; and recording everyday gestures, habits, manners,” furniture, clothing, superiors, inferiors, and so on.
The string of adjectives in his first memorable burst of energy - The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby - were in themselves a perfect advertisement of what you got out of Tom Wolfe. The method of obsessive description; the attitude of tongue-in-cheek fascination; the voice, following a deep inhalation, of the anthropologist who had stumbled, not on a new subculture, but one that thought itself new, which is, like, obviously, way funnier. Separately or in combination, Wolfe delivered better on these counts than almost any of his peers.
The string of adjectives in his first memorable burst of energy - The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby - were in themselves a perfect advertisement of what you got out of Tom Wolfe.
What he didn’t get, or wasn’t interested in, was sympathy for human beings. For a writer who once said that America needed its own Zola, he didn’t really care about the big picture, preferring instead to expand on vignettes he painted to his liking. It was all high mischief. Wolfe, it must be admitted, was a punch-down sort of comedian. Everyone remembers Radical Chic for its butter-won’t-melt description of the guilt of rich white Manhattanites; but the other one that goes with it, Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, is a skin-crawling prank item about how poor San Franciscans tried to game the public benefits system - a good example of why Wolfe’s talent for mimicry could be creepy, because it worked perfectly when he was mimicking others like himself, and not at all otherwise.
Thick-skinned, high-handed and clever, Wolfe’s work was more than impervious to the complaints of his #SJW critics. He enjoyed provoking writers he disliked; as for social criticism, well: the author of Radical Chic could hardly have thought his ideological enemies capable of landing any hits. At the end of his life, an obituary reported, he was working on something against “political correctness”. Well, what else was Tom Wolfe ever going to do? He had already described the world of Donald Trump in Bonfire of the Vanities while proving quite incapable of really explaining it. The heirs of his heirs were already crawling over Silicon Valley, dissecting all that millennial Californian Gothic for which he could have pulled out punchlines in his sleep. University culture? Already given a stab in the little-read I Am Charlotte Simmons.
What else could he have written about? What would the heirs of the heirs of his first readers - those of us who became New New Journalists and New Ironists and practitioners of the New Sincerity - have wanted from him, anyway? We didn’t need that tract on political incorrectness. Maybe we didn’t need Tom Wolfe at all. But need was never the thing that made him or his craft operational, after all. It was want, greed, gluttony; never hunger, always appetite. That was the devil in a white suit. What a smooth old reprobate.
Photo Source: The Vulture
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