A writer at the centre of a superpower can no longer record the real goings-on. He is apt to be hypnotized by the hallucinations and shadows of his milieu . . .In Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities wealth, Privilege, and influence are reduced to interior decoration
A NEW subject of outrage in books and films is Wall Street: the financial world overrun by computer-speed. Crashes, computers, credit, and debt: the market is a metaphor for the interrelated world, the whirl of rampant buying and selling, a materialism without real matter (flesh). Greed is an old theme; so is the destruction of human integrity. But convulsions recur in the market, and no one can say why. Computer convulsion has become "a stabilizing force": the (super)natural run of things.
The arrival of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities is opportune. "Bon" -fire is the good ire; the fire of rage; electric fire; a bondfire that bums down pretence; a bone-fire that is the funeral pyre of one man's debt. With the title's echo of Samuel Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes, and Pound's line from the Pisan Cantos, "Pull down thy vanity," we are set for a savage exposure of the machine's wiring.
"No one," the comedian Mort Sahl has said, "is interested in anger any more." Wolfe's tale is an old-fashioned decline-and-fall myth: wealthy New York bond trader Sherman McCoy, while out driving with his mistress, Maria, gets lost in the Bronx, has a hit-and-run accident involving two black youths, then gets snarled in a manslaughter case that draws politicians and the media. The Bonfire of the Vanities seems late on the scene: it treats New York City as if it were the centre of the universe. 'Me stock market crash of 1987 proved that, with computers, the centres are Tokyo, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Toronto.
The novel has been greeted with some indignation, charges of racism, and good sales. Yet if The Bonfire shows anything, it is the inability of mass-market writing to be much more than amused; it shows how far rage can go with a mass readership -- which is not far at all.
Wolfe's writing style in his so-called first novel is everything. Here the style enhances caricature, puts aside radicalism and messages and recalls the Tory Gentleman: the observer social- fight, like a Thackeray familiar with TV. This style can flip into the voice of the technocratic age: the ultimate insider's voice, the tone of someone "in the know." But that immediately identifiable style is Wolfe's singular invention. His manner has given his books their fictional ingenuity and Kerouac-like drive. (N.B.: The Bonfire of the Vanities is Wolfe's third novel: The Electric Kool- Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff joined the novel with reportage, creating what Wolfe dubbed, for propaganda purposes, the New Journalism.)
So we can grant Wolfe's style is entertaining, polished, smooth. This accessibility allows Wolfe to focus on manners and surfaces. In The Bonfire he dispenses with philosophy, history, psychology (compare The Right Stuff with Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon). But Wolfe's stylishness brings panorama and spectacle to the fore: he has a fine eye and ear for big scenes. When his stylishness turns into mannerism, we can still enjoy his prose for its flamboyance.
Wolfe's reporter's eye observes city fife but never leaves out how New York City sounds (the ear). The vocal inflections of policemen and reporters are registered with scientific precision. Wolfe is not especially good at smelling out unknown stories, mysteries, conspiratorial codes (noxious fames, aromatic substances, pollutants). Nor does he put us in touch with the shapes of city processes: the feeling of the rush of power is left externalized and journalistic. However, his descriptions of sex and violence are tasteful. Most of the sex occurs offstage. The reader does not get a sense of fife devoured or embraced. Everything is watched and cross-cut as if on a movie screen. With that emphasis on eye and ear, The Bonfire will surely make a successful Hollywood movie.
The bond market provides Wolfe with a ground for his morality tale of the unreal McCoy. Bond trading expands wealth creation: the domain of corporate credit, the electrified entrepreneur. Cash is obsolete for McCoy and Pierce & Pierce, the company that employs him. The bond market steps up hidden connections, international dealings, a superism that does not recognize borders ("The Masters of the Universe"). At the same time, no one knows what a bond trader does. Holdings are illusory, invisible; all effects are subliminal. But push invisible credit far enough and you get financial and moral bankruptcy.
In this whirl of Park Avenue and Wall Street, Harlem and the Bronx, the city's atmosphere is inflated with sex and political ambition. The city of The Bonfire crawls with vultures, reptiles, and parasites: few areas seem to be populated with human beings. New York City for this Wolfe is a jungle where the first rule of survival is Don't Feed the Beasts. In this animal hierarchy, a character can descend from Tarzan and herd minder to mouse or rat; and McCoy learns that processing into the inhuman can happen all too fast.
The novel's savage centre is found in "The Masque of the Red Death." (A literal centre: the chapter begins on page 328 of 659 pages; it is the 15th chapter of 31.) This is a New York City set piece known as the party, a crowd scene where Wolfe is at his sharpest.
The title, from Edgar Allan Poe, reminds us that Poe is a spiritual father of a gothic sub-genre I call Angelism (a term derived from Jacques Maritain and applied here to literature). Angelism is practised by Stephen King and Robert Stone among others, and shows characters transformed into devils, media madmen, discarnate beings. The fascination with Poe's random evil, like the opposite interest in Sherlock Holmes (a private eye, who studies cause and effect for the purpose of understanding), is part of an unconscious obsession with a world adrift, ghostly, without bearing.
In the party scene, Wolfe lets loose with the paranoia that he has kept under smooth control. An AIDS-ridden poet, "the spectral
Englishman," Lord Buffing ("of the Nobel short-fist"), gives the one true moral moment. He addresses the assembled guests: ... Poe, who lived his last years just north of here, I believe, in a part of New York called the Bronx... A drunk he was, of course, perhaps a psychotic -- but with the madness of prophetic vision. He write a story that tells all we need to know about the moment we Eve in now... A mysterious plague, the Red Death, is ravaging the land... Prince Prospero assembles all the best people in his castle and lays in two years' provision of food and drink, and shuts the gates against the outside world ... The party is endless and seamless ... Families, homes, children, the great chain of being, the eternal tide of chromosomes mean nothing to them any longer. They are bound together, and they whirl about one another, endlessly, particles in a doomed atom... So Poe was kind enough to write the ending of us more than a hundred years ago... The sickness -- the nausea -- the pitiless pain -- have ceased with the fever called Living that burned in my brain.... No.... I cannot be the epic poet you deserve. I am too old and far too tired, too weary of the fever called 'Living,' and I value your company too much, your company and the whirl, the whirl, the whirl... The darkness drops again. And the rest of the novel is preoccupied with the mechanics of McCoy's decline and fall, his own personal crash.
What does this suggest about Wolfe? A writer at the centre of a superpower can no longer record the real goings-on. He is apt to be hypnotized by the hallucinations and shadows of his milieu. He can speak only as an insider, and provide titillation. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, wealth, privilege, and influence are reduced to interior decoration. Anger becomes malice; insight is clothed in amused description.
Flaubert raged at stupidity; Dickens and Zola had the reformer's zeal; Celine was consumed by nausea and disgust; social-political-cultural observers like Wyndham Lewis and George Orwell were obsessed by the passion to see and know. The amusements in The Bonfire say that a writer's mind at a power centre turns to mush: a victim of abundance. The edge that keeps a Kundera, Naipaul, or Vargas Llosa dangerous is the edge of the invaded mind, the colonized, and the exile, in a position of tension with a superpower.
Thus the peripheral position of most Canadian writers could be a strength, not a place of paralysis. Go too far into the centre and you could bum out or go mad. -Go too far out on the margins and there could be no one left to talk to. Insight and communication should flow between those who are struggling with the global complex.
But this may be asking for too much from The Bonfire of the Vanities. It may be like asking for real fire, when what we get from Wolfe are flickering images that are too fight.