The US author Tom Wolfe, who died in May aged 88, invented a new way of composing novels, a new take on cultural commentary, and a new style of dress and living, all of which dovetailed. It has been fashionable in high-octane US literary and theory circles to deride his four large (in every way) novels as schmaltzy blockbusters, like James Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, because they have a conventional structure of plot, characters and narrative drive. But his novels broke new ground, as the hero and focus in these works is not a character, nor a story line, but a distinctive urban milieu which he foregrounds, a city such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta or Miami, in all its complex articulations, ethnicities, snobberies and social strivings.
Wolfe believed, correctly, that in the arts modernity had been pushed too far. In painting artists elevated annotations and explanations of their paintings to the same status, or even higher, as the works themselves, as he demonstrated in The Painted Word. Since then Tracey Emin’s dishevelled bed and Damian Hurst’s formaldehyde shark have taken meretricious indulgence to a new level. Many orchestras dislike performing Philip Glass’ scores because of their affinity with synthesizer muzac. Self-obsessed novelists now parade a facsimile of themselves as the hero of their ‘fictions’, inviting the reader to join the mutual admiration society. The great thing about a Wolfe novel is that he is absent; he stands aside, using his detachment to accurately pinpoint changing social mores without himself moralizing about them. His characters do the character assassination for themselves.
A lot of US novelists from Mailer to Roth so embraced every new frenzy that we understand them now not as acute analysts of American society, as they saw themselves, but as dupes of its constant twists. After reading a Wolfe novel we feel, not depressed as with so many contemporary novels, but a sense of relief, that someone has nailed current madnesses so accurately and risen so cleanly above the dross. Wolfe does this with insight, wit and style. When I visit the US, I enjoy the experience not as a tourist vising sites, but as street theatre, where citizens put on a show for us by naturally externalizing and theatricalizing the events of their daily life. No other society I know does this. Wolfe captures in his novels life as public entertainment.
In the Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy, the person at the centre of a scandal, is targeted by adversary groups and humiliated because he comes from an ostracized group, the money makers. As he undergoes his purgatorio he sloughs off his former ‘Master of the Universe’ persona; Gleb Nerzhin, the hero of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, has a similar trajectory. Both characters start out as part of a dominant group, having power but without peace of mind. As they lose their place and are imprisoned, they develop a more robust personality and belief structure. They have lost power but gained inner freedom, in contrast to the sectors of society which condemns them.
Wolfe was ground-breaking in directly his satire at a new group. He had noticed a change in our power structures. The old establishment did rule the roost in the 1950s, but since the swinging Sixties a new establishment has arisen. After its long march through the universities, media, politics and the public service, this new amalgam of politically acceptable trendies has now reached the commanding heights of society, and wields enormous institutional power. Look how it has recently dawned on the business community, once the heart of the old establishment, that there’s a new power elite in town and they had better defer to it pretty smartly. Most societies naturally lag in self-understanding: during our lifetime virtually all satire has been directed against the old conservative establishment, even after it had lost its monopoly position. Lazy journalists still constantly use clichés like ‘big oil’, ‘the leafy suburbs’ and ‘the big end of town’ as code for their sneering, undeclared, and now out-of-date, prejudices. Haven’t they they gone for a drive on Saturday mornings and noticed it is the trendies, including the journalists themselves, who are now conspicuous in the leafy suburbs? What has become of their social antenna, once a defining mark of their profession?
The old establishment believed behaviour should fundamentally remain the same. The new trendy establishment believes you have to twist yourself into a new shape with every change of the breeze. It keeps itself in power by pretending it is not an establishment, just a few valiant guys and dolls courageously kicking against the pricks. But this leads it down the garden path. The day after Hilary lost the US elections, TV kept showing rows of sooky, well-dressed girls in a university theatre crying their hearts out for their fallen heroine, as though they were the victims of US society, rather than the unemployed rust belt steel workers, mid western farmers, Detroit auto workers, and their families. The media still doesn’t get it. The ABC’s resident comedians still adopt this stance; they don’t direct their satirical scorn at the ruling in-group. Australia has its fair share of posturing moralizers and other self-saucing puddings hogging the media limelight. Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out as long ago as the 1960s that contemporary satire has become difficult, since so many public personalities are now inherently ludicrous and self-parodying. You don’t really need an Alec Baldwin when you have a Donald Trump.
Whenever I think of Tom Wolfe I think of Barry Humphries. The similarities are remarkable. They were almost the same age, they were au fond satirists, and both were natty dressers. The Southerner Wolfe attired himself in smart white suits to distinguish himself from the denizens of New York. Both believed clothing signalled the man. For them the key determinant was not class nor wealth nor status, but style, an ability to carry things off with a certain creative panache in contrast to the philistinism of the faux modern. Neither would have been out of place as a flaneur in fin de siecle Paris, the culture from which their demeanour ultimately derived. Both were literally boulevardiers, people who strolled around the streets of big cities, accurately taking in the sounds and sights and current idiosyncrasies.
Both were neither conservative nor radical; they were bohemian liberals (of the neat not shaggy type), who at some stage were mugged by reality into realizing the new establishment was a danger, to be undermined with gentle scorn. They did not think in outmoded left-versus-right terms. Wolfe popularized ‘radical chic’ to show it was the contradictory convergence of adversarial and fashionable behaviour, the extremes against the sensible centre, that constituted the new disaster. Humphries invented a counter-cultural poseur Craig Steppenwolf and a trade union heavy Lance Boyle, and compiled a monthly column Pseud’s Corner in Quadrant, in which by merely quoting the latest opinions of the bien-pensant he exposed the fatuities of the day.
By coincidence The Times Literary Supplement republished, on April 27, a few weeks before Wolfe’s death, an old review by Christopher Hitchens of The Bonfire of the Vanities, in which Hitchens alluded to the smart-arsed British journalist on the make in the novel, Peter Fallow, without mentioning that Hitchens himself was a model for that devastating characterization. Saul Bellow created the equally obnoxious journalist, Dewey Spangler, in his novel The Dean’s December, in which he shows how world-ranging activists posing as journalists (think John Pilger and Michael Moore) drum up, sensationalize and propagandize events they are supposed to be merely reporting. In all this Wolfe had a career parallel to that of Saul Bellow. Wolfe and Bellow didn’t admire each other, perhaps because they occupied the same territory. Both wrote novels of social satire which skewered the new class, and both at the same time produced a stream of non-fiction, high calibre cultural commentary, which provided a documentary background to their creative achievements.