Bonfire of the vanities: Russell Brand joins protesters in London during the Million Mask March on 5 November. Photo: Getty
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Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?

Ed Smith’s Left Field. 

The idea that writing should primarily entertain – the pleasure principle – is the bane of all literary theorists. As Philip Larkin put it, “Life and literature is a question of what one thrills to and further than that no man shall ever go without putting his foot in a turd.”

We all know the difference between a worthy book and one that makes you almost grimace with delight. Listen to your body. The way you lean forward in your chair, your back suddenly straighter, your toes tapping on the floor. The sleepy, dutiful weight of earnest texts that ought to be read, the measuring out of the morning in coffee cups and errands, the glancing at your watch, wondering if it’s too early for lunch – all forgotten. Your expression tells the story: the half-smile of expectation at hearing a mischievous and authentic voice, the heady oxygenation of eager anticipation, like an animal following a scent. You are sure, quite sure, that you are about to be entertained.

What had done this to me? Beginning research on a new project, I noticed, listed in a bibliography of minor relevance, a reference to Tom Wolfe’s essay “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine”. An excuse! A legitimate excuse! If I could find my copy, I could reread his essays. Furnished with my self-justification, I settled in for the morning, reacquainting myself with Wolfe. Only it lasted for days, not hours.

I had a ball. So I feel obliged, especially as his reputation has suffered a decline recently, to describe what exactly made my toes tap and my back straighten and my mouth turn up at the corners.

Wolfe’s gift, his satirist’s sensibility, is the combination of sublime confidence and raw courage. He makes you confront modish nonsense, snapping you back to your senses. More simply, he has an unfailing nose for bullshit. I find myself yearning to know what he would make of Russell Brand.

Here is Wolfe on the 1970s fad of “anti-fashion”, from his essay “Funky Chic”: “Terrific. Right away anti-fashion itself became the most raving fashion imaginable . . . also known as Funky Chic. Everybody had sworn off fashion, but somehow nobody moved to Cincinnati to work among the poor. Instead, everyone stayed put and imported the poor to the fashion pages.”

But should a serious writer “descend” to the level of describing fashion at all? “Writers seem to find the courage to write about society, in the sense of fashionable society, only from a great distance – either from across an ocean or across a gulf of a century or more in time, and preferably both.” Stop holding your nose, Wolfe is saying. Status – who’s up, who’s down; am I rising or drowning? – is central to the human condition.

He never expressed that argument better than in “My Three Stooges”, a retort to critics of A Man in Full. With the novel a success, Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving joined forces to denounce it as mere attention-seeking. “Does that make you feel bad?” an interviewer asked Wolfe. “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain “literary” writing. “The novel is dying,” Wolfe replied, “not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

But how good are the novels? I greatly enjoyed The Bonfire of the Vanities, though something about it made me feel uncomfortable – was Wolfe beginning to be too dazzled by the extravagant worldly success he once satirised? That strand, an ageing man’s obsession with Nietzschean power, expands to fill the still marvellously entertaining A Man in Full.

I abandoned the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, bludgeoned and bored by the relentless, detailed descriptions of loveless humping by college sports stars at frat parties, the “rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut” (I think that is roughly the right amount of rutting; I haven’t counted the syllables) of “two-backed beats herkyjerky humping bang-bangbang”. Instead of the authentic voice of the locker room – which I know better than Wolfe – I was hearing the fantasies of an old man, lived through two-dimensional “studs”. And I have scrupulously avoided 2012’s Back to Blood, lest it contaminate my affection for Wolfe’s early work.

Instead of begrudging a career that trails off, however, we should give thanks for the good times. (Even Evelyn Waugh’s reputation collapsed in the last decade of his life.) Wolfe’s central insight was to distrust what intellectuals said about taste.

Writers should not speak only to themselves, in self-congratulatory riddles. A lifetime of reading, Nick Hornby once said, made him trust “readers’ books” over “writers’ books”.

Wolfe’s attacks on the liberal elite explain why admiring him has always carried some reputational risk. Once, staying in New York as a house guest of friends who possess modernist tastes, I made the mistake of reading out a mischievous passage in From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s attack on brutalist architecture. For a while, it was touch and go: would I be tipped out on to the street?

Fifteen years later, for all my awareness of his flaws, I’m still at it, on the phone, reading out Wolfe to my friends, smiling at the guts and the gusto, wishing he was on top form now, poking his stick at hypocrisies waved through on the nod of fashion, stirring the hornet’s nest. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis