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Tom Wolfe and the dream of progress

Back to Blood - review.

Back to Blood
Tom Wolfe
Jonathan Cape, 720pp, £20

At the tail end of the last millennium (if you accept, for conversation’s sake, that the millennia met at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1999), a pair of American writers born one year and 500 miles apart – both of them Time magazine cover stars, both known for look-at-me prose, for devotion to the American “dream” or “idea”, for impatience with east coast elitism and new-left ingratitude and for recourse to words such as “loins” – composed speculative essays about how the present would look to the future.

John Updike, writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times, chose as his narrator a college professor specialising in Y2K history whose students “find many of the details of that era difficult to believe” – not least the one-time global dominance of the United States. In Updike’s reverie, the US has long since been undermined by “the hardening congressional habit of impeaching elected presidents” and a collective reluctance to explore and invade. For Tom Wolfe, undertaking the same exercise in the pages of Tatler, the threat to American confidence was not home-grown follies – puritanism, isolationism – but pathogens from the Old World.

The US might have been “the mightiest power on earth”, a land in which “any ethnic or racial group – any, even recent refugees from a Latin country – could take over the government of any American city”, but in matters “intellectual and artistic”, the US “remained an obedient colony of Europe” and an imported language of guilt – about “imperialism”, among other things – hadn’t just spoilt the party, it had called it off altogether. And European influence, in the form of such men as Foucault, Gropius, Picasso and Pirandello, had worked to dilute the native qualities not just of American philosophy but of all American culture. (Such threats to the social order as free love and flower power, covered by earlier Wolfe polemics, had something suspiciously French about them.)

Even Wolfe wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that his name will be remembered in a thousand years, but in his retrospective report he made no mention of the state of the American novel. Why? Because, through force of will, he had wrestled it away from Borges and Kafka. Back in 1973, in his essay “The New Journalism”, Wolfe complained that the characters in most American fiction “have no background, no personal history, are identified with no social class, ethnic group or even nationality, and act out their fates in a locale that has no place name”.

By 2000, however, the “tremendous future” he imagined for big, crammed novels based on reporting had arrived. Wolfe’s novels The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998) had served both to awaken and to satisfy the American appetite for social realism, sales figures alone proving to the avowedly antielitist Wolfe that he had succeeded where the neo-fabulist crowd had failed. (In determining which writers had paid appropriate attention to the “lurid carnival” of American life, Wolfe tended to discount all forms of observation that didn’t involve systematic note-taking.)

It’s notable that the names mentioned with approval in “The New Journalism” – and in such later announcements of “I-told-youso” extended to several thousand words as “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) and “My Three Stooges” (2001) – tend to be European: Balzac, Dickens, Richardson, Gogol, Thackeray and, especially, Zola. Yet realism, as de veloped in England in the 18th century and enshrined in England, France and Russia in the 19th, wasn’t a European pollutant in the manner of twelve-note composition, because its practitioners were deploying their techniques to regionalist ends. (Wolfe’s white suit is not a statement of dandy dazzle but a tribute to the plantation farmers of his home state of Virginia.) The problem with the International Style, as Wolfe never quite said in his book From Bauhaus to Our House, was its cosmopolitanism, its internationalism. The realist mode or manner, on the other hand, identified an essential tool that, when transferred,  would isolate the distinctive features of any social environment – not just Paris and London and Moscow but New York and Atlanta and, now, in Back to Blood, Miami.

The new novel is broadly concerned with the limits of what the US is willing to assimilate and accept. In a series of episodes that never quite become a plot, it depicts an American city with a black police chief and a Cuban mayor and takes as its heroes a Cuban cop, Nestor Camacho, who doesn’t speak Spanish, and a Wasp reporter, John Smith, who, on being asked by his boss whether theory was “still a big deal” when he studied English at Yale, replies: “No.” If the police chief, the mayor and the cop are intended to demonstrate the success of the melting pot and the journalist embodies the traditionalist hope that the children of the American upper class will believe in truth without experiencing philosophical anxiety and enjoy success without suffering a heavy conscience, then the external threat is represented by Sergei Korolyov, a Russian oligarch who receives his heartiest welcome from the similarly Europeanised art world, presented here, as it was in Wolfe’s book The Painted Word, in terms of talent-drought and bullshit-glut.

Nestor and John, and Magdalena, the beautiful Cuban nurse in search of a non-Cuban husband, and Ghislaine, the light-skinned daughter of a Francophile Haitian father, are situated in the context of both heredity and environment, background and backdrop – the twin and sole determinants according to that mixture of anthropological engagement and photographic detachment known as literary naturalism. (A circular logic dictates that self-styled naturalist novels, by scrutinising such processes, confirm their own assumptions.)

But even if Wolfe has visited these strips and strip clubs, the result is hardly the naturalism, let alone the realism, desired or espoused by his manifestos. Detail doesn’t accrete; it is daubed on to the page, with the help of italics (“all all all”) and adjectives: “He nodded toward the big house. It was an enormous spread”; “Sergei’s apartment was grander than anything she could have imagined”; “Women looked huge to her”; a lawn “rolled on forever over vast distances”. Sometimes italics and adjectives join forces with another Wolfeian fetish, the exclamation mark, for maximal impact: “He was really big! . . . But that guy was so big! . . . That guy was really big!”

Although Back to Blood is obvious, ungainly and shrill, its problems lie at the level of ground plan or theory, in the distinction Wolfe draws between the “realistic novel” and “that longtime French intellectual favourite, the psychological novel”, and in his preference for explaining what characters drive (“The Camaro was a muscle car from back when muscle cars were muscle cars”) over what they feel (unless you count “Mami broke into sobs, great blubbering sobs” or “He poured out his woes in a torrent”). Wolfe is right to say that realism, like electricity, is not something you discard “on the grounds that it has been used ad nauseam for a hundred years” but his particular form of journalistic novel, which shares realism’s subjects but lacks its metaphysical ambition and shares naturalism’s convictions but lacks its sobriety, is subject to periods of peak and trough, depending on whether it has anything pressing to expose.

A novel driven by insider knowledge about politics and policing, psychiatry and sex addiction, preoccupied with appearances rather than essences, with the notation rather than the analysis of status symbols, could, however smoothly accomplished, have little to offer a reader in the second decade of the 21st century. Responding to Wolfe’s claims in his own manifesto, “Perchance to Dream” (1996), Jonathan Franzen argued: “Television has killed the novel of social reportage.” Although the publication of A Man in Full suggested that Franzen was a little premature, the arrival, within a year of each other, of his novel The Corrections and the television series The Wire amounted to a pincer movement against the Wolfe project.

On one side, he was beaten at his own game – the descriptions that made his essay “Radical Chic” or the Bonfire of the Vanities species of breaking social news depended, at least partly, on their status as prophecies or exclusives. On the other, he was shown that his reportorial realism was no longer the only game in town – Franzen had realised his hopes for a mode, “tragic realism”, which, by aspiring to “mystery” rather than “surficiality”, couldn’t be outstripped by visual media. What’s more, the vindication came in terms that Wolfe respected. Franzen, in his turn, graced the best-seller charts and, later, the front cover of Time, just as the box set of The Wire has enjoyed something like equivalent stature, occupying pride of place on a million shelves. Meanwhile, the reception given to Wolfe’s third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), suggested that he was no longer filling a gap in the market.

Since then, yet another manifesto has arrived, announcing the end of Franzen’s intervention and of the vision of a “coherent” and “fathomable” reality offered by the “run-of-themill, 400-page page-turner” – and the start of something else. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” David Shields writes in his book Reality Hunger. Shields quotes Zola (“Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes”) but he is speaking on behalf of an artistic movement – its members might include Sarah Manguso, Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner – whose lyrical-expressionist model of realism – part-essay, part-memoir – has nothing in common with Zola’s, beyond a shared respect for man as eyewitness.

So American writers carry on, looking for old clues to new formulas, aligning themselves with a dream of progress, defining themselves against a row of straw men, offering their favoured devices as the truest road, the main event, the vital centre, and settling on their own method – unlikely, this time around, to involve sales figures and Time magazine – of determining whether the golden opportunities were realised or wasted.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.