Tom Wolfe and the dream of progress

Back to Blood - review.

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe. Photograph: Getty Images

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