Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Tom Wolfe’s — “A Man in Full” — The views of an nth stooge

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 16, 2008

Micheal Lewis’s Liars Poker is a “hilarious in bursts” kind of a book about the world of investment banking. It has been an enjoyable read and is a good document about the people and corporations that form part of the esoteric world of high end finance. It puts the spotlight on their behaviour and the animal spirits that come to fore during times good and bad. That this book is a realistic document and provides an accurate picture of the happenings in the world of finance is indisputable. But does its adherence to realism of this nature allow it to be classified as good litarature or even literature? My unequivocal response will be in the negative. That it is not great literature will neither reduce its popularity nor its rightful place in my collection. It is a book that one reads, enjoys and returns to its place on ones bookshelf. And if an occasion demands in an informal gathering, when somebody were to ask you if you have read it, you will nod your head, say a couple of things about it and move onto another aspect of the ongoing conversation. You would not seriously discuss it.  Despite its realism why would such a book not have the gravity that other good books that we read? I think simply because it is topical and will not have a huge relevance to a readers life. It is not portraying life in its full complexity and real human beings are not the center of it. It will not tug any cord in the reader, nor does it humanise, sensitise or enable the reader identify with a larger scheme of things. In that sense it is a soulless book. Therefore in my view it will never ever be a great literature or a great novel.

Now that kind of leads to an important question: What is great literature? It is my view that great literature is something that touches some core pulse in you as you read through it…humanises you by asserting or awakening the importance of time cherished fundamental values in you as a reader  ….makes you complete, sensitises the reader to his position in the confusing scheme of things that he is born into, builds a modicum of acceptance of things at hand and sustains hope and belief in the fairness of things around him… despite the dark forces that she is forced to interact with. That to me is great literature

But why this preamble? I have just completed Tom Wolfe’s highly acclaimed ” A Man in Full“. It was without a doubt an enjoyable read. Immediately after its publication it kicked a literary dust of storm with John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer declaring that this book cannot be considered worthy of classifying as literature. In precise terms each of them had the following to say:
John Updike(A Man in Full) is entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.  Norman Mailer : “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” John Irving: “yak”….. “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction … He’s a journalist … he can’t create a character. He can’t create a situation.”

As expected a writer of Wolfe’s caliber and reputation would not take it lying down and especially criticism of this book which took 11 years to write. As a counter punch he wrote a now famous essay called ” My Three Stooges” where he trashed the observations of these three eminents writers of America as people inhabiting imaginary literary worlds and that they have to include realism of their times and life around them into their work. In no uncertain terms Wolfe asks them to get off their high saddles. Besides the literary pugilism that is on display, Wolfe also uses this essay as a medium to present his views on rise, decline and fall of the American Novel in the 20th century and its root causes. The views presented are refereshingly new and quite thought provoking.  Elsewhere Wolfe also warned that if the literary trio don’t embrace “full-blooded realism, “then their reputations are finished.” He also offered Irving some additional literary advice: “Irving needs to get up off his bottom and leave that farm in Vermont or wherever it is he stays and start living again. It wouldn’t be that hard. All he’d have to do is get out and take a deep breath and talk to people and see things and rediscover the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre country around him: America.”

Yet if one were to apply the same judging criteria that Wolfe describes in his essay to “A Man in Full” — I am not sure if his book will pass the test. For example let us take any of the characters that Steinbeck has created in Grapes of Wrath — Ma Joad, Tom Joad, James Casey — one will remember them for a long long time — they are real life characters – full of scars and beauty spots that life has given them.  The question is who in Wolfe’s characters has that sturdiness? A man like Charlie Croker who can rustle up USD 500 Million debt from the banking system increasingly starts looking like a clown making the silliest of mistakes. In the place of a tenacious empire builder you get to see the bumblings of a buffoon and weakling and that to me sounds quite unrealistic. “A Man in Full” is littered with such characters — Conrad is another feckless character that one gets to see. I did not find the depth in many that can be reckoned as great characterisation

On aspects of creating realistic situations too I felt that Irving was correct to a large extent. However, Wolfe does display, at places, a highly refined sense of situation building. One only has to look at the so called “workout sessions” by the bank’s recovery men while attempting to recover debt from Charlie Croker — absolutely hilarious. More appealing are the situations that describe the “post workout session” confabulations of the bank officials — which is how banks are. Contrast the jail situations in ” A Man in Full” with similar situations one finds in say Stephen King’s “Green Mile” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’sOne day in the Life Ivan Denisovitch“. I found that Wolfe’s depiction despite being realistic (read brutal), inexplicably, does not have the human element and anguish. There are any number of examples that can be pointed to in this book where the human touch is not palpable. There is something synthetic in the texture of the book which I could not lay my hands on clearly. In a 700+ page book one expects to a see many more realistic yet appealing situations which are coherently knitted and I did not find them

The plot is fairly well constructuted with multiple threads starting independently and gradually gets knitted into a single coherent scheme

Where I think Wolfe excels is in his ability to accurately portray the diction of a variety of people that he populates his book with — Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites from down south… it is an extraordinary talent at display. In my limited reading I have seen that kind of ability in Anne Proulx, Zadie Smith and to a certain extent in Anne Donovan’sBuddha Da” (scottish accent)

Wolfe has been credited with immense ability to portray the Zeitgiest of America during the 80’s. In the book America comes out as a soulless place devoid of warmth and compunction.  But is America a soulless place that Tom Wolfe makes it out to be? I am not sure. The political and financial systems during the time of writing this book may have descended into that state of soullessness yet the greater majority of average Americans, I am willing to believe are warm and senstive despite what people comment about America. They are the ones who make America the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre place that Wolfe thinks it to be. It is this multitude and their presence that is completely missing in Wolfe’s book.  And that to me has been the most disappointing aspect of this book

John Irving once said that “A fiction writers memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely exactly what happened, the most truthful detail is what could have happened or what should have…..” Wolfe sticks to what has happened and therein probably lies his failure to make “A Man in Full” from a good read to a great read.

Having said all of the above I still feel that Tom Wolfe is one of the greatest chroniclers of our times. One only has to read his essays in his subsequent book viz. “Hooking Up” to understand and agree with what I am saying

I am sure that when the debate raged about Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” many would have taken sides. Going by the criteria that Wolfe laid out, anyone who has not liked his book for lack of percieved characterisation, situation building and the conventional “literary” touch would have been on the side of the “Three Stooges” characterised as yet another inconsequential stooge. If that has been the criteria then………… I am willing to be Wolfe’s nth stooge in the debate

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