Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Hooking Up — by Tom Woolfe — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 12, 2008

NYTimes, NewYorker, Powells books have been my favourite hunting grounds for knowledge of writers and their books. William Styron, John O Hara, Alice Munro, John Updike, Elizabeth Hardwick have been new introductions to me thanks to these publications. On the other hand, where I was vaguely familiar with writers like Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley and Tom Wolfe, but never had the conviction of exploring their work, these sources have supplied me with the needed conviction and adequate introductory material to proceed ahead. In the recent past NYTimes has introduced many interesting blogs which cater to multiple reading interests. Two blogs that I have begun to follow carefully are Olivia Judson’sThe Wild Side” — A brilliant blog on biology/genetics and another called the “Reading Room“. Reading Room has an interesting theme where invitees discuss a selected novel over a specific period of time. One gets to see the diversity, sharpness, depth, liveliness and talent in the discussions. In the recent past Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” has been one such selected novel that got discussed. That motivated me to do an inventory check of what of Tom Wolfe I have on my shelves. Found that I have 2 of his well known books — “A Man in Full” and “Hooking up“. I have already written about “A Man in Full” and here is his next one on “Hooking Up

Hooking up” is a collection of Tom Wolfe’s essays on a variety of topics. The sheer diversity of topics is interesting, impressive and span areas related to changing cultural mores, rise of the internet and silicon valley culture, the state of “ART” — all at the turn of the twentieth century and in America, A Novella — “Ambush at Fort Bragg” and his interesting literary jousts with the high and mighty of the publishing and literary world of America of his times

That Wolfe is an extraordinarily sharp observer of his time and has an immense ability in presenting the zeitgeist is evident in his opening essay “Hooking Up“. Wolfe’s roving eye passes everything and stops at nothing. The death of words like “Working Class” “Proletariat“, “Chic” (replaced by the word sexy), “Perversion“, is explained in an interesting way. Inversion of sexual mores with the rise of feminism and the incessant sexual stimuli that the younger generations in America are receiving and the subsequent behavioural impact is articulated hilariously. Interesting are Wolfe’s observations on the super-rich within America and their changing dress preferences apparently driven by a sense of guilt, rising preference across America to be young and attendant fear of old age. Wolfe establishes the supremacy of America at the turn of the century and while the reader is about to pass judgment on the slightly excess nationalistic pride that is begun to be displayed, Wolfe queers the pitch and acknowledges in no uncertain terms that America continues to be a vassal stultified by European influence in the areas of art, architecture and philosophy and is disappointed that the ordinary American is not even conscious of this deterioration and is blithely planning his next vacation which he can afford on account of the immense prosperity that its citizens rolled in at the turn of the century. As one reads through the essay one understands that underneath the veneer of this sarcastic humour there is a fine mind and intense research at work and the reader is hooked to the book for the rest that is left

In his essay “The Two Men Who Went West” Wolfe traces the rise of the silicon valley and people who have made it possible. James Grinell — for unknowingly providing the religious, educational and social setting and Robert Noyce for building the nuts and bolts i.e. integrated circuits and memory chips.  It is an unusual essay for it not only portrays the spirit of the age but also underlines the historical and religious underpinnings (which Wolfe describes as “dissenting protestantism“) behind the rise of the silicon valley. The focus is the semi conductor industry including some of the well known people and companies that made it possible. Geographically it happened in West as against the East of America and was fueled by people who came from semi urban or rural areas and who had deep emphasis on education (to be specific engineering), realised the superiority of the value of human capital over assets and played accordingly. Flat organisations, democratic, devolved decision making, respect for entrepreneurship and ideas, a love for money and disdain for flamboyance have been hallmarks of the spirit. But it had its dark side too in terms of family breakups and burnouts. While reading the essay I could not refrain from drawing some parallels to the happenings in India in terms of the rise of software industry — it had the same characteristics i.e. driven by the educated semiurban and town folks, emphasis on engineering as a profession, a new work ethic, wealth creation and distribution and a sense of aggression in grabbing and capitalising the opportunties on hand

Many of us today take the terms “digital noosphere” ( the equivalent of world wide web) and “global village” as a given. However, these neologisms have been based on concepts of convergence that some prescient minds like the French palentologist Tielhard and Canadian acadamician Marshal Macluhan have promulgated long before anyone could grasp the significance of the changes that have been coming into existence. Wolfe explains that Marshal Macluhan used the ideas of Tielhard and some core ideas of Canadian economist James Innis in building his detailed expositions on the power of media, technology and his own views on the  its impact on the human nervous system. In the essay “Digibbale, Fairy Dust and Human Ant Hill“, Wolfe deals with the history of the evolution of these thoughts and the twists and turns that this evolution process has undergone. What Wolfe finds interesting in the rising belief of convergence and the unfounded acceptance of the supposed impact that TV and world wide web are going to have on the human nervous system. He explains this as the famous “explanatory gap” that is common in philosophy — i.e. acceptance of a phenomenon without data. This Wolfe also weaves with the rise of thinking around socio biology. Woolfe rubbishes the claims of the earth shattering impact of internet as nothing but digibabble and says that at best internet will reduce your trips to post offices and book shops and enables one to “shoot the breeze” (I liked the expression) with a few friends — nothing more, nothing less 

(A small digression: Eric S Raymond is a legend in the area of Opensource Software movement and I have first come across the term noosphere in his classic essay viz: “Homesteading the Noosphere”. It is one of the finest expositions on the socio-political dynamics of the open source software world. It has more to do with the behavioural dynamics of followers and contributors of open source philosophy and less about software itself)

Your soul just died” is a wonderful piece on the scientific temperament at the end of the 20th century and the despondent and confused state it has left mankind overall. The rise of darwinism, death of fruedian school of psychology — a movement from Psychology to psychiatry, rise of neuro biology as an important discipline, the debate on determinism on account of genetics and the grand sceptcism about the current foundations on which science is based is portrayed very well. What really strikes one in this essay is the constrast in the mood and temper that Wolfe manages to paint of the scientific community at the beginning of the 20th century as compared to the beginning of the 21st century. The world according to Wolfe has moved from confidence to uncertainty. It might sound trivial but it needs an uncommon ability to articulate views that sweep the breadth of a century and still be convincing

In the past Wolfe had written a highly acclaimed essay called “Stalking the billion footed beast: A Literary Manifesto For A New Social Novel” where in he trashed a few genres (and writers along with them) and kind of suggested that realism of the time should become an important element in a novelists approach to writing a novel. When his book ” A Man in Full” was published three prominent authors Norman Mailer, John Irving and John Updike rubbished his book as utter trash and questioned if his novel could be considered as literature at all. As a rejoinder to that Wolfe wrote an essay called — “My Three Stooges” (it is evident which three he was referring to) which is part of “Hooking Up“. The essay is dazzling, pugnacious, at times petty (I mean why call John Updike and Norman Mailer ” Old pile of bones”?) but provides a scintillating summary of the state of the American novel. This essay was a joy to read for it not only explains the uniqueness of writers like Sinclair Lewis and Steinbeck but also provides a great introduction to some of the lesser known but apparently well respected writers in America. Wolfe goes on to explain that the void that American novel has created by ignoring realism was usurped and monopolised by cinema and therefore the popularity of cinema — despite the obvious disadvantages it has as a medium

The Novella “Ambush at Fort Bragg” is about the phenomenon of sting TV. I personally did not think it was great. The other noteworthy pieces are about his jousts with high and mighty of New Yorker……… enjoyable but nothing exceptional

All in all “Hooking Up” is one of those Wolfe’s books worth having in ones library and the nice thing about the book is that one can read any essay, in any order, for, the topics are diverse, the research is intense, the view points original and writing style breezy….. It is difficult not to enjoy this book

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