Tom Wolfe’s Big, Bad Book


A careful guardian of the English language Tom Wolfe is not. The infelicities of style and substance in the novelist’s latest book are summed up by Stephen Abell, in the Times Literary Supplement’s November 9, 2012 issue. Abell’s verdict about the door-stopper, Back to Blood: “While it is big, it is not particularly clever”:

…as we struggle through his fourth blockbuster, Back to Blood, we begin to reflect that size, in literature as in life, is not everything. We can at least confidently point to some of the products of Wolfe’s recent cramming …

… [Wolfe] direct[‘s] much of our attention beneath the sheets. Not that sex in Back to Blood goes on merely in the bedroom. In one ill-conceived set-piece, Norman and Magdalena attend a regatta, which becomes a floating orgy with pornography being displayed on the giant sails of some of the boats (complete with rather startling “labia majorae three times as big as the entrance to the Miami Convention Center”).

Sex unquestionably brings out some of the flaws in Wolfe’s prose. For example, its effortfully mimetic approach, where the writing enacts the sounds it is describing. This is from a superfluous trip to the “Honey Pot” (an unimaginative strip club), where Wolfe wants to leave us in no doubt about the pole-straddling gyrations of the woman on stage: “BEAT thung CROTCH thung TAIL thung CRACK thung PERI thung NEUM thung”. Or its obsession with transcribing sounds to needless effect (which creates sentences that make it look as if the author has fallen asleep against his keyboard): “unhh, ahhh ahhh, ooom-muh, ennngh ohhhhunh”. There is crass imagery (“his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle”) and glib alliteration (“lascivious looks of men lifting the lust in the loins”). And there is the relentlessly anatomical categorization: “pectoral glories”, “mons pubis”, “their montes veneris”.

…The corollary is, needless to say, a simplistic attitude towards men, and manliness. Men in Back to Blood are judged by the quality of “not being a pussy”, and by their muscularity (an area where Wolfe has an almost fetishistic eye): …

… The notion of an anatomical approach is also crucial to understanding Wolfe’s writing style more generally. He is a founding father of what might called “List lit”, in which constituent aspects of life are broken down into a catalogue of parts. So, for example, when a character sits before a desk, we are immediately presented “with its Art Deco kidney shape, its gallery, its sharkskin writing surface, the delicately tapered shin guards on its legs, its ivory dentils running about the entire rim, its vertical strings of ivory running through the macassar ebony”.

At the basic level of sentence structure, this often means that Wolfe’s descriptions (and the descriptions are unquestionably his; they do not vary with the characters on whose perceptions they are apparently based) are filled with minor variation, as if he wishes to create an effect of mass multiplication simply by using near-synonyms: “they looked prissy, dinky, finicky, fussy, and gussied up”; “he could insult people to their faces, humiliate them, break their spirits . . . make them cry, sob, blubber, boohoo”.

The result is a novel which is bright and busy, and full of information rather than imagination.


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