Saturday, December 15, 2012

2012.12.15 — The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe: Finished in 1992(?) and Fushigi*

I wrote a review of Bonfire of the Vanities on 2012.12.14 to post on Goodreads. When I wrote it I was going to leave it there because I read BotV in the early 90s and because I felt
compelled to wrote a contrary voice to the effusive praise and awards this book has undeservedly received. I finished editing and posting the 'Goodreads' review around 1am.

Before you get to read the review, however, I'll introduce the remarkable fushigi. This morning, I resumed my perusal of Stanley Park by Canadian (Vancouver) writer, Timothy Taylor (ISBN 9780307363596).
At the bottom of the page where against which my mark sat were the words Will Work For Food in italics. Here's the paragraph that that text finishes:
He stood and approached this tree-like diorama and began to examine its leaves and branches. There were childhood pictures, here. There, a wedding picture he had not seen before. The Pelikan pen itself Scotch-taped to the wall in a cluster that included a letter from the dean of anthropology approving extended sick leave. A page torn from Will Work for Food (276).
Now that, as it turns out, is a remarkable fushigi because of what I didn't include in my review of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe. Macmillan. ISBN: 9780312427573 or ISBN10: 0312427573.


Here's the review I wrote:

This was one of the few books I've read because of the chit chat around it. The movie, which I felt had potential but which I thought was ultimately a directorial failure, was the final element that brought me to pick this book up. I was curious at how the movie failed and needed to read the book to see if my impression that it was a directorial failure was accurate or not. My reading that book did not answer that question with any certainty because BotV has become one of the touch stone books marking me as an outsider to the society
within which I live. Its award winning popularity is a complete mystery to me. Poorly written, it has uninteresting characters and characterization espousing a heavy handed superficial morality — sort of. My few observations of Wolfe in book interviews did not in any way dissuade me that he is an overrated wind-bag, filled with ego and hubris and little of what I would consider critical intelligence. It struck me that he was an advocate of American hegemony both domestic and foreign.

So, with that in mind it was with surprise and even fascination that I read a Tom Wolfe encomium of American domestic practices under Reagan get severely castigated by Noam Chomsky. In his satirically way, Chomsky basically puts Wolfe's social commentary into the ranks of the rantings of a delusional apologist for the greed-based policies that successfully impoverished the majority to the benefit of the very few. So, in a perversion of a 'proper' book review, here is a taste of Chomsky chastising Tom Wolfe — note, I hadn't even heard of Chomsky before reading BotV:

What the [economic] "paradox" [in 1992 of a 'Weak Economy but Strong Profits'] entails for the general population is demonstrated by numerous studies of income distribution, real wages, poverty, hunger, infant mortality, and other social indices. A study released by the Economic Policy Institute on Labor Day, 1992, fleshed out the details of what people know from their experience: after a decade of Reaganism, "most Americans are working longer hours for lower wages and considerably less security," and "the vast majority" are "in many ways worse off" than in the late 1970s. From 1987, real wages have declined even for the college educated. "Poverty rates were high by historic standards," and "those in poverty in 1989 were significantly poorer than the poor in 1979." The poverty rate rose further in 1991, the Census Bureau reported. A congressional report released a few days later estimates that hunger has grown by 50 percent since the mid-1980s to some 30 million people. Other studies show that one of eight children under 12 suffers from hunger, a problem that reappeared in 1982 after having been overcome by government programs from the 1960s. Two researchers report that in New York, the proportion of children raised in poverty more than doubled to 40 percent, while nationwide, "the number of hungry American children grew by 26 percent" as aid for the poor shrank during "the booming 1980s"—"one of the great golden moments that humanity has ever experienced," a spokesman for the culture of cruelty proclaimed (Tom Wolfe Boston Globe February 1990) [I did a Google and found these relatively contemporary items: A Rising Hunger Among Children and Infant Malnutrition at Staggering Levels in Massachusetts.]

The impact is brought out forcefully in more narrowly-focused studies; for example, at the Boston City Hospital, where researchers found that "the number of malnourished, low-weight children jumped dramatically following the coldest winter months," when parents had to face the agonizing choice between heat or food. At the hospital's clinic for malnourished children, more were treated in the first nine months of 1992 than in all of 1991; the wait for care reached two months, compelling the staff to "resort to triage." Some suffer from Third World levels of malnutrition and require hospitalization, victims of "the social and financial calamities that have befallen families" and the "massive retrenchment in social service programs" (Boston Globe September 8, 25, 1992).
By the side of a road, men hold signs that read "Will Work for Food," a sight that recalls the darkest days of the Great Depression.(Year 501: The Conquest Continues, p280-1).
I am being a little mean here, I fully acknowledge. But in the few Wolfe interviews I saw, I found myself becoming angry that a bad writer was being heralded as a visionary and truth seeker to be paraded by the media in their campaign to mis-represent the extent of income polarity and impoverishment that is the direct result of American policies that are benefiting very few, but doing so to a staggering degree.
End of Goodreads Review

What made the highlighted text above not just a fushigi, but a remarkable one is that when I originally cited Chomsky in the review I omitted that line, and only that line. I remembered reading it, but because I was squeezing my citation I felt that that line wasn't necessary to make the point I was trying to make. I have, since then, edited the review to include it.

Post-Script 2012.12.16:
And I know this is completely irrelevant, and totally meaningless, but I have found it a little bemusing that the colour of covers of Year 501 and Stanley Park is almost identical. I have no idea why I am writing this down. When I first noticed it I dismissed that detail as trivial and uninteresting and likely to make me look like an idiot if I were to put it out here. But, each time I pick up Stanley Park to recommence my perusal — I'm now page 278 now — that thought gets into my brain and buzzes around for a while. So, I have written this post script to stop that thought from floating around and to fully prove my madness to the few who read my blog. (But then, those few will already know that I am mad.)

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