Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)

I adored the first 650 pages of this book, and whole-heartedly agreed with those critics who said this book was "impossible to put down" (the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, etc). The writing style captured me from the first chapter, specifically, Wolfe's particular use of a version of stream-of-consciousness with the character's thoughts frequently interrupting their own dialogue - just the way one's mind actually does. These ubiquitous interruptions not only allow the reader to really get into the mind and mood of the characters (into their cavity, if you will, like the media gets into Sherman McCoy), but, for me, they personalized the story in a way that I could intimately identify with each character (the awareness of grammatical choices! the accents! the internal quips!), which created an entirely new literary experience for me - it became impossible to side more with one character than another. These are real characters, in spite of how drastically different their lives are, both from everyone else in the book, as well as from my own, and yet, I feel like I knew them all personally.

The plot seemed to sneak up on me, but in the most entertaining way. I didn't feel lost or confused, as one usual does when the central conflict is long in revealing itself. I was also intrigued by how relatively timeless the story managed to be. Although it was written almost 23 years ago, and deals heavily with a "modern" lifestyle in fast-paced Wall Street, New York, the only issue I came across was the abundant lack of cell phones - much of the conflict seems like it could have been entirely avoided in today's world, just through the invent of hand-held wireless phones. Granted, I know next to nothing about Wall Street and bond sales, but when the reader excuses this as a "cell phone free world," the plot could just as easily be set in present time.

I thoroughly enjoyed diving into this world depicted by Wolfe. I felt fabulously rich in the Park Avenue, multi-million dollar apartments and extravagant parties, and in the next chapter, I sympathized genuinely with those who have only ever known life in the projects in the Bronx. In between, I understood what it was like to live in a shoebox of an apartment on modest wages. I was with each of these characters as their world came alive through Wolfe's words.

And then, just like that, everything came apart in the last 30 pages with the abrupt, almost non sequitur ending. The cheap use of a literal deus ex machina solved the main conflict but left many plot angles unanswered. Fortunately, the epilogue wrapped everything up in a mock-article supposedly written a year after the main events occurred, obscurely referencing the central characters and conflicts, as well as finding a way to touch upon the secondary and tertiary plots. Yes, all the characters were "involved" with each other in some way, but the inclusion of every open-ended plot line in this succinct article was an awkward stretch, at best. This poor literary technique almost suggests that Wolfe either had an impending deadline for the novel or just gave up. Regardless,the last pages left me feeling betrayed by the absence of an ending in the same voice as the rest of the book.

Overall, I did really enjoy this book, and would recommend it, but the ending most definitely ruined it for me. I am looking forward to reading more of Wolfe's fiction works, in the hopes that I can indulge in another world created by this writing style, but I will be on guard for the ending and another cheap literary escape.

No comments:

Post a Comment