Friday, October 19, 2012
October 15, 2012 Issue
What do W. G. Sebald and Tom Wolfe have in common? Very little. Sebald’s style is flat; Wolfe’s is hyperactive. Sebald is an elegist; Wolfe is a provocateur. About the only connection between them is that they’re among the handful of writers that James Wood has reviewed more than once. Wood loves Sebald’s writing; he hates Wolfe’s. In his ““Tom Wolfe’s Shallowness, and the Trouble with Information” (The Irresponsible Self, 2004), he describes Wolfe’s prose as “ordinary,” “vulgar,” “gale-force,” “monstrously melodramatic,” “no capacity for simile or metaphor,” “grotesquerie,” “bumptious simplicity.” And in “Muscle-Bound,” in the current issue of the magazine, his critique of Wolfe’s writing is even more derisive (“pumped-up,” “steroidal,” “blaring,” “irritatingly bouncy,” “a big-circus broadcast,” “spoiled music,” “revelling in its own grossly muscular power, its own cheap riches”). However, both of Wood’s Wolfe pieces contain tiny sweet spots, momentary pauses in the onslaught of invective, when Wood veers close to actually saying something positive about Wolfe’s prose. For example, in “Tom Wolfe’s Shallowness, and the Trouble with Information,” Wood says, “Sometimes the reportage is so good, the rendition so faithful, and the speech so strange, that a genuine power flickers on the page.” But this compliment quickly dissolves and Wood resumes his rant. Similarly, in “Muscle-Bound,” Wood briefly halts his attack just long enough to insert this beauty: “Very occasionally in this novel, Wolfe gives evidence that he knows the difference between those French prunes and ‘Hotchkiss, Yale … six-three.’” Sound enigmatic? It is, beautifully so, especially if considered as a stand-alone sentence. But viewed in context, it makes perfect sense. And it provides entry into a wonderful gloss on Wood’s philosophy of detail, which I think may turn out to be his most lasting contribution to literary criticism (see the brilliant chapter titled “Detail” in his How Fiction Works, 2008).