Friday, February 22, 2008

Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full

Since I have been writing about American Idol for two days, I feel the need to elevate the tone of this blog a little. Of course John Irving called this book "entertainment" as opposed to "literature." I'm not going to get into it with John Irving on the merits of various books. John Irving and I have never had a problem before, in all the many times we've exchanged thoughts on art and pop culture.

I very much like entertainment. However, it took me six weeks to read A Man in Full. It is very long. If you had told me on the first of the year that I would spend six weeks of my young, vibrant, fascinating life reading a book about Atlanta politics, real estate developers, bank management, and Stoic philosophy, I would have said, No. However, Wolfe's true subject was one that held me in its thrall from the first chapter, and kept me coming back eagerly, through all 750 pages, during ballet class and through late nights, until the paperback was falling apart from being crammed into my bag. His subject is men. What is it to be a man at the end of the 20th century? What is it to be a man at all? The book follows four men through a twisted plot that would take me several pages to summarize. I'd rather talk about the way the book is written.

Wolfe goes back. Way back. And he goes in. Way in. There are two main characters who meet at the very end of the book, and in a sense the book truly begins when they meet. However, the book begins months in advance of that meeting, and the ostensible impetus for the book is only actually tangentially related to them. There is an alleged crime, if you must know. Which has also got a tangential relation to the real theme (what is a man). The books starts after 700 pages, when the main characters meet for the first time. Using the fake impetus allows Wolfe to begin at the true beginning, when these characters are at a stable place. Then Wolfe can put them in the butter churn and start beating them into butter.
The other thing that I found interesting about the construction of this novel was the episodic nature of the chapters. At the beginning of the book, the chapters focus exclusively on one character or another, and some of them are so brilliantly episodic that they would be amazing short stories, with no context at all. After one of the early chapters about Conrad, the youngest and possibly most sympathetic of the four central men, I shut the book and put it down, because I felt I had just read such a great scene, I had to stop.
Let's talk about the whole concept of sympathetic characters, for a moment. With the exception of Conrad, every one of the men has significant flaws. Even Conrad, if you think about it, is deeply flawed. It's hard to see the flaws of these male characters, however, because they are presented so sympathetically. Well, not sympathetically. The narrative is not sympathetic, but it is exhaustively detailed, claustrophobically close to the characters' consciousnesses, minute. We feel that we know them so well, understand them so well, perceive their contexts and histories so well, it is hard to pull back enough to remember that they are doing things that are pretty reprehensible. It's part of what makes this book so interesting -- the moral ambiguity that's available to the reader, as we are allowed to put on all of these different identities, and really inhabit them without judgment, without even reflecting on right and wrong.
How does Wolfe do this? How does he simultaneously show us all of these slimy lowlifes, and give us permission to cheer for them, to wish them luck, to hope things work out somehow. I am not even sure.

After I recover from the effort, I will read another book by Tom Wolfe. Maybe I Am Charlotte Simmons. Want to trade your copy of that for my copy of this? Wolfe takes a long time to write his novels. I like that about him. A Man In Full was just wonderful. I highly recommend.

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