Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities

This is one of those classics that you always promise yourself you're going to get around to reading but never do. I generally rely on fate to throw books in my path for about 80% of my reading, and so when I happened across this for 20p at an Amnesty International book sale, I figured the time had come! I wasn't sure what to expect, and have a fifty-fifty kind of relationship with “classics” (at best) and find a lot of them don't interest me that much for one reason or another, but I was totally swept away by this! It's compelling funny and clever, with the kind of penetrating vision that speaks of real knowledge and experience of the milieu he describes.

This novel brought to mind a piece of Wolfe's journalism I read earlier in the year, “Radical Chic” published in the New York Magazine in 1970. The article uses a lot of fictional techniques, but the novel really brings home John Gardner's assertion that fiction can tell truths that non-fiction can't reach. While “Radical Chic” describes the actions of a small group in the great game of power, The Bonfire of the Vanities uses fiction to illustrate the entire cycle of power and money in New York in the 80s, showing how it flows through the city and the people.

This is a satire, and the characters have only the depth and characteristics that satire demands. They are libidinal, dishonest, cowardly, greedy and lazy and it's these characteristics that drive them rather than any desire to do or be good. They are partly symbolic of various players in the game of power, although some are more symbolic than others.

Sherman McCoy is at the heart of proceedings here, and is the most rounded character. His actions get the whole thing started, and we spend the most time with him as he makes his way through the justice system. He's the only character that's really changed by what he goes through, and for all the blame he can rightly take for what happens to him, he's an innocent compared to the people that drive the case forward and ultimately ruin him. The Reverend Bacon who pushes the case on behalf of the impoverished black community of the Bronx is shown to be self-serving and corrupt using the rhetoric of oppression to line his own pockets (in a subplot about funding for a community daycare centre that remains half developed) and the district attorney is more interested in re-election than justice. Both men are forever in touch with the press making sure that their righteous actions are there for all to see. The press, of course, come off no better and are represented here by the venal, drunken Englishman Peter Fallow, who works for a scandal sheet and only really worries about free drinks and snobbery.

Wolfe wades into all this with great wit and verve. He has a great fractured style, breaking sentences up with dashes and ellipses to create a stream of consciousness that follows his characters eyes and thoughts around a room. He's especially good at waspish observation, whether it's Fallow's disparaging commentary on barbaric Americans or McCoy's bored superior view of his wife's friends (emaciated social X-Rays and Lemon Tarts). The plot is effectively driven by the competing desire of of everyone to reveal or conceal different aspects of what happened on the night of McCoy, Kramer and Bacon all have their own reasons for presenting a certain version of the events, and Wolfe builds up tension as they try and conceal or reveal matters for their own advantage. Most of the tension builds up around McCoy, that familiar dread where you know what's coming but it's artfully spun out as the author ratchets up the consequences of not coming cleans notch by notch.

The elements work brilliantly in isolation, but they all add up to a fantastic satirical vision, one that seems compellingly true and vital, revealing the cracks in society of 80s New York. All in all it's a fantastic book, one of the best I've read this year!


  1. I read Bonfire a few years ago and was gripped from the opening - all that business about half-eaten mayonnaise, you know.
    The ending is a bit... well, it's not really there, but it doesn't matter too much.

    Right now I'm reading Don DeLillo's "White Noise", which is somewhere in the same territory, although I think not as daring and so a bit less fun.

  2. Yeah, that's true about the ending. I think it suits the rhythm of whacky satire to end in a huge, noisy set piece like that. You can virtually see the credits roll as all the characters assemble to wrestle with each other, and old ladies bash thugs over the head with handbags etc, and I think the moment that McCoy lashes out at the tall guy with the earring we keep seeing was nicely done, but most of the plot weight falls in the epilogue. None of the characters get a proper send off, really. IIRC, A Confederacy of Dunces suffers from the same problem to a degree.

    Being a satire, though, the character stuff plays second fiddle to the jaded portrait of a corrupt world. Too much character stuff risks robbing the characters of their bite (not enough, of course, turns them into ciphers).

    DeLillo's on my "list" such as it is. When he turns up cheap and second hand, I'll snap them up (although I think they've all been read and disposed of by my wife already, so I'll have to endure the inevitable eye-riolling...)



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