Thursday, April 04, 2013

Sweeping

When the "Girls" backlash (and backlash to backlash...) first broke, and everyone was saying that the show was too white, my thought - and that of approximately 10,000 of the 300,000 weighing in - was that the problem wasn't so much "Girls" being too white as that shows by-and-about white people are the only ones getting made. A TV show about a small group of friends is never going to be a sweeping portrait of society, or even one borough.

What is frustrating, however, is when a work that does claim to be a sweeping portrait of society manages to be one, but only to a point.

I just finished - and am going to reveal the plot of, if you haven't read it and were planning to - Tom Wolfe's 1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities, a sweeping portrait of New York in the pre-Giuliani age of puffy-sleeved evening gowns, back when the Upper West Side was plausibly scrappy. One of the book's great strengths is, we get all these characters separately, but also how they perceive one another. But we only get three perspectives: McCoy, the white Protestant banker, Kramer, the insecure Jewish government-lawyer, and Fallow, the alcoholic British journalist - all three white and at least middle class. We get a bit of a glimpse into the mindset of various working-class white (Jewish and Irish) men, but anything beyond that is too unknowable-Other. Obviously, no work can address the entirety of human experience. But when a work is about themes like race, class, and heterosexual intimacy, but only manages to convey the range of viewpoints of white men, this is distracting. Not as in distractingly un-PC. Distracting as in, it feels somehow incomplete.

Women in the novel are on the one hand central to the action - an affair is what ultimately brings down McCoy - and on the other, at best sketches of characters. They exist in two varieties - wife whose looks are fading, and pretty-young-thing love interest. Which is no doubt how many men see it. But a novelist might want us to have the perspective of McCoy's wife and mistress, and so forth. Particularly the mistress, who, you know, killed someone. One does not need to have been especially influenced by Women's Studies 101 to want to know what's going through this character's mind. Zola, who Wolfe apparently admires, and who (if I know anything, I know this) certainly wouldn't meet 2013 standards of political correctness, would jump around to different perspectives, male and female. There's this one moment in The Bonfire of the Vanities when we get a glimpse of how Kramer's mistress sees him, and it's brilliant. Obviously Wolfe is capable of such observations. Why aren't there more?

More to the point: African-Americans! Specifically, this is a story about a confrontation between the poshest and most sheltered parts of white New York and the most dangerous and tragic parts of black New York. Black characters - mostly male ones - are incredibly important to the plot - a community leader/Al Sharpton stand-in; a hit-and-run victim in a coma who, fine, can't say much; a teenage crack dealer; and an aspiring middle-class mother stuck in the projects. The only thing we learn about how any black people feel is, they don't like it when one of their own is killed. Well, go figure. But the idea that we might know what a black character is thinking is somehow well outside the bounds of conceivability. This is a problem not because, for some anachronistic and PC reason, I'd like this to have been a book about black New Yorkers. It's a problem because it is a book about black New Yorkers. See the difference?

It would be one thing if the book honed in only on McCoy, looking at only at how the hierarchy looks from the precarious top of it. But then there's Kramer, and Fallow - the jumping-around. It would also be something else if the stance of the book was that the fall of McCoy is an unmitigated disaster, that some lives really are worth more than others. If, in other words, the book were a racist comment on societal decadence. And some well-written novels (see: late-19th C France) have, alas, been along those lines, and what to make of those is its own conversation. But McCoy is a douche, an overgrown dudebro, in modern parlance. He's an entitled Wall Street fool who thinks he can get away with murder, or close. He's not entirely unsympathetic, or the book wouldn't work. But the reader is also supposed to feel a bit of schadenfreude, a bit of, he got an exaggerated version of what was coming to him.

At any rate, I was wary of reading this what with having really disliked that Charlotte Simmons book, but overall, I suppose, despite the caveats above, a recommend.

7 comments:

redscott said...

Your criticism of the social incompleteness of the perspectives in Girls is totally legitimate. But, regarding the backlash, I did wonder why it is that we do all the earnest (and valid!) chin-stroking about stuff like that when a show is by and about girls, but not so much in any other context. Over the years, it's struck me that women who want to talk about their own lives as women always have to fend off this intersectional argument that they're not inclusive or representative enough class-wise, race-wise, etc. Good food for thought and worth working on, sure. But it's always seemed to me that a lot of the intensity and volume of the backlash in these situations isn't about the search for the complete truth but about a visceral negative reaction when the talk turns to women as women. So then we talk about how there aren't really Women, but black women, white women, Asian women, rich/poor/middle class women, with so many differences, you can't sweep it all under the rug, etc. I know you're not doing that, but the whole Girls backlash is kind of annoying because it seems that women writing about women always have to fend this one off, uniquely involving them, which doesn't seem all that fair.

Phoebe said...

"Your criticism of the social incompleteness of the perspectives in Girls is totally legitimate."

Not sure you read me right - I was criticizing the criticism.

WPB said...

Given all this, you might like Wolfe's newest, Back to Blood. It has been criticized for being derivative of Bonfire, but most of the POV characters are non-white, and two are female. Recommended with reservations.

Phoebe said...

WPB,

Took me a good three seconds to figure out who you are! But this does make me take your recommendation-with-reservations more seriously.

WPB said...

Hah! I didn't intend to be masked, but I tried and failed to leave versions of the comment at least half a dozen times from my phone effort finally getting it to authenticate me through google, and apparently this is how I commented a long time ago.

By the way, I liked Charlotte Simmons (though not as much as Bonfire) so you may want to discount my views in that light.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. That you liked Charlotte Simmons may change matters slightly. But my inability to put Bonfire down for a couple days might mean that it does not.

WPB said...

Not to turn this into a general discussion of Wolfe's novels (though why not?) but it would also help to know why you disliked Charlotte Simmons.

If you saw it as a critique of kids today and of liberal social attitudes on campus, I would understand why. (I saw it as a critique of overly sheltered upbringings.)

Also and relatedly, two other thoughts about Back to Blood: For the first half of the book, I could not decide if the book was racist, or critical of racism. I think Wolfe might write narrators of other races more compellingly than he writes female narrators.