By Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe has a point. Whatever happened to naturalism? One would have thought the end of the twentieth century a perfect seed-time for its revival. I say this not because of any new developments made in our understanding of human behaviorism, the kind of science Wolfe worships in the form of its deity Edward O. (“Darwin II”) Wilson, but rather in consideration of the zeitgeist. A certain kind of hardcore “realism” is big these days, of the kind that naturalistic authors, with their focus on the seamier, violent side of life, were the first to portray. It also seems, at least to me, as though an approach to fiction that emphasizes deterministic forces should strike a chord with today’s public. Do individual citizens really feel more in control of their lives than their counterparts at the turn of the last century? Or is it that they have simply given up, turning to fiction (be it pulp or Literature) only for an escape from reality?
Wolfe, one of the founders of the New Journalism, has been carrying a torch for naturalism since the publication of his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast.” His sense of what naturalism means, however, has to be made clear. Mostly what he has in mind is research, the need for a novelist to go out into the great big world and do the spadework necessary to make their fiction real. Only the results are not necessarily realistic. As Frank Norris observed some time ago when making the case for Zola as a Romantic writer, naturalism is the opposite of ” real Realism” – what he defined as a fiction full of the “smaller details of everyday life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper, small passions, restricted emotions, dramas of the reception-room, tragedies of an afternoon call, crises involving cups of tea”:
The naturalist takes no note of common people, common in so far as their interests, their lives, and the things that occur to them are common, are ordinary. Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalistic tale. They must be twisted from the ordinary, wrenched out from the quiet, uneventful round of every-day life, and flung into unleashed passions, in blood, and sudden death.
The reason naturalism needs such twisting and wrenching is because it is fiction meant to illustrate a theory. The novelist, usually some kind of social crusader, has a point, and better you should hate their book than miss it. Basically that point has to do with the forces, biological and social, that control the destiny of the individual human animal, or “human beast” as Wolfe has it in his first selection of essays in Hooking Up.
At first blush it seems as though Wolfe is pure biology. He describes the “sudden switch from a belief in Nurture, in the form of social conditioning, to Nature, in the form of genetics and brain physiology” as “the great intellectual event . . . of the late twentieth century.” Freud and Marx are dead everywhere but within the despised academy (where they are dying, since they can’t be made to pay). But despite all this, Wolfe is primarily a social critic. It is the human environment that he sees as truly determining the lives of the characters. His Manhattan Masters of the Universe and “skinheads” at Fort Bragg are defined by where and how they live more than by their genes. Family, aside from what it can provide in the way of social connections, plays no part in his fiction at all.
In other words, there is a disjunction between the theory and the practice of Wolfe’s fiction. The main difficulty, of course, lies in how one defines the real real world. There is, to take an example from the book at hand, nothing at all realistic about the novella “Ambush at Fort Bragg.” Did Wolfe really spend an “eternity” studying network-news practices in New York and Army life at Fort Bragg just in order to write a fairy tale about an absurdly over-choreographed media sting operation? I mean, it’s a nice little story, but is it real?
Of course Hooking Up is a great read, and full of provocative material. While one can get annoyed at Wolfe’s prose, which is overloaded with interjections, italicizations, exclamations and other tricks (like paragraphs that begin with “But!” and sentences disrupted by a “Bango!” or “Gotcha!” tossed into their midst), what is hard to deny is the infectious energy of it all. Wolfe’s writing, to borrow one of his own favourite expressions, has energy “to burn.” Who else could get this excited by the subject of the doping of America’s children with Ritalin:
America is a wonderful country! I mean it! No honest writer would challenge that statement! The human comedy never runs out of material! It never lets you down!
Philip Roth despaired of American fiction ever being capable of describing such a human comedy, but Wolfe just can’t get enough of the stuff. It is his dope. Which brings us, indirectly, to the real difficulty in Wolfe’s aesthetics. Reality for Wolfe is not the raw material of art but an end in itself. The human comedy is a “methylphenidate nirvana.” Wolfe’s ideal novelist goes into Reality raptures, engrossed by . . . anything at all. To see how this plays out in his program for writing, listen to what he has to say concerning realism and the movies:
Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy . . . (etc.)
There have been many commentators telling us how movies have superseded the printed word, but few with this same enthusiasm. The claims Wolfe makes for “movie directors and producers” (producers?) are, however, ridiculous.
First of all, as we have already seen, when Wolfe uses the word realism to describe a literary technique what he is usually referring to is research. But while this may be a vanishing art among today’s novelists (that is what they have assistants for), anybody who thinks that the year of research that went into the writing of Apocalypse Now made that film a realistic masterpiece is not quite living in our world. And in any event, the reason audiences flock to the movies is, and always has been, because they are not realistic. Does Wolfe seriously consider Steven Spielberg the Zola of the late twentieth century? The Star Wars franchise its Rougon-Macquart? Mailer and Irving may be out of touch with “American life at this moment,” but are they as fantastic as Jurassic Park?
Then there is the question of the writer’s relationship to the “lurid carnival of American life.” Does he reflect this reality, give it a voice, or does he become one with the “raucous rout”? Is the reality of Wolfe’s realism something merely to be experienced, or can it be understood? The future of the arts, if they are to have a future, is, according to Wolfe, to be transformed into something that will simply be called “content”: “life, reality, the pulse of the human breast.” Such a revolution might occur, but if it does it won’t be written. A reality drug will be the end of art.
Review first published online August 28, 2001.