[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Tom Wolfe) 'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'
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Sat Feb 5 10:57:10 UTC 2005
'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'
As a member of the Manhattan intelligentsia, novelist Tom Wolfe seems a
lonely defender of George Bush's conservative values. But, he tells Ed
Vulliamy, he's bewildered by a sex-mad society and tired of being lectured
to at dinner parties. So is he voting for Dubya tomorrow? He's not quite
Monday November 01 2004
Tom Wolfe casts his gaze across America at this election time, with eyes
that change mood in a nanosecond, with a flicker. For the most part, they
exude an amused elegance befitting the hallmark white suit and dandy-ish
two-tone brogues. But then the look suddenly changes, to become
scalpel-sharp, mischievous, seizing upon some detail. It is a
metamorphosis which begins to explain, perhaps, how this softly-spoken,
immaculately-mannered gentleman journalist from the South can write with
such voracity about the grime and sediment which inhabits American society
and the human soul.
Certainly the view is stirring from the place to which he retreats to
write, and where we meet: his outrageously beautiful Manhattan apartment
taking up the 14th floor of a block on the Upper East Side, with sweeping
views over a Central Park drenched in autumnal sunshine. A grand piano
sits in the corner, painted in what Wolfe calls "cocktail lounge navy
blue". Shelves are stacked with books on 19th-century, modern and Dutch
art. In what he calls his office, next to the sitting room, is a huge,
handsome and ornate bureau on which sits handwriting instruments and two
>From this desk, and the pen of arguably America's greatest current writer
>- author of the 1987 epic Bonfire of the Vanities and much more besides -
>there now comes a third major novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, to be
>published next week, on the other side of election day. Wolfe set out,
>for the first time, to write the book on a computer, but gave up in
>favour of his usual typewriter. "Then I jammed my finger badly," he says,
>"and took up pen and paper. This may turn out to be the last book ever
>written that way."
A new Tom Wolfe novel is always a literary event: where will he go next?
The answer this time is an elite, imaginary Ivy League university, Dupont
College, for a book about libido off the leash, and about the cult of what
Wolfe calls "the bad comedy" of college sports - athletes taken on by
centres of academic excellence for their bodies, not their brains.
The novel - researched, as usual, down to the last expletive - concerns a
young world speaking "fuck patois", loaded with creatine and cocaine,
numbed by PlayStation 3, and charged by alcohol, the "vile spleen" of rap
and, above all, ubiquitous sex between the heirs and heiresses to
privilege in America. Most intriguingly, in this week of all weeks in
American history, the book affords a gateway towards explaining Wolfe's
boldly delivered, tantalising, remark: "I have sympathy with what George
Bush is trying to do, although obviously the excursion [into Iraq] is not
Four years ago, Wolfe wrote an essay to mark the millennium called Hooking
Up, about what he called "feverish emphasis on sex and sexiness". In a
way, the new novel is a literary fruition of the essay. The excess and
decadence at Dupont College are seen through the eyes of his heroine,
Charlotte Simmons, who arrives a diligent virgin from the hills of North
Carolina, on a full scholarship. She is initially intimidated and
appalled, but eventually conquers her fear to partake, indeed to star, in
the jock beanfeast.
"I personally would be shocked out of my pants if I was at college now,"
confides Wolfe, who spent four years trawling the campuses for raw
material. The book, he says, is "about sex as it interacts with social
status. And I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if
anyone gets the least bit excited. So much of modern sex is un-erotic, if
erotic means flight of fancy or romantic build-up. Sex now is so easy to
consummate - it is a pressure that affects everybody, girls more than
boys, I think."
As he notes, the America which votes tomorrow is a country riven over
morality like never before. On the flip side of the culture of ubiquitous
sex is that of puritan Christianity, as harnessed in no small part by
Bush. "Yes, there is this puritanism," says Wolfe, "and I suppose we are
talking here about what you might call the religious right. But I don't
think these people are left or right, they are just religious, and if you
are religious, you observe certain strictures on sexual activity - you are
against the mainstream, morally speaking. And I do have sympathy with
them, yes, though I am not religious. I am simply in awe of it all; the
openness of sex. In the 60s they talked about a sexual revolution, but it
has become a sexual carnival."
No writer has chronicled the full American curve over four decades quite
like Wolfe. He has been at this, unswervingly, since 1965, when he
published a curio about pop culture called The Kandy-Kolored
Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His breakthrough came in 1968 with The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his chronicle of Ken Kesey's LSD-gobbling
Merry Pranksters. "If I have been judged to be right wing," he says, "I
think this is because of the things I have mocked. It started with Radical
Chic [published in 1970, about a fundraising party for the Black
Panthers organised by Leonard Bernstein]. I was denounced because
people thought I had jeopardised all progressive causes. But my impulse
was not political, it was simply the absurdity of the occasion. Then I
wrote The Painted Word, about modern art, and was denounced as
reactionary. In fact, it is just a history, although a rather loaded one.
Then came The Right Stuff [his account of America's first
astronauts], after which my relative enthusiasm for Nasa was another
sign of perfidy."
He is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can
be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the
left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the
underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of
ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could
not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty,
or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher
than being a good writer."
In his manifesto of 1973 on The New Journalism, Wolfe advocated a
"journalistic or perhaps documentary novel". He re-invoked the idea four
years ago by way of retort to a fusillade of criticism - an exchange which
scandalised New York society - levelled against his last novel, A Man In
Full, from no less than Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving. The
new book is in itself a counter to that outburst.
Wolfe's lambent success in documenting ambition, drunkenness, sloth and
meanness in his own country has taken him from his native Virginia to New
York which he wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities, pitching the
super-rich "Masters of the Universe" in high finance against the real
world of the Bronx. But even as the author of the quintessential New York
novel, Wolfe feels estranged in the city, as he surveys America during the
final days of the election campaign. Estranged not from the subjects of
his scrutiny, the "Masters of the Universe", but rather from the liberal
"Here is an example of the situation in America," he says: "Tina Brown
wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media
heavyweights were discussing, during dessert, what they could do to stop
Bush. Then a waiter announces that he is from the suburbs, and will vote
for Bush. And ... Tina's reaction is: 'How can we persuade these people
not to vote for Bush?' I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her
circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United
States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in
this election. I have never come across a candidate who is so reviled.
Reagan was sniggered it, but this is personal, real hatred.
"Indeed, I was at a similar dinner, listening to the same conversation,
and said: 'If all else fails, you can vote for Bush.' People looked at me
as if I had just said: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester.'
I would vote for Bush if for no other reason than to be at the airport
waving off all the people who say they are going to London if he wins
again. Someone has got to stay behind."
Where does it come from, this endorsement of the most conservative
administration within living memory? Of this president who champions the
right and the rich, who has taken America into the mire of war, and seeks
re-election tomorrow? Wolfe's eyes resume the expression of detached
"I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East-coast
pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever
trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a
non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment.
Support for Bush is about resentment in the so-called 'red states' - a
confusing term to Guardian readers, I agree - which here means, literally,
middle America. I come from one of those states myself, Virginia. It's the
same resentment, indeed, as that against your own newspaper when it sent
emails targeting individuals in an American county." Wolfe laughs as he
chastises. "No one cares to have outsiders or foreigners butting into
their affairs. I'm sure that even many of those Iraqis who were cheering
the fall of Saddam now object to our being there. As I said, I do not
think the excursion is going well."
And John Kerry? "He is a man no one should worry about, because he has no
beliefs at all. He is not going to introduce some manic radical plan,
because he is poll-driven, and it is therefore impossible to know where or
for what he stands."
As far as Wolfe is concerned, "the great changes in America came with the
second world war, since which time I have not seen much shift in what
Americans fundamentally believe. Apart from the fact that as recently as
the 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller shocked people by leaving his wife of 30
years, while now celebrities routinely have children outside marriage, the
mayor of New York leaves his wife for his lover and no one blinks. But a
large number of people have remained religious, and it is a divided
country - do not forget that Al Gore nearly won the last election. The
country is split right along party lines."
And there has been a complete climate change in the nation which elected
Bill Clinton twice, to that which may confer the same honour on George
Bush tomorrow. This, says Wolfe, began not with the election of Bush, but
on the morning of September 11 2001.
None of us who were in New York that day will ever forget it, and Wolfe is
no exception. "I was sitting in my office when someone called to tell me
two light planes had collided with the World Trade Centre. I turned on my
television, before long there was this procession of people of all kinds,
walking up the street. What I remember most was the silence of that crowd;
there was no sound.
"That day told us that here was a different kind of enemy. I honestly
think that America and the Bush administration felt that something extreme
had to be done. But I do not think that the Americans have become a
warlike people; it is rare in American history to set about
empire-building - acquiring territory and slaves. I've never met an
American who wanted to build an empire. And while the invasion of
Afghanistan was something that had to be done, I am stunned that Iraq was
Wolfe is by no means afraid to offend the political right - "I'm gratified
if you find me to be hard on them too," he says. He also anticipates that
"conservatives will not like this new novel because I refuse to take the
impact of political correctness seriously - I think PC has probably had a
good effect because it is now bad manners to use racial epithets."
So what is it about his liberal neighbours and fellow diners in his
adoptive New York that Wolfe cannot abide? "I cannot stand the lock-step
among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing, without
variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly
wants it registered that I am not one of them."
Parting cordially, it seems strange that such an effervescent maverick,
such a jester at the court of all power - all vanity, indeed - should so
wholeheartedly endorse the power machine behind George Bush. And so an
obvious thought occurs: perhaps Wolfe is jester at the court of New York
too. Would he really be happier away from New York, out on the plains, in
the "red states" where everyone at dinner parties votes for Bush? Wolfe's
eyes revert to that mischievous glint, and he allows himself a smile. "I
do think," he admits, apparently speaking for himself, his country and his
president, "that if you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are
not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning."
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