A Morbid Ending of Our Own

Noah and Williams

A Morbid Ending of Our Own

Noah and Williams

A Morbid Ending of Our Own
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 13 1998 5:13 PM

Noah and Williams

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Dear Tim,

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Well, I don't know if it's really fair to expect someone pushing 70 with a quintuple bypass under his belt to lower his sights and consciously work in small bursts that he can count on getting to the end of. In my admittedly limited experience, the ones who keep working and do it zestily are the ones who think they're going to live forever. But I share your slightly greedy hope that Wolfe will do as you suggest; and he's amply demonstrated that he can only write short in nonfiction form. (Of course, he may no longer be inclined to write short even in journalism; The Right Stuff took him seven years, and God bless him for it.)

It's funny now to go back and read the first chapters of The New Journalism, in which he mocks himself and his contemporaries in the features trade for starting out the '60s under the delusion that the one and true aim of every writer was to retire to a cabin somewhere and write... The Great American Novel. He has surely come full circle.

I for one would love to read Wolfe on the subject of education: not higher education, which is invulnerable to further satire. (Randall Jarrell already wrote the great series of fictional set pieces on college life, Pictures from an Institution; and ever since the dawn of P.C., colleges satirize themselves.) But schools, and the turgid batters of ambition and place-holding and power-mongering that go into baking them. (Tom Wolfe and the teacher's unions: there's a match made in heaven.) But then again, this might require him to write about children, a breed in which he has even less interest than he does in women.

(A final comment, by the way, on Wolfe and women and Martha Croker: If you had read any of those women's books that so clutter up the bestseller lists, in your accounting, you might have found Martha less novel a figure. I didn't say she wasn't a well-drawn character; it's only that I've met her so many times before. And I feel no inclination to make a feminist argument that being dumped by your first husband is but a fortuitous invitation to self-discovery, or that a woman like Martha could do better than Ray Peepgass. Martha's situation is every bit as hard as he makes it out to be.)

Other subjects on which I'd like to read Wolfe: Washington, D.C.-both the federal city and the city city. (Now that Marion Barry's finally out of the picture, the truth-is-stranger problem won't be quite so severe.) The culture of the CIA. (Now there's an institution in status crisis.) The race to cure cancer. But who are we kidding? The true answer to your question is any little thing he'd like to write about. You and I would both be happy to stand with our hands cupped below the tap and drink thirstily of anything that comes out. It behooves us not to be ingrates: Wolfe has already produced an extraordinary volume of great work.

And in answer to your final question: No, Epictetus has not yet arrived. It's doomed to take its place among all the other books ordered on rash whim from Amazon.com. (Did I really order a copy of Lani Guinier's book because I wanted to look something up in it? What was I thinking? The one-click button is the Devil's Invention.) So I turned to EPICTETUS in my Microsoft Bookshelf '95 program and found the following, which I offer Tom Wolfe as a parting gift:

 "Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a part as it may please the master to assign you, for a long time or for a little as he may choose. And if he will you to take the part of a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen--"or even a journalist, Tom! "--then may you act that part with grace!"

Love,
Marjorie 

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Timothy Noah is a contributing editor at the
Washington Monthly and files frequently to Slate's "Chatterbox." Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. This week they discuss A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 742 pages; $28.95).