The Boomer Aesthetic

Noah and Williams

The Boomer Aesthetic

Noah and Williams

The Boomer Aesthetic
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 11 1998 11:35 AM

Noah and Williams

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Dear Marjorie,

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Of course you can take Wolfe's ending as sincere and uplifting and at the same time a little bit satirical. That isn't just the Wolfe Aesthetic, it's the Boomer Aesthetic. Where would Randy Newman, whose songs simultaneously exploit and wink at grand emotions, be without it? The strings in "Sail Away" envelop the listener with a sense of romantic promise even though the song itself is a very broad and rather bitter satire--a slave trader's invitation to an African tribesman to "cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay." Or, to keep it in the realm of serious literature: There's plenty of this sort of thing in Don DiLillo's Underworld (which, for the record, I couldn't finish, but that's not why). You can say that a culture that embraces the Boomer Aesthetic, as ours have, is corrupted by its desire to have it both ways. In moralizing moments I feel that way myself. Mostly, though, I think that having it more than one way is what artists do in fin-de-siècle America, and Wolfe does it very well.

In re Stoicism, I have ordered from Amazon.com a paperback of epigrams from Epictetus, and will wait till that arrives before engaging the subject further. (Presumably it will come before our exchanges end on Friday.)

In re Dickens vs. Wolfe, and whose characters are more cartoonish: You think Wolfe's are, I think it's a tie (though I'll concede that overall, Dickens is the greater novelist). I'm not sure Ralph Nickelby's suicide is any less abrupt than Charlie Croker's conversion to Stoicism. But let's move out of this rut.

I want to return to the question of when this book takes place. It's not as simple as you say. Yes, Wolfe makes clear that Croker's financial worries are mainly caused by his miscalculation about building a huge office complex in Atlanta's Edge City. (And if I may insert a pedantic point here for any doctoral candidates in Wolfe Studies: In A Man in Full, Wolfe uses the term "edge city" to denote "exurban growth areas," attributing its coinage to Washington Post writer Joel Garreau. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he uses the exact same phrase to denote the Merry Pranksters' urge to live life on the edge. Do the meanings of other Wolfisms transmute over time? Discuss.)

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Back to the question of when A Man in Full is set. It is set during a recession, Wolfe strongly hints. We know that because when Charlie discusses his financial problems with Wismer Strook ("the Wiz), his hilariously technocratic chief financial officer, the Wiz explains that the food division "has lost value because the restaurant business is in a slump right now. But that is a cyclical downturn, and the industry will recover." Unlike Croker's real estate holdings, the food division is national--the Croker warehouse Conrad Hensley works at is in Oakland, Calif.--so the "slump" the Wiz is referring to is presumably national, too. When does the restaurant business slump? During recessions. We haven't had a recession in this country since 1992.

I agree that this reading is at odds with references to O.J. Simpson and Internet gossip columns and certain specific dates that are mentioned in the narrative, but that's precisely my point: Wolfe is fudging the time frame during which his novel his set. I don't propose we give him the death penalty for this, but it is a violation of the Wolfe Aesthetic.

Doggedly,

Tim

P.S. Our Slate editor is anxious for us to get into the book's celebration of masculinity. Shall you start?

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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).