Bonfire of the Vanities: Tom Wolfe

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Bonfire of the Vanities: Tom Wolfe

1Nickelini
Abr 3, 2008, 7:57pm

I don't need this book explained to me--it's pretty straightforward. What I'm curious about is people's reactions to it. I read it after it had been out for a while, sometime in the early 90s, and I thought it was an interesting read. No real emotion of any kind, but I certainly didn't begrudge the time I spent with it. It was a solid OK.

It's made all kinds of lists of book recommendations, and it was a best seller. Yet people seem to not only hate it, they vehemently hate it. So if you LOVE or HATE Bonfire of the Vanities, why?

2Scratch
Abr 4, 2008, 9:01am

I think there was some objection to perceived stereotyping of the black characters. I don't remember the book well enough to have an opinion, but jeez, it was a satire. In a sense they all were stereotypes.

Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons inspired similar love it/hate reactions more recently.

3krolik
Abr 6, 2008, 3:59am

I agree with you that Bonfire is a solid OK. Probably some of the people who say they hated it were responding, in an impressionistic way, to the book's enormous success, which became a sort of unearned hype, and to the dandyish media image of its author.

Presently I'm finishing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which I finally got around to. I think it's a much better book than Bonfire--in places it's terrific, not as emotionally stilted as Wolfe--but it seemed to inspire similar negative reactions and hype of all kinds.

Maybe it's better to read (or reread) such books a few years later, after the smoke has cleared.

4Scratch
Abr 9, 2008, 12:32pm

Once I was reading Corrections on the train, and the guy sitting next to me mentioned he tried to read it and had to put it down because he didn't like the characters. Similar situation to Bonfire, I think: Satire that people may not recognize as such.

5jfetting
Editado: May 26, 2008, 11:36am

Well, as I mentioned over in 1001, I hated the book. I'm going to disagree with 2 & 3 & most vehemently with 4. I am perfectly well aware it was satire, thanks. Not all satire is good satire, but YMMV. And I was about 8 when the book came out, so when I read it 3 years ago I certainly wasn't reacting to the hype.

That said (and with the caveat that I haven't looked at it again since I read it 3 years ago, so I don't remember details), why do I hate it? The writing, for one - I thought the pacing was awful. The story dragged - it just went on and on and on. I almost didn't finish it, and that's saying a lot for me - I always finish books (what if the end redeems it?) FWIW, I also strongly disliked I Am Charlotte Simmons and the one he wrote about astronauts, so overall I am not a Tom Wolfe fan.

The story itself is not to my taste - too self-indulgent and mid-life crisis-y. And yes, I hated the characters. Why did I hate them? I really don't have a better reason than that I found them obnoxious. Yes, they are stereotypes. Boring, overused, stale, and entirely predictable stereotypes. Again, aware it was satire, still didn't like them. For me, liking or disliking the characters will make or break a book. Now, characters can be evil or obnoxious or boring or straight-up one-dimensional stereotypes and I can still like them, so it wasn't a given that I would dislike all the characters.

To sum up: I didn't like the characters, plot, or writing. Ergo, I hated the book. I could probably give a better, more-well reasoned argument if I re-read the book but I suspect I won't do that.

ETA: I would love to live in the protagonist's apartment, though.

6jfetting
May 26, 2008, 11:11am

I just re-read my comment and realized it sounds a little snarky. Sorry - I didn't mean it that way. The argument "they don't like it because they just don't get it" always rubs me the wrong way. It's entirely possible to understand something is satire and still not like it.

7Nickelini
May 26, 2008, 12:03pm

Thanks, Jfetting!

8geneg
May 26, 2008, 12:22pm

I cut my Wolfe teeth on early stuff like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Kandy Colored Tangerine-flake Streamlined Baby. In these works he sounds like Dylan's reporter, Mr. Jones, (You walk in the room, with your notebook in your hand . . .

He's trying to report something from the culture that he has no real understanding of. I haven't read a Tom Wolfe since.

9jfetting
May 26, 2008, 10:43pm

The Kandy Colored Tangerine-flake Streamlined Baby is an awesome title. I can't believe it's a real, actual title. Fantastic.

10bookgirl271
May 27, 2008, 12:32am

I read Bonfire of the Vanities the year before last, so wasn't really reacting to the hype, and I don't know much about Tom Wolfe either, so my reaction was pretty much to the book itself.

I loved the book. I loved how everyone was so self-obsessed, and how they didn't care about the truth, all they cared about was themselves and forwarding their own interests. I liked it not because I think that's a good way to be, I liked it because that's what I see in the world, and as a satire, it reflected what is in society.

I lent this book to my mum, giving it a huge wrap. She hated it & couldn't finish it.

It's the only Tom Wolfe I've read, but I'm keen to read some others.

11klarusu
May 27, 2008, 11:28am

#5 jfetting - It's as if we are speaking with one mind! I HATED this book with a passion. In fact, having plugged away at many of Wolfe's books because I kept thinking I might be missing something, I've come to the conclusion that I find him vastly overrated. I just don't think he writes well. For me, he's one of the 'It' writers that are created more by the press and promotion of their work, the perceived 'kudos' of liking them, than by actual literary talent (yep, out you come Zadie Smith, I mean you too!)

12karenmarie
May 27, 2008, 11:58am

I read it a long time ago, but remember liking The Bonfire of the Vanities because it started out with a wrong turn and then everybody's lives were basically ruined. I liked his bitchiness about the rich of New York and their self-absorption and materialism.

I still have quite a bit of early Tom Wolfe that I love - Radical Chic & Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Painted Word. They are all short. Maybe that's part of the issue - his short stuff is funny and incisive and biting, but Bonfire IS drawn out and perhaps fails for most people because of its being long and meandering. In addition to some of you just hating the characters, the story, etc.

I have I Am Charlotte Simmons but haven't felt inclined to read it yet. Maybe next year.

#11 klarusu - I totally agree about Zadie Smith. Tried On Beauty and White Teeth and couldn't continue. There's just something about her writing that I abhor.

13kambrogi
Jun 5, 2008, 9:05am

I have always been a big supporter of Tom Wolfe. I loved his early work, and learned a lot about writing from him in a course where he, among other writers, had been videotaped and were part of the instructional curriculum. He confessed that he had always wanted to write a novel, but was afraid of failure. So I really wanted to like BOTV, but ended up putting it down. The simple truth is that I cannot enjoy a book in which I do not like or pity at least one character. Thus, satire in which every character is a jerk (or seemed so within what I read) does not make me laugh. In fact, satire generally doesn't shake my tree -- for instance, I much prefer The Beans of Egypt, Maine, which describes poverty honestly and sympathetically, to Tobacco Road, which ridicules it. Gallows humor can appeal to me, but seldom in fiction.

AND, Wolfe describes a world I dislike and don't want to be a part of -- so why would I want to immerse myself in it when reading a book? All this isn't to say I don't respect the author or his work -- this book just isn't for me.

(PS klarusu and karenmarie, I love Zadie Smith, and did before I even knew there was any "hype" -- she does speak to me. All a matter of personal taste, no?)

14karenmarie
Editado: Jun 5, 2008, 10:13am

Well. I hit a key wrong and my whole message disappeared and yet it submitted! Ghosts in the machine.

Kambrogi - I agree with you about not enjoying books where you can't like or pity at least one character. I can't remember if I even liked a single person in BOTV, but for some reason I kept reading. Strange. I usually put those books down, but this year I committed to reading everything I started. I've done it so far (except for about 5 lines in The Merry Wives of Windsor that I should have read for bookclub). I've read several real stinkers, including The Virgin Suicides, Snow Crash, and Shades of Glory.

This confirms that my usual reading style of putting a book down if I don't like it is a good instinct. I look forward to returning to that mode in 2009. There are absolutely too many good books to read to waste time on junk.

15varielle
Jun 5, 2008, 10:11am

I couldn't get through Bonfire of the Vanities. I recognized it as satire, but every single character was so completely loathesome I just couldn't go on. I stay bummed out enough, I need to read things that are a bit more uplifting.

16kambrogi
Jun 5, 2008, 10:56am

LOL, karenmarie -- one of my goals this year was to STOP reading so many books I don't like! TBOTV was one of the few of the sort I have not persevered through. I am always afraid I will miss the point the author intended if I quit too soon. I got the point of Line of Beauty in the last few pages, and it was a long slog to get there.

I agree, varielle, although part of my goal in reading is to learn and grow, I wonder how much suffering on my part is worth it.

17Nickelini
Jun 5, 2008, 12:45pm

Well, 16 posts later, the light bulb is going on. I'm the original poster with the lukewarm feelings about Bonfire, and who didn't understand the strong feelings either way. Before reading Bonfire of the Vanities I had read more than my fair share of books by the likes of Harold Robbins, Judith Kranz, Dominick Dunne, maybe even some Jackie Collins (but NEVER Danielle Steele--even I had my standards). These books are full of the types of characters in Bonfire. A lot of posts here have mentioned dislike of the characters, but I had already gone through lots of other books with similar characters, and was quite used to them.

I can't remember, but I'm sure I didn't realize I was reading satire, and wouldn't have cared anyway. Of course now I'm a much more sophisticated reader. ;-)

18kambrogi
Jun 5, 2008, 2:51pm

Nickelini, perhaps those of us who had followed Tom Wolfe's career expected more out of him -- especially if we had not been reading/had no interest in Harold Robbins, etc. I must confess, I have not read the writers you mention, but your comments will probably keep me from doing so!

19Nickelini
Jun 5, 2008, 3:01pm

Oh, you're right. And you DON'T want to go there. Stay away from books titled Scruples or The Users, or any book that was made into a mini-series starring Lindsay Wagner, Jacyln Smith or Jane Seymour.

20varielle
Jun 5, 2008, 3:27pm

I think the thing people find so disturbing is that it was so well written unlike those other writers. The characters were superbly drawn to the point you feel like you've met them on the street or had some sort of unpleasant encounter with them. That's the issue, they were so nasty, so repugnant, so disgustingly unpleasant that I wanted to wash my hands every time I handled the book.

21karenmarie
Jun 5, 2008, 4:24pm

I had the same issue, varielle, with The Virgin Suicides. It was very well written and the characters were if not superbly drawn, at least well drawn, but the whole concept was nasty, repugnant, and disgustingly unpleasant, to quote you so aptly.

I might move the book to my "don't own them, wishlist" account called kairfa just so I can get rid of it but keep my review.

22kambrogi
Editado: Jun 6, 2008, 12:36pm

Thanks for the tip, Nickelini, and excellent point, varielle. Karenmarie, I saw the movie of The Virgin Suicides, and didn't even want to read the book.

23varielle
Jun 5, 2008, 8:34pm

The Virgin Suicides was in my TBR pile. Perhaps I will reconsider.

24Bookmarque
Editado: Jun 6, 2008, 12:01pm

I quite liked TVS. It's challenging though in terms of what people expect. There are no happy endings or pleasant characters. Views of suicide are not pat either and can be upsetting to sensitive people. As a remarkably insensitve person, I quite liked it and found it refreshing in that it didn't take the smarm route so often chosen by modern (PC) writers.

oh and the close italic didn't work, apparently. /i> maybe this one will.

nope.

25geneg
Editado: Jun 6, 2008, 12:31pm

</i> How about this?

26kambrogi
Editado: Jun 6, 2008, 12:36pm

Well-done, geneg. Sorry, I made that error in my post.

TVS might be worth checking out, varielle, since you already own it. I thought Eugenides' Middlesex was brilliant.

Oh, my, we are off-topic and the thread police should be showing up soon, but this has been a very interesting discussion, imo. Thanks for starting it, Nickelini.

27klarusu
Jun 21, 2008, 4:53pm

kambrogi - you are so right, personal taste is so different! I love these kind of debates because everyone has different ideas about authors and we can all get so militant about them! I've just Mooched another Zadie Smith, On Beauty, in case it was just White Teeth I hated .... we'll see!

28kambrogi
Jun 22, 2008, 8:56am

Hmm, let me know what you think, klarusu. I really enjoyed that one, too!

29mrsammr
Mar 5, 2014, 7:26am

I have read actually and i have liked very much. I think the satire and the ways of life of the protagonists of the histories are too similar with the reality that I enjoy a lot with that.

30Sandydog1
Jul 1, 2014, 8:36pm

This is one of those few titles that I've heard so much crap about, that I don't think I'd ever open the cover.

31TomFitch
Mar 22, 4:16pm

The BOTV was the first Wolfe-work I ever read. And even if I indeed felt that it was a bit longwound at times, I in general liked it. Slowly seeing the loser (the drunken reporter) turn into the winner and vice-versa see the protagonist gradually loose all of his Wallstreet-success, made for an engaging plot overall.

The "Masters of the Universe"-description of the investment bankers and the speech by the judge at the end of the book are really strong. And the mere fact of putting sarcasm in mere terms such as e.g. "the great white defendant" is pretty remarkable.