Monday, August 26, 2013

Parsing Problems: Reading _The Bonfire of the Vanities_

I'm not taking this time out to bash the book. In fact, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a pivotal book for me, in terms of discovering new things about race, class, culture, and satire. I not only learned from it, I enjoyed the hell out of the experience back when I first encountered it. The problem is, after re-reading it several years down the road, I can see the problems in it that I was blind to on my first read. It is worth pointing out to people who might be reading it for the first time what I'm only seeing with familiarity and more experience, so that they can have a richer and more meaningful reading experience than I had the first time I wandered through it.

What it says
It's very important to acknowledge out the gate that Wolfe's intentions are seemingly good here, and the issue he's tackling is one worth tackling. He's very careful to do a few complex things as he addresses race, including his construction of a very complicated and rich event that plays out at all levels of society with really believable levels of appropriation and distortion.

If you haven't read the book, it is essentially the story of a rich white bond trader (Sherman McCoy) in the 1980s who is involved in a traffic accident that injures a black teenager (Henry Lamb). I say "involved", because he is outside the car when it hits Lamb. It is his mistress (Maria) who is driving. Both are convinced that Lamb was attempting to rob them, and they leave the scene. From there the book takes off as McCoy attempts first to hide any evidence of the event from his wife, then from the police. A down-on-his-luck reporter gets wind of the story and sensationalizes it with the help of a con man who uses community rage as an extortion tactic, and the entire mess of the investigation and trial plays out as if it's an episode of Law & Order that was written by someone who isn't automatically fetishizing authority.

It's a good plot. It's got great built-in tension, and the idea that a small act of racism (Sherman's assumptions about Henry Lamb) can snowball through retelling, complication, and the real consequences (foreseen or not) of Sherman's actions is an important one. Wolfe is relentless in his subjectivity, keeping scenes firmly planted in the heads of the characters. He does not shy away from showing the uglier stereotypes that they buy into, the shallow vanities that they cling to, and even (in Sherman's case) the way that privilege and wealth prevent them from fully coming of age and realizing how they appear to others.

That's all good. It's great, too, that Wolfe deconstructs whiteness, setting the monoculture aside and discussing the various ethnic intersections that bleed together and combine their animosities against a more easily othered group. All of that is good, important stuff, and I got a lot of it on my first read. It's also worth pointing out that while Wolfe unflinchingly re-creates the justifications and shortcuts in thinking that lead people to accept stereotypes AND he also deftly demonstrates the peer pressures that exist culturally to affirm and reward demonstrations of racist behavior, he does not do so blindly. Early in the book, during the exposition, there are numerous asides to deflate the characters' self-congratulatory inner monologues, such as the passage wherein Sherman meditates on the ethnic diversity the bond office has achieved now that it has a few Slavic and Irish people in it. Wolfe blithely points out that Sherman does not recognize that there are no black people and no women.

So all of that is there, as is a really solid demonstration of how profiling attitudes can build up in law enforcement types. The entire sub-plot involving Kramer (the A.D.A.) is a lesson in how authoritarian institutions reward dehumanizing behavior (including racism). Sweet. Good on Wolfe.

What it doesn't show
Is a problem. Because Tom Wolfe is doing all these great things and really skewering the mainstream culture, it can take a few pages to realize what he's not showing us. What he's not showing us is the point-of-view of the victim, his family, or any representational community that is impacted by Sherman's actions. In fact, the only black character who has a substantial role throughout the book is a con man who is using black religiosity as a front to skim money from both community donors and the government.

I'm not debating that this kind of person exists--hell, I've seen plenty of examples of real-life charities that do this. I'm also not debating that such a person could have found communities of color to be a ripe target for this kind of scam. Clearly, any community that is underserved by services and marginalized will be vulnerable to predators. The problem is, he's really the only recurring character of color, and he's a con man. All of the people who might be sympathetic are excluded from having a point-of-view in this book.

Maybe that's because Wolfe was wary of being appropriative. Maybe it's because the book only showcases points-of-view that it intends to ridicule (this is likely, given the main characters). Maybe it's because Wolfe wanted to call attention to the relative lack of power that Mr. Lamb's family has to seek redress by intentionally de-emphasizing them. Maybe he saw the exclusion of their viewpoints from the narrative as a statement about how they would have the narrative surrounding the event wrested from their control and turned into a mutant creation of the culture at large.

All of those things are excellent possibilities, and several of them make clear sense from the text. What they don't do is change the fact that this is a book that is literally about the intersections of ethnicity, economic class, politics, the media, government, and corruption/graft, and it lacks not only any voices of color, but also any direct point-of-view narrative from the women in the book. Both Sherman's wife and his mistress are represented as strong people with clear agendas of their own and nuanced characterization, but we don't get to be in their heads the way we get to crawl inside the men and root around in their insecurities.

The differences between what it says and what it shows
I think that this book has some very good lessons, and it can be used to start a conversation about privilege because it makes some aspects very easy to identify. The problem comes in the fact that it says a lot about race and class without showing a lot about race and class. It is, in essence, still just a bunch of white people having white attitudes and being secure in their whiteness, even when it means making economic sacrifices to appear sufficiently white.

And I do have a problem with that. It sets itself up as the kind of hypocrisy that it was written to poke fun at in a lot of ways, and I'm not totally sold that that's the point of the book. I think it was intended to be, but it just didn't quite hit the right chord because it left out too much. It's a very good satire of the media and the government's stupid, plodding, and reactionary methods. It's an excellent indictment of the fact that personal ambitions create corruption and waste at all levels of the government. It deftly shows the ways that those ambitions trump the purpose of institutions like the criminal justice system, and it also makes a solid case that the real tyranny we face is the structure of society itself--that the system is built to be self-perpetuating in a darkly Orwellian way, but that there is no central conspiracy in control. That it's all just a bunch of petty bureaucratic warlords using others as pawns in their schemes, and that they have no long-term goal, just short-term graft.

It does all of that really, really well. It's just that it starts with a question about race and perception and the way that othering criminalizes black bodies, and then it spends 600 pages showing how much a white guy can really learn about life when he grapples with his conscience, and how big an epiphany that self-discovery can be, and it only took a black kid dying for him to learn that lesson about authenticity. And that's... ick. And even if, in the end, that is exactly what Tom Wolfe was trying to do was to show exactly how disgusting the "white guy learns about racism when he commits manslaughter because of his own racist attitudes" plot is, it's still... ick.

This is an important book, and an important book to criticize. Just don't take your eye off the ball. A black kid dies, and then there's page after page of how the system that is rightly trying to make his killers accountable really doesn't care about accountability. Enforcing accountability is just a way for members of that system to gain status. And the poor underserved white guy who did something wrong and then covered it up learns something about how silly his whole society is. And all it takes is a black kid dying.

Does any of this sound familiar?