Ben Richmond's Reviews > From Bauhaus to Our House

From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe
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's review
Jan 09, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: real-life-man, mighty-bleak
Read in January, 2011

I'm in the midst of an emotional confrontation with Wolfe's work at the moment, so I'm not sure how well I can do this. Okay, so since going to graduate school for journalism I'm been suspecting myself of being rather ill suited for this pursuit and in fact rather a fool for passing up a chance to fashion myself as a European-styled Intellectual by studying the liberal arts at the New School. If this all sounds terribly pretentious to you please know that I more than agree with you, but you should probably stop reading one paragraph ago.

In a rather low moment I happened across Wolfe's book Hooking Up which contained an essay with then-and-future-(meaning-the-present) implications. An essay in Hooking Up was a discussion on Wolfe's novel A Man in Full which he worked for 11 years on, and was well received both critically and commercially, but then out of nowhere was denounced by Updike, Mailer, and Sinclair Lewis as not-quite-literary-enough. Wolfe was understandably baffled, and concludes that his style of writing-- being influenced by the world of non-fiction, that is it say, of world of journalism-- is more vivacious, interesting, and yes better literature than what those three men who are locked in their own heads and approaching literature from that of the detached (here we go)European-styled Intellectual. Looking past Wolfe's audacity in pretty much summing up the "Art follows real life or does real life follow art?" debate (this is in fact so-not-an-issue for T. Wolfe that one imagines he dismisses the whole question as too European-styled Intellectual to even consider), I bought the argument hook line and Steinbeck.

As a young and rather stressed journalism student I was also thrilled. His examples of other journalists who are also gifted fiction writers lead me to believe that I was not only going to excel as an artist by pursuing journalism, but in fact lead a richer life. Great, I thought, I'm going to read and love Man in Full because it's real and therefore better literature.

So I got the book, and I'm about 200 pages in (If you like this review, look forward to that one!), and from what I recall, I'm pretty much agreeing with John Updike's allegations, and I don't think Tom Wolfe is a good fiction writer. The characters are all painted in really broad strokes, but all of the objects are named by brand name, which can't help but date the story a little bit now, and probably eventually will render it incomprehensible to generations that don't remember the '90s. No matter how much he piles on adjectives and paints detailed scenery, his characters still are reading as kind of stock. Even as he labors to be "in touch" with American society, his characters don't seem all that real.

But now where does this leave me? Do I in fact love "unreality" more than "reality," at least from a reading and intellectual material kind of way of looking at it? Does it simply resonate more with me, because I've spend so much time in my own head? Is Wolfe right, and is journalism therefore going to save my soul? Or is journalism going to make me think more in terms of details that don't actually help me understand the world better?

I think it just means I'm only 2/7 through a pretty big book and 1/2 way through my journalism degree.

Yes, yes, From Pow-wows to Chihuahuas...
So the thrust of this book is "European Intellectuals, and then European-styled Intellectuals have ruined the arts." It's well-written, funny and consistently interesting to someone who knew nothing about this world going into it. It isn't clear what really bothers Wolfe about these architects who are modeled after Bauhaus and are still working today other than he hates their aesthetics. He seems to blame their socialist leanings for ruining the arts, or perhaps the hypocrisy of the American upper-crust (the beneficiaries of capitalism) embracing artists from those politics. At, like 110 pages, it's very thought provoking, and kind of neatly concludes that what Wolfe does well, nonfiction, is pretty much unassailable. Maybe I just like a certain type of novel now, or maybe Wolfe just isn't as gifted at fiction, or maybe I just don't pick up on what he's doing well, but what Wolfe does in Bauhaus is no less a feat than a good novel. And no less a stimulating read.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Alex_k (new)

Alex_k "Updike, Mailer, and Sinclair Lewis" - shouldn't it be "and John Irving?" Lewis died in 1951.

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Richmond It sure is John Irving. How did Sinclair Lewis get in there?
Thanks Alex.

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