Justine's Reviews > The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
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's review
Feb 13, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: library
Read in February, 2011

When a former co-worker recommended I read the Bonfire of the Vanities, he said that it is an economist's book because it is a book about systems rather than individuals. I was intrigued, but held back because 1) let's face it, not the top of my list and 2) David Foster Wallace (love of my literary life) wrote a rather scathing essay about Wolfe and his generation of American writers who are sexist, macho, and generally yucky and unenlightened. After having finished the book, both the economist and Wallace are right.

The 1980s New York Wolfe depicts is a segregated city, where rich Wall Streeters never cross paths with (or even think about) the middle class, the working man, the ghetto-fab. While Wolfe's portrayal of each group's milieu is impressive, I found the complete lack of social consciousness (indeed, any kind of empathy or awareness at all) ridiculous. It was the 1980s, not the 16th century, and communications systems were good enough that you would hopefully be able to remember the existence of people outside of your tax bracket.

The motivations of individuals is also fascinating-- on one hand they are shaped entirely by the stimulus their system (class? profession?) offers them; their definition of right and wrong, their wants and needs, priorities and sense of shame are all driven by the groups that they are a part of. On the other hand (thank you DFW), they are also crudely biological. If Wolfe is right, the world is driven by flexing, ego-maniacal men and and their ambitions for sex and money.

So here's my gripe: What the hell happened to the other 50% of the population? The view in this book is so suffused with masculinity that it's entirely unbelievable. Women play an almost archetypal secondary role (sex object, former sex-object, mother) in gender relations that have the development of a James Bond movie or a middle school dance. It seems that in the New York of the 1980s, chicks didn't exist except as decorators, rich wives, and fantasy objects of dudes.

Ultimately, one has to wonder how much of this Tom Wolfe really believes. Is the guy writing as he sees the world? Is he an egoistical maniac who is in search of sex and money? (most signs point to yes). Or did he write a book that is ironically subversive, full of characters that are such caricatures that they are ridiculous and therefore a mockery of the societies to which they belong? There are sassy moments when it seems Wolfe gets it: "in fact, she was thinking about the way Men are in New York. Every time you go out with one, you have to sit there and listen to three hours of My Career first," but I'm inclined to believe he just got lucky. Because when it comes to things alpha males are good at, subtlety and finesse are at the bottom of the list.
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