Expelleramus!!! Tom Wolfe Victorious!

I have just been reading Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood, which I have been looking forward to for years. Thus far, I am pleased. It is exciting, involving, and full of interesting information about the various cultures of modern Miami. I’m looking forward to learning how they mark their territories, merge into each other, and enforce their own systems of status. I trust it will be another high point in Wolfe’s war to restore the novel to the position it had in the age of Balzac, Thackeray, Trollope, Flaubert, Dickens, and George Eliot, when fiction sought to show how society worked, to make us see, as Trollope put it, “The Way We Live Now.” In those days, the novel made us see how the poor and the rich, the fortunate and the miserable, interacted, all moving in a world determined by conventions of status, wealth, power, and kinship.

In novels, polemics, and plain literary cat-fights, Wolfe has for years campaigned to wrest the novel from those who are only interested the personal and the literary. Or, to put it another way, to save the novel from the M.F.A. programs and the writer’s workshops. He has sneered at the novels made from myths, fables, conventions—from other books, not from life—and at novels that focus on the over-blown egos of the author and the battered egos of puny characters. Enough of the schoolroom exercises or the whining in the garret! Bring back the big canvas and show us the world!

I think there is good evidence that Wolfe has won the war. His battle plan has been vindicated, but I think another general may enjoy the triumph. The best novel I have read in quite a while was another eagerly awaited recent release, and it does just what Wolfe said the novel should do. It is by a writer who made her name with wizards and witches.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books always had a keen eye for the sort of thing Wolfe is interested in—status details, in-groups and out-groups, even the questions of how some people come to be courageous. But she wrote in a genre that doesn’t claim the main stage and that on the surface seems all about using the traditional, artificial, paraphernalia of a literary form. A story about warlocks is as clearly made from other books as a novel called
The Centaur or Roger’s Version. The reader might even miss the portrait of England today while rooting for Gryffindor in the Quidditch match or looking for the next horcrux.

The Casual Vacancy, the magical trappings are gone, and Rowling gives us just the social novel Wolfe has been advocating. As in Balzac and Dickens, we move from places of poverty and degradation to places of comfort and respectability—and find that those seemingly different worlds are very much connected. We see that lives are often structured as much by status as by wealth, and that distinctions that might seem trivial shape or warp characters’ actions and fates.

While the mixture of the language of magic and bureaucracy made for great verbal fun in the Harry Potter books, Rowling’s use of another corpus of imagery, that of popular culture, adds to the power and realism of
The Casual Vacancy. That some characters make a Rihanna song their anthem while others are still dancing to Tom Jones tells you almost all you have to know about them. And those are just the sorts of status and tribal details a disciple of Wolfe would pick up.

I don’t know what my experience of
Back to Blood will turn out to be, but there is one area where Rowling’s novel bests Wolfe’s earlier fiction—though perhaps not in a contest Wolfe cares much about. While I wouldn’t say that Sherman McCoy, Conrad Hensley, or Charlotte Simmons were one-dimensional characters, I think that is true about most of Wolfe’s fictional creations. I think the same of most of the characters in Balzac. But in the social novels I love best, I care about the characters—even that little fool Emma Bovary and poor Charles.

In Trollope, I find the author cannot help loving all his characters: even the ones who begin as the butts of satire become people worthy of compassion if he writes about them long enough. I felt the same after finishing Rowling’s novel. To be sure, I understood how a particular society used wealth and status to structure itself, and how some people used those structures to torment or neglect others. But, more importantly perhaps, I felt the plight of many of the characters trying to manage things that to them seemed not like bits sociological data, but triumph, disaster, or simply getting by. Compassion, of course, is dangerous in literature: it can easily turn into sentimentality. That charge has often been leveled at Thackeray and Dickens, but I don’t think anyone has ever accused Tom Wolfe of being sentimental. His novels might be still better if he ran the risk his Victorian models did and let us cry over someone as they let us cry over little Nell and Colonel Newcombe.