Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Book review: Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe (2000)

A sticker on the front of my copy shows that I bought it second-hand for $3. The recommended retail price ($21) is printed on the back, visible under a torn sticker, the significance of which I can never know.

Here lie traces of the past. Another is evident in the photo on the front cover, which cannot have been taken close to publication day – Wolfe was born in 1930 but in this photo he looks to be aged no more than 50 – so it was at least 20 years out of date when the publisher and author decided to use it. The dog jumping gaily between the author’s legs in a blur of asymmetrical abandon hints at another relic: the screaming jets heading, down the tunnel of history, toward the Twin Towers.

The candy colours used for the cover remind you of Wolfe’s pedigree (more reminders of the past; after WWII Wolfe was a front man in the literary journalists’ push to reshape the way reporting was done) but, like the essays in the book, the myth of the dandy, the man-about-town now appears dated, like another book from 2000 – a history of magazine the New Yorker by American journalist Ben Yagoda – that I tried to read on the same day I took up ‘Hooking Up’.

As a stylist Yagoda doesn’t entertain and Wolfe falls short of his goal. He riffs like a jazz player but needs a score to guide him. Improvisation overburdens the facts he marshals to his cause, making you wonder if he’s really being objective in his assessments in each case. Like Icarus, Wolfe aimed high. And his higher purpose in writing the book – a piece of American exceptionalism – fails because the heyday that such works sought to herald, like ice on a summer pavement, quickly evaporated.

The first piece is about hook-up culture, but the book’s broad remit suggests other readings for the book’s title, which rhymes with “looking up”. Who looking up to whom? Or, were things finally, on the eve of the new millennium, looking up? Perhaps the phrase should be understood literally: since the Cold War had ended America’s curve was trending up after a hook-shaped reverse.

I wished Wolfe had spent 300 pages writing about Intel’s founder Robert Noyce alone, or entomologist Edward O. Wilson alone. In his essays there’s not enough time to adequately elaborate his ideas or, even, to outline the achievements of his subjects. He is content to do a sketch based on a modicum of research and then, while celebrating Trump’s America, try to predict the future.

There’s no doubt the country continues – as it has always done – to innovate and to throw out new inventions and technologies and ways of thinking. It is a vast, kaleidoscopic community containing – like the microprocessor (which Noyce’s company, Intel, invented) – an array of elements. This diversity is its strength and when planning his book Wolfe displays a preference for stories where the subject was born outside the major cultural centres. Wolfe himself was born in Virginia. Noyce was born in Iowa and Wilson was born in Alabama. A kind of oblique or erratic shape made Wolfe happy, as did poking a stick in the eye of what he thought of as the staid elites of the country’s north-eastern quadrant. In the article that lends its title to the book’s front page, Wolfe points to the demotic fashion trends of the 90s – low-slung jeans, T-shirts, garish sneakers, baseball caps – which were first made popular on the West Coast, so his choice of garb also strikes me as an index of a certain ingrained contrariness. (“They might change to suit the times, but I’m not going to.”)

With ‘In the Land of the Rococo Marxists’, a kind of Trumpian libel of intellectuals of all stripes, he celebrates the multicultural nature of America, its ability to attract people from all over the world through migration, though new arrivals tend to gravitate to the major urban centres, such as LA and New York, and not to the places where Trump would reap his rewards 16 years later.

The impetus behind the book reflects an overt and hard-nosed triumphalism and is intended as a rebuke to Europe, so it is an artefact belonging to a time when the cultural cringe still pressed upon the minds of American intellectuals. I wonder if those days are, now, in the past or if they returned after 2016.

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