I wanted to finish The Bonfire of the Vanities. I really did. I remember when it came out how much buzz it generated. I tried to read it back in 1988. I was out of work and had a lot of time on my hands. Why not?
I made it about 200 pages in and gave up. It bored the hell out of me. It was a culture I neither understood nor respected. Why did I care that a stupid bond trader and his mistress got themselves into trouble? I needed a job, and this asshole was one of the reasons I wasn’t getting a secure future from GM or US Steel. So I abandoned Bonfire. And Peter Fallow’s one redeeming quality seemed to be that he was drunk all the time. I did not even have any interest in the movie.
Years passed. I became more better read. Hell, I read Philip Roth for fun, and will turn right around and listen to a Harry Potter novel on audio. I also realized that I had no obligation to like a novel just because someone said I had to. For instance, when it came out, many people insisted I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Already put off by Franzen’s pretentious antics, I started it reluctantly. Franzen writes in a style not too different from Cormac McCarthy. Only I finished The Road. And I regretted not seeing the movie. The Corrections?
The first eleven pages are an hour of my life I’ll never get back. I’m sorry. I know I’m in the minority, but the opening was just page after page after page of dull, plodding crap written purely for style. I could not read a page further.
But it had been over twenty years since I attempted Bonfire. Clearly, I was older, wiser, more mature. I knew a lot more about New York City, having been there a few times. Maybe it would resonate with me more.
Wolfe’s New York wasn’t the New York I visited in the mid-2000’s. Larry Kramer was still one of those idiots too concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. Everybody, even the Reverend Bacon, was a self-serving racist. The mayor made Nixon look like a mellow hippie. And Sherman McCoy? Still in the audience when Gordon Gecko gave his “Greed is good” speech. This New York, which looked nothing like the New York I visited, would have made a good site for resumption of above-ground nuclear testing. There was not a single likeable person in this novel, not one I could connect with. Everyone of them, even McCoy’s put-upon wife, was someone I’d likely have to walk out on or risk punching them in the teeth.
Hannibal was like that. Yes, I get that Harris was trying to make Hannibal Lecter somewhat sympathetic, more Lestat than Dracula. At the same time, before abandoning that novel, I kept muttering “Would Hannibal hurry up and just eat these idiots already?” I threw the book across the room.
A book has to do two things for me as a reader: it has to tell a story. Literary writers often bemoan “the tyranny of the plot,” which tells me that they’re highly skilled at stringing words together, but really have nothing to say. Style for style’s sake is, to put it bluntly, a colossal waste of time. The second is that I have to connect. Hell, I even get Voldemorte in the Harry Potter series. I don’t like him and wish he’d been killed by a muggle, but I get him. If the cast of characters of Bonfire had gotten onto a boat that promptly sank with no survivors, I’d mourn the loss of a perfectly good boat in the disposal of so many oxygen thieves. It lacks a very basic principle of drama in all its forms: Everyone is the star of their own drama. There are evil people in the world, obviously, but even they have an internal calculus that justifies their actions to them. Even Milton got that when he wrote Paradise Lost. Satan might be the ultimate douchebag, but when Milton finishes with him, you get that he basically thought that he was Peter from Office Space.