A Review of Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe

 Despite the occasional whine, the self-aggrandisement which is rampant throughout the essays, some of which read like a prelude to an autobiography which must surely be in the works, Hooking Up is a worthwhile read, if only for the genius which comes through in the essays in “The Human Beast” section. Wolfe’s ability to place modern trends in a well researched historical context, and to keep on testing the limits, and the implications of some of the major scientific advances we tend to take for granted nowadays make for provocative reading. A lot ofHooking Up is patchy and flawed, but when it is good, it is very very good.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Hooking Up
By Tom Wolfe
Picador
November 2001
ISBN 0 330 48612 8
RRP $A21.00

Tom Wolfe is very clever. His work touches on everyday subjects like our life, norms, hobbies, and presumptions in the second millenium, physics, love, and social institutions, while taking nothing for granted, and avoiding academic brewhaha, and linguistic mushiness. Everything seems to interest him, and his work is well written, and well researched. In many ways, Wolfe is an American hero, famous for turning reportage into an art form called “social realism”, and for examining American culture from the inside in his novels. His work has, among other things, chronicled the 60s drug culture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, exposed the US Space program in The Right Stuff, and the financial, political and social world of NYC in the 1980s in Bonfire of the Vanities. His observations are a mixture of learned, wry, and snide, situated somewhere between street-smart reporter and academia, and always looking for the big picture. Wolfe’s latest book Hooking Up contains a range of essays, as well as a mini novella, which became the basis for his large and lauded novel A Man in Full. Much of the Hooking Up is erudite, relevant, and timely, and while Wolfe’s judgements aren’t perhaps quite as perfect as he would have us believe, his passion and insight are hard to ignore. There are, however, a number of essays inHooking Up, which appear to have been written solely for the purposes of self-aggrandisement and self-justification. The very inward focused “My Three Stooges” is a strong (counter) attack on John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving, all of whom publicly criticised his novel A Man in Full. While Wolfe’s ironic self-defence and literary criticism en masse may have made interesting reading in 1998 when the book first came out and the literary storm was brewing, it really has no broader appeal, certainly not to readers primed by Wolfe’s earlier essays to think about things like a lost soul; the impact of loose mores on 20th century teens, and the unlikely origins of the superhighway and Silicon Valley. The continual references to his own literary success, including the glorious reviews, and skyrocketing sales (however much he might “blush” in the telling), and to the important impact of his work and anyone who cares to emulate his style diminishes the power of his otherwise interesting observations about the novel’s form, and about the relationship between film and the novel.

Similarly, in “Tiny Mummies”, Wolfe provides another nasty prod at the editor of The New Yorker William Shawn, including his poor dress sense, his dry and witless style, his narrow mind, and his meglomania. Wolfe Includes himself in the list of great writers not published by The New Yorker, as well as Pynchon, O’Connor, Faulkner, Bellow, Malamud, Graham Greene, and Singer, which gives the whole piece a sour grape name dropping feel, interesting only to those who inhabit this particular publishing world. Wolfe criticises such “ordinary” writers as JD Salinger, Dorothy Parker, John Updike and James Thurber, clearly not in his own “Olympus for the mother tongue” class, while whining and poking fun in a surprisingly adolescent fashion through all of the three essays that make up this section.

Despite the poor choices of material in this book, there are some very well written, thought provoking essays in Hooking Up. The first piece, “Hooking Up: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World” is a witty, pithy look at what it is like living in the US now, and in a mild tongue-in-cheek way, simultaneously pokes fun at American affluence in the year 2000. Perhaps I am growing a bit old (or am “out of touch”), but I felt that Wolfe overstates the impact of online pornography, the promiscuity of American teens, as well as the gaudy riches of the air-conditioning mechanic, the average electrician, or the burglar-alarm repairman who “lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink.” Of course Wolfe is being deliberately facetious, and I’m sure he doesn’t believe that every electrician watches the Simpsons every night, plays computer games, never reads, or thinks, until he “crashes” at 2am. I know quite a few erudite, and poor, electricians as it happens.

In “Two Young Men Who Went West”, Wolfe is at his journalistic best, exploring the advent of the Internet, as it began with the discovery of the semiconductor. The characters that populate this story are well drawn, and as dramatic as any good fiction, leading from a university discovery to Intel, and ultimately to the conversion of the fruit growing Santa Clara Valley into Silicon valley, with its young entrepreneurs, its casual attire, and its large impact. The piece leads beautifully into another which explore the broader impact of the Internet: “Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill”. The “Digital Universe”, Convergence, Teilhart de Chardin, Marshall McLuhan, and Nietzsche are all brought together in a piece that combines sociology, literary theory, history, and neuroscience as smoothly as they have ever been combined. Wolfe debunks the importance of the Web: “the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information. All the rest is Digibabble.” The next essay, “Sorry Your Soul Just Died” goes further with genetics, the potential impact of the Human Genome project, and the proliferation of personality altering drugs like Ritalin:

Meanwhile the notion of a self – a self who exercises self-discipline, pospones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behavior- is already slipping away.

The essay ends in the single most powerful moment in the book, where, having reduced all of life to scientific principles, and labelled everything, we would begin, following Nietzsche’s prediction, turning our skeptical eye on modern science and tear apart all the foundations on which our understanding of life is based:

I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He’s floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can’t see it, but he’s much impressed. He names it God.

Unfortunately from that pinnacle, Wolfe’s prose begins to weaken under the overwhelming weight of his ego. The next essay “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists”, is an interesting look at the folly of academic socialism/Marxism and later the trend of Deconstructionism within the academic world. Wolfe’s bitterness is fairly strong here though, and his pointed finger, however correct in pockets, is still full of generalisations, Americanocentric, and even silly, as he latches onto words like “choice” and “dis”, while accusing his colleagues of being Old Fools. Of course Wolfe makes some excellent points, and raises some very interesting issues, but his Personality, and almighty sense of rightousness gives the piece a feeling of grumpy irritation, rather than good nature humour.

The Novella “Ambush at Fort Bragg” is reasonably well written, with a compelling plot based around “Sting-TV”, but the writing is a little junky, skimping on characterisation, detail, and visual beauty, at the expense of clichéd personalities (which, judging from Wolfe’s other essays, he believes to be true to life, humans being what they are). Placed in the middle of a series of non-fictional essays however, the novella does appear to have been included just to bulk the book out, and doesn’t quite fit.

Despite the occasional whine, the self-aggrandisement which is rampant throughout the essays, some of which read like a prelude to an autobiography which must surely be in the works,Hooking Up is a worthwhile read, if only for the genius which comes through in the essays in “The Human Beast” section. Wolfe’s ability to place modern trends in a well researched historical context, and to keep on testing the limits, and the implications of some of the major scientific advances we tend to take for granted nowadays make for provocative reading. A lot of Hooking Upis patchy and flawed, but when it is good, it is very very good.

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