Currently writing this post on my new MacBook (yay!). My old one had a graphics problem after nearly 4 years of owning it, so in advance of Third Year, I abused Apple’s student discount while I still could haha. I’m currently preparing to go back to Cambridge on 3rd October, so I’m wading my way through reading lists, packing, and also gathering any bits and pieces to decorate my new room with, including some postcards of my favourite works of art (pictured above).
So lately I’ve had lots of people ask me to do book reviews. Part of the problem I have had with doing this is the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of theory lately, so a ‘review’ would probably turn into a lengthy (I’m talking 5000-word) essay. One day I may feel like revealing my thoughts on Freud’s Writings on Art and Literature, but for now they are staying in my notebook. I also have a fear that my opinion runs the risk of being ‘misinformed’ in a book review, so I have avoided speaking in much detail about the books I read.
However, I thought I’d reveal a bit more about the books I’m studying for my dissertation this year. I’ll introduce them to you by telling you a bit about them, what drew me to them, and how they have affected me. I think this is the kind of ‘review’ I’d prefer to do - I won’t ‘recommend’ anything, as I feel everyone enjoys different things, but instead I will allow you to decide for yourself whether you are interested in reading them. Sound good? Here is the first instalment:
The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe (1987)
Tom Wolfe wanted to write a “novel of the city, in the same sense that Balzac and Zola had written novels of Paris, and Dickens and Thackeray had written novels of London, with the city in the foreground, exerting its relentless pressure on the souls of its inhabitants.” In Bonfire of the Vanities, personally, I feel he has.
I first came across this novel Summer ‘14. I can’t remember where I had the book recommendation from, but I have a feeling it was on a ‘modern classics’ list somewhere on the internet - in any case, the book sounded different to anything I had read before. ‘Sherman McCoy, a WASP and bond trader, ‘Master of the Universe’, with both a wife and a mistress, is involved in a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx, and is subsequently surrounded by prosecutors, newspaper hacks, politicians and clergy determined to bring him down.’ I didn’t know anything about Wall Street, I’d been to New York only once, and I wasn’t even born in the 80′s let alone had any clue what was going on at the time, but hey, it was worth a shot.
I was instantly drawn into the novel. The central story highlights racial, class and political arguments (pretty much indistinguishable from one another) as intrinsic features of the described NY society, and it ultimately made me question whether we have really come any further (for further evidence of this, look to this article). What interested me was Wolfe’s ability to create these ‘identities’ which seemed at one moment individual, the next moment part of a wider ‘group’ - whether that be the ‘WASPS’, ‘attorneys’ or the ‘criminals’ within the novel. There’s an observational quality to the writing, originating from Wolfe’s profession as a journalist. In his Introduction to the novel, Wolfe reveals he made detailed observations of New York while he was writing, and a few details in the novel are inspired by real-life events - it makes the novel all the more significant.
However, my primary interest lay in the way these characters, and this social dynamic, fit into Wolfe’s 80′s New York. His creation of infrastructure and spaces, his settings and the way in which the characters navigated their way geographically through the city was intriguing to me. Their movements about the city, and their view on buildings they live in/around inevitably displays their stance in the race/class/political arguments that are at the heart of the book - yet the characters themselves cannot really see this, it is just life to them (is this not the kind of experience we all have every day?). But it is Wolfe’s narrative structure that allows us to see the part the city itself has to play in the novel. The separations it creates, the events it causes. I was interested in the way the infrastructure of New York affected the psychology of the inhabitants within the book - so lo and behold, there we have my dissertation topic.
This is a really interesting book. Thought-provoking, but also really quite humorous, particularly with Sherman McCoy’s ironic criticisms of the ‘socialites’. The book definitely didn’t feel 720-pages long, I ultimately enjoyed last year’s two-day-long hibernation, and I am currently enjoying the re-read even more.
The second book I’m studying for my dissertation is American Psycho. Post to come.