03 May 2007

Why Should Wolfe Work?

Back on April 21, I wrote about Tom Wolfe’s article in the premier issue of Portfolio magazine. Chiefly, as you may remember, my point was simply that it was cool that Wolfe had turned his attention to hedge funds. That fact gives added importance to those of us who toil in those journalistic vineyards on a daily basis.

I didn’t presume to judge the literary merit of Wolfe’s story, though, until the final lines of my blog entry for that day, when I wrote (in one of the irresponsible examples of opinionating that make blogging fun), “Frankly, it stinks.”

Today, let’s look at the story and try to provide some basis for that judgment, shall we? Here, again, is the URL. http://www.portfolio.com/executives/features/2007/04/16/The-Pirate-Pose

But I’ll make three specific points. First, there’s the lame opening. Wolfe wants to describe for us a hedge fund manager banging on his landlady’s door in a manner that terrifies her, persuades her that a fire or a break-in is underway. The idea is to show that hedgers are unmannered to the point of barbarism. How does Wolfe do this? Here is the opening.

“Not bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, but bama bampa barama bam bammity bam bam bammity barampa FIRE! was the first thing she thought of because nobody ever banged on your apartment door in a building like this nobody would be so impolite as to even rap on your door with his knuckles unannounced in a building like this much less bang on it with both fists for this was not one fist pounding on the door but both fists bama barampa bam bam bammity barampa bam bam—”

Now, does that work as onomatopoeia? Does anyone, hearing someone else banging on a door, however frantically, actually hear “bama bampa barama”? I doubt it. It sounds to me more like a line from an old doo-wop song. “Who put the rama in the bampa barama?”

One enviably snarky blogger has suggested that Wolfe must have been getting paid by the word. “Let’s put in another bam. That’ll count as a word, won’t it?”

Second, the whole point of the scene that follows, the conversation between (unnamed) landlady and (unnamed) hedge fund manager client, seems to be the re-enactment of a hoary cliché. She is old money, with cultivation. He is new money, with pretension.

He asks if her vase is Tiffany. She replies that it isn’t, and thinks to herself, “it was older and considerably more precious than a Tiffany, but she hadn’t the faintest desire to prolong the conversation with any discussion of the higher ceramics.” The sort of literary effect for which he’s reaching here is older and considerably more fragile than a Tiffany.

All that bama bampa has led us only there??

Third, there’s the “gee whiz, what big houses” stuff. The guy banging on the door is a renter, of course. He may be living in very nice apartment, in Manhattan yet. But he’s still living in an apartment. He doesn’t really suit Wolfe’s theme of wretched excess, so soon enough we forget about him and we’re talking about the manicured lawns of Greenwich, Connecticut.

Or, rather, we’re calling them, “manicured-bucolic wildernessless-woodsy rolling hills and arboreal dells, all ornamented by mansions and irrigated by cash flow.”

I don’t think we can really blame the hedge fund industry for the fact that Greenwich isn’t a wilderness anymore. It hasn’t really been wilderness since a Dutch colony lay next door.

The whole thing is just lazy. Poorly researched (he’s Tom Wolfe – he doesn’t have to work to sell his writings anymore – so why do any real research) and stylistically a pathetic self-parody. Enough!

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.