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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Wolfe’

Hey Orphan, You’re Just a Plot Device, and Other News

October 9, 2015 | by

Oliver Twist, as pictured on the cover of Classic Comics no. 23.

  • Michael Lewis’s profile of (and fan note to) Tom Wolfe also reveals the startling comprehensiveness of the latter’s archives: “Wolfe saved what he touched—report cards, tailors’ bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (‘Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls’), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of seventeen pages of red lip prints. He just tossed all this stuff in steamer trunks and hauled the trunks up to the attic, where some of them had sat undisturbed for fifty years. He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards; he kept morning-after notes from New York society ladies … The documents tell the story of the leading journalistic observer and describer of American life, in a time of radical cultural transformation, and of the sensational explosion in American literary journalism that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s—on which the ashes and the dust are just now settling.”
  • The orphan in literature is many things—spunky, resourceful, downtrodden, tragic, trammeled, unfettered—but foremost it’s a shortcut to narrative tension: “Orphanhood is the beginning of (mis)adventures and only very rarely the end. Once such intolerable extremity has been inflicted (by parents, by cruel society, by authors), it can’t be left be: the sufferers must seek relief and resolution … The literary orphan belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity … Many people expect real orphans to behave like literary orphans: like portable anti-alienation devices for the people who, so to speak, take us in.”
  • If you sat for a portrait from Goya, you weren’t there for vanity’s sake; you had to be prepared to see the worst in yourself, because that’s what he was going to put on the canvas. “Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn’t stop himself noticing—and depicting—all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights … There are such subversive undertones and notes of sardonic comedy to many of his pictures … Goya’s (Lucian) Freud-like honesty about his sitters seems so clear in retrospect that it has always been a mystery why some of them put up with it. He clearly despised his last royal master Ferdinand VII, who looks sly, nasty, fat-faced and idiotic in the state portrait of 1814–15.”
  • Driving refugees on Lesbos: “At one of the main landing beaches, children, babies, elderly, sick and disabled people were waiting for Norwegian volunteers to pick them up and drive them three wiles west to another makeshift waiting point at Efthalou. It used to be illegal to transport refugees on the island and the police arrested a few people, but the law has since been relaxed. A Danish woman asked me to drive a family of four. They were from the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, which is now mostly controlled by Islamic State. Rami, the father, spoke excellent English … ‘Somebody, somebody will help us,’ he said. His wife was pregnant and had had bleeding problems in the boat. ‘Oh my god, very beautiful,’ Rami said as we drove round a bend on the dirt track overlooking the sea.”
  • You look like someone who’s seeking ethical clarity. Well, don’t look for it here. We don’t have any. We’re fresh out. “The old question—How to live an alright life in a bad world? … Nonprofit job, artish hobbies, moderate drinking, hope the friends stay funny and nearby. While young: shared apartments, cheap whiskey, n+1; older: art in the house, Spanish wine, the New Yorker. And when God or the workers’ council weighs our fates, hope the scales might be tipped by the weight of a book … An idea is a kind of cartoon. Inhabiting one, we get that thrill of clarity: everything simple and certain, with sharp black borders. But at some point this cleaner world turns oppressive, like the grandparents’ condo after a few days’ visit, and we look to escape. That too is another sort of thrill. We get out, and the fuller world rushes back to meet us, in all its grubby confusion.”

A Brief History of Spacefarers

May 19, 2015 | by

How America imagines its astronauts.


The Mercury Seven, 1960.

One of the things that makes the job title astronaut different from other jobs is that it existed in the collective imagination for centuries before it was ever actually anyone’s occupation. In the second century CE, Lucian of Samosata imagined travelers going to the moon and fighting a war with its inhabitants. In Jules Verne’s immensely influential 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, the word astronaut is never used, but three men seal themselves into a metal capsule in order to fly to the moon. Many of the details Verne came up with were so outlandish as to invite ridicule if they had not become reality a hundred years later in the Apollo program, including a launch from Florida and a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Verne’s three space travelers behave in some ways we now associate with astronauts—they solve problems that arise on their mission, analyze new information they observe outside their windows, and do calculations to figure out their location and speed. On the other hand, they indulge in nonastronaut-like behaviors such as getting drunk, becoming histrionic about unexpected problems, and expressing doubt about the meaning of their journey, about whether they should be doing this at all.

One of the first uses of the word astronaut to refer to a human traveling in space was in Neil R. Jones’s short story “The Death’s Head Meteor,” in 1930.

The young astronaut entered the space flyer, closed the door, and was alone in the air-tight compartment just large enough to accommodate him. On the instrument board before him were dials, levers, gauges, buttons and queer apparatus which controlled and operated the various features of the craft. He turned on his oxygen supply and his air rejuvenator so that the air could be used more than once, after which he shoved his starting lever forward. The craft raced suddenly off the roof and into the cloudless sky above the vast city of the twenty-sixth century.

Jones was probably as surprised as anyone to learn how soon his new word became an actual job title, only twenty-nine years later. In between, during World War II, the first actual rockets emerged. This was the beginning of a new era in which the astronaut became a consistent character to tell stories about, if still speculative. Though the rockets weren’t ready to safely contain humans, their streamlined hulls brought with them a clearer image of the astronaut fantasy. Part fighter pilot, part frontiersman, the helmeted spaceman climbed into sleek machines and left Earth in the black-and-white television shows of the fifties. In 1954, Walt Disney created Man in Space, a series intended to promote his new Disneyland, which was set to open the following year. In the opening shot of the series, Walt himself speaks into the camera. “One of man’s oldest dreams has been the desire for space travel,” he tells us with an avuncular twinkle. “Until recently this seemed to be an impossibility.” Read More »

Authors in Uniform, and Other News

October 25, 2013 | by


  • From Twain to Wolfe to Tartt: authors in uniform.
  • Fittingly enough, fisticuffs at the Norman Mailer: A Double Life party.
  • The Asterix reboot, set in ancient Scotland, is being hailed by (a few, possibly as few as none) Scottish nationalists as an endorsement in the referendum debates.
  • The Iranian culture minister promises a relaxation of book censorship under the new regime.


    Anonymous Library Sculptures, and Other News

    June 21, 2013 | by


  • Anonymous, bookish sculptures have been popping up at Scottish libraries.
  • “It’s nice to go out with a bang”: Alice Munro may (or may not) retire.
  • This will, predicts The New Republic, result in the sort of tedious furor that accompanies any such statement.
  • Some pediatricians are prescribing books to small children: great! (Lollipops are, presumably, a thing of the past.)
  • Tom Wolfe’s next bookThe Kingdom of Speech, is a “nonfiction account of the animal/human speech divide.”


    We Have a … Winner? (NSFW-ish)

    December 5, 2012 | by

    The votes are in, the people have spoken, and the winner of the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Award is Canadian novelist Nancy Huston, for her novel Infrared. Here is the publisher’s description:

    Award-winning author Nancy Huston follows her bestselling novel, Fault Lines, winner of the Prix Femina, with an intensely provocative story about a passionate yet emotionally-wounded woman’s sexual explorations.

    After a troubled childhood and two failed marriages, Rena Greenblatt has achieved success as a photographer. She specializes in infrared techniques that expose her pictures’ otherwise hidden landscapes and capture the raw essence of deeply private moments in the lives of her subjects.

    Read More »


    The Bad Sex in Fiction Award 2012: Shortlist

    November 20, 2012 | by

    The Literary Review has released the shortlist for the twentieth annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The nominees for achievement in terrible sex writing include:

  • The Yips, by Nicola Barker
  • The Adventuress, by Nicholas Coleridge
  • Infrared, by Nancy Huston
  • Rare Earth, by Paul Mason
  • Noughties, by Ben Masters
  • The Quiddity of Will Self, by Sam Mills
  • The Divine Comedy, by Craig Raine
  • Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe
  • Mr. Wolfe, you will recall, is a previous winner, having taken top honors in 2004 for I Am Charlotte Simmons. He was deemed eligible for this year’s awards by dint of passages like the following:

    But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw—all without a word.

    Bad, assuredly. But is it bad enough to take the prize? Find out on December 4. Until then, follow the process via @lit_review. (The tweets are tagged as #LRBadSex2012.)

    And for a glimpse into the judging process, check this out: