James Wood on Tom Wolfe's use (or not use) of meaningful detail

Saturday, October 13, 2012

After a long day and an even longer week, I collapsed on the couch with my New Yorkers.  Does anyone else feel this way?  My New Yorkers.  I want to know what these writers know.  I want to write a single sentence like they (or some of them) write.  I want to give you what I read and think.  For now, here is this.  It's James Wood talking about Tom Wolfe's latest novel, Back to Blood.  Wood is reflecting on details that resonate, those that feel organic, and those that sour the prose with obvious, unlived research.  Listen in (for the whole, buy the October 15, 2012 issue):
The important details, the ones that make fiction's intimate palpability, cannot simply be scooped up off the sidewalk.  Tolstoy, praised as a realist by Tom Wolfe, took the germ of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" from an actual story about a judge in a nearby town who had died of cancer; but one of the most beautiful moments in the novella surely came from Tolstoy's imagination—or, rather, from his patient loyalty to Ivan's invented reality.  I mean the moment when Ivan Ilyich, lying on his couch, in great distress and loneliness, remembers "the raw and wrinkly French prunes of his childhood, their special taste, and how his mouth watered when he got down to the stone."

Very occasionally in this novel, Wolfe gives evidence that he knows the difference between those French prunes and "Hotchkiss, Yale ... six-three."  At one point, Nestor, fleeing the opprobrium of his community, ends up at a favorite Cuban bakery, where he enjoys "a whiff of Ricky's pastelitos, 'little pies' of filo dough wrapped around ground beef, spiced ham, guava, or you name it.... He had loved pastelitos since he was a boy."  It's a rare passage without exclamation marks, and superficially it resembles Ivan and the prunes.  But the detail about the patelitos has the whiff not of pastry but of research.


Richard Gilbert said...

Wood nailed it, no doubt. Wolfe will chalk it up to anger over his (pointless) jihad in favor of reportage and realism. So it goes.

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