What are the vices and failings of contemporary New York revealed in Bonfire of the Vanities’?
In ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ Wolfe paints a picture of a city racked with sin; the ‘Unreal City’ that Eliot feared so greatly. The city, its inhabitants and their very principles are flawed to such an extent that the novel, in my opinion, reads as a tragedy.
The story opens with a brilliantly ironic situation: black Harlem residents heckle the mayor claiming that he has persecuted their minorities, telling him, “Don’t percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!” The only problem is that they simultaneously taunt him, calling him “Goldberg” and “Hymie.” Their distorted sense of values encapsulates the attitudes of this twisted city. In the same way, The Reverend Bacon attacks the power structure, saying, “You think Sherman McCoy stands alone? You think he is by himself? He is one a the most powerful men at Pierce & Pierce, and Pierce & Pierce is one a the most powerful forces in Wall Street. I know Pierce & Pierce . . . see . . . I know what they can do. You heard a capitalists. You heard a plutocrats. You take a look at Sherman McCoy and you’re looking at a capitalist, you’re looking at a plutocrat.”
Once again, the situation is laced with irony as Bacon has invested huge sums of money with the very bank he just criticised. Priorities are bizarre, but most worryingly of all, the rant holds some truth. “Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?” asks Wolfe.
This question is a motif for the author, but the answer is clearly ‘yes, we do.’ Like Waugh in ‘A Handful of Dust,’ Wolfe leaves no person untouched: the minorities are depicted as groups busy insulting other and harassing each other. The people in power want to “insulate, insulate, insulate,’ and the alleged ‘melting pot’ is about as mixed as oil and water. This is the moral downside to the American Dream. Yet Wolfe does not condemn this; in fact, his ‘new journalism’ style of writing gives the writing an ironically sensationalist tone that mocks the insecurities and superficiality of modern-day New York.
However, consider Wolfe’s novel in it social context: monetarist ideologies were in vogue and so a crude form of Reaganism was America’s economic model – a model epitomize by Milton Friedman who claimed “What kind of a society isn’t structured on greed?” and defined 1980s capitalism as “an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm.” Like the Brett-Easton Ellis novel ‘American Psycho,’ the underlying feeling (that never seems to actively bring itself forwards) seems to be that the core problem is a collective flaw; that of a defective system which is mistaken in the Smithian belief that individual greed leads to the benefit for the majority of society.
One would think that failure (of an optimistically utilitarian system, perhaps) on such a scale would cause people to notice but ‘Pierce and Pierce’ along with the rest of Wall Street ignore the damage that their gain is causing; can we fault them? I would say that this question is part of a larger ethical dilemma; if human nature contains inherent flaws, then the real flaw to the ‘problem’ (or the ‘inequality’, which would be a more accurate term) must lie elsewhere. I believe it lies not with an individual or even a handful of the elite, but rather with every inhabitant of New York – their crisis is a result of collective ignorance and a lack of responsibility, as I will discuss later.
Wolfe, borrowing structural (and stylistic) principles from Dickens, contrasts the poverty and desperation in the prologue with the excess and indulgence of the protagonist, Sherman McCoy in the first chapter. He calls himself a “Master of the Universe” and explains that they “were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with…They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys.” His ego shining through, the image is particularly important, as it reveals Wolfe’s contemptuous attitude towards the ‘yuppie’ culture that was prolific in the 1980s in New York. The comparison with plastic dolls also evokes the idea that the city’s inhabitants have lost their very identities, and have become slaves to fashion and popular opinion.
The image is continued later with a dinner part being described as “bouquets of people…grinning faces…boiling teeth.” This inability to break free from the shackles of convention helps to set the tragedy in motion. Yet the doll comparison also raises another important issue: the image suggests that since they lack any self-awareness, they must be excused for their actions – they themselves are unaware of their motives. However, this is the source of the problem: the city that Wolfe describes has lost any sense of responsibility. McCoy excuses his adultery, claiming, “who could remain monogamous with this, this tidal wave of concupiscence rolling across the world?” He manages to convince himself, “[the adultery] had no moral dimension.”
With no ethical compass, values mean nothing to what Wolfe later described in an article as “The Me Decade.” Further on in the book, a prison van driver absolves himself of all responsibility for falling to control unruly inmates by giving “the primordial shrug of the New York streets…It was the age-old New York cry for mercy, unanswerable and undeniable.” The arrogance and shame of New York has been shown clearly, but one cannot ignore the vulnerability. Yes, it may be self-inflicted – McCoy describes his greed as a heart disease, “myocarditis,” exemplifying the rampant transgressive desire on Wall Street – but as Wolfe says, it is “unanswerable,” and as a result the characters always come across as mere parodies of society, never sinister or truly dangerous.
I consider Wolfe’s novel not to be social commentary or analysis; Wolfe does not attempt to solve any problems nor condemn any actions. Indeed, Mose Durst in ‘Essays Toward a Principled Economics’ called ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ a ‘muckraking novel’ rather than an inquiry into capitalism. The novel is a wry look over an admittedly skewed profile of New York: his characters are symbolic and thus function as caricatures and stereotypes. This, of course, is necessary for a satire but ensures that ‘A Bonfire of the Vanities’ should not be read as an investigation into New York’s economic policies or, for example, as an examination of New-York’s post-modern ethics.
Any attempt to view the writing as Marxist literature would be mistaken because even in the introduction Wolfe admits he wanted only to write a novel ‘of the city … with the city always in the foreground, exerting its relentless pressure on the souls of its inhabitants.’ Thus, any conclusions we draw are merely reflections of our own mind – as an author Wolfe is careful to allow the city speak for itself. As Checkhov pointed out, the obligation of the writer is not to propose answers but to pose questions.’