Norman Mailer wrote in his 1998 review of A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe:
…how can a book be so good and so empty all at once, able to tell us so much about America at its best and be so criminally flawed at its worst?
Technically, Wolfe was Mailer’s competitor in the American novel segment of the Anglophone literary market. However, Mailer, the great pugilist, wasn’t out to destroy a rival; rather, as an author who once came close to producing a great American novel, he was investigating a younger writer’s failure to get close enough. In the process, Mailer spelled out his demands on the modern American novel:
Sometimes Wolfe is ready to work for his best characters, sometimes they can surprise us as they move from caricatures into literary reality. It is just that at other times he is all too ready to let them work for him, and moves them back from the possibility of deeper characterization into caricature again. How can he not when plot obviously appeals to him more than the real complexity of men and women?
That’s quite a strong requirement, psychological complexity over plot. It’s hardly universal in the history of the form – great novels were produced long before the triumph of psychology – but Mailer believed it had become absolutely necessary for a truly, rather than merely commercially, successful American novel, as opposed to a bestseller:
Of course, a great many of Dickens’s characters were also Johnny One-Notes. Yet, what notes! Besides, one did not read at that time to explore into character in the way we feel is necessary today. The stakes are higher now. Given this century, so full of vast achievements and horrors, it is viscerally important that our understanding of men and women keep pace with the mechanisms of society.
Quod licet Carolo, non licet Thomae. It’s a lot to ask for, but Mailer holds Wolfe to account for failing to honor these precepts. At the end of the review, Mailer looks into the future:
…in another ten years or less he will write another gargantuan best seller. Let us hope it is not about education but will be called A President in Full.
Six years later, in December 2004, I Am Charlotte Simmons was published, the story of a young woman’s first year at a top US college. Theo Tait reviewed it in the LRB. This observation of his owes much to Mailer:
…his characters are deliberately stereotypical, since, by his lights, a typical character is more revealing than an individual…
One can sense a certain mean-spiritedness in this, unsurprising in a critic; it’s unoriginal and possibly wrong. Then, perhaps by accident, Tait concludes:
This is what happens in Wolfe novels: people come to terms with their typicality.
If only it happened exclusively in Tom Wolfe’s novels!