Friday, May 9, 2008

Sherman McCoy Fulfills Lance Lamar's Quest

How odd that I decided to read The Bonfire of the Vanities, which has been languishing on my bookshelf for six months, directly after Lancelot. It seems fitting, since Wolfe, in his overblown and occasionally hamfisted way, wants to answer the question Percy asks.

Wolfe's characters live in the same amoral wasteland that Percy sets up in Lancelot; a combination of Rousseauian Romanticism ("You're good--it's society that corrupts you") and pop psychology ("It's not your fault--you were made this way") has created a world in which no one has any faults, let alone sins. For example, one of the book's protagonists, Sherman McCoy, gets caught in flagrante delicto by his wife and manages to successfully convince himself none of it is his fault:
It was in the air! It was a wave! Everywhere! Inescapable!...Sex!...There for the taking!...It walked down the street, as bold as you please!...It was splashed all over the shops! If you were a young man and halfway alive, what chance did you have?
By the end of the chapter, Sherman has convinced himself that his wife is a "bitch" and had it coming to her. Bad faith reigns, and we're responsible only for our successes--if, that is, we have any failures at all.

But Sherman's undebateable sin is not his adultery--after all, he slips right out of that one--but his complicity in a hit-and-run. As he and his mistress, Maria, are lost in the Bronx, his Mercedes stalls, and two young black men approach him and ask if he needs help. Without warning, he attacks them, and as he jumps back into the car, Maria gets it started and backs into one of the men, putting him into a coma. The pair speed away and decide not to say anything to the cops, not wanting their adultery to be discovered.

Sherman is a bonds trader at Pierce and pierce, a wealthy and successful man (he calls himself a "Master of the Universe" when he's not naming his erection "King Priapus") whose life and selfhood are subsumed by his work. No pangs of conscience are allowed through the gates of his 50th-floor fortress, not even when his wife discovers his adultery. But his role in this possible homicide makes it impossible for him to work; he can only think about the damage his sin may cause to his life and reputation.

Now, I realized that's not exactly redemption and is still full of the selfishness that characterizes the rest of his life, but this event has shocked him and made him aware of his own responsibility for what appears to be the first time ever. The old world is shattered, and perhaps he can build a new one. He even develops, as Lance Lamar suggests, as newfound need for God; one section closes with Sherman (who once considered praising his grade-school-age daughter for doubting the existence of God) begging the Almighty for assistance--financial assistance, sure, but assistance.

I'm only about 170 pages into this 700-page novel, though, so I'm sure all this is going to be complicated.

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