I saw a copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities in the thrift store recently, and since it is a well-known and culturally important book, I decided to grab it and see what it was like.
At first I was impressed. The prose was first-rate, with excellent descriptions and characterizations. I could tell that this was the work of a highly skilled writer. But it got old really fast. Every single character is evil and stupid, except for a few cameo appearances from people who are evil and smart. I had no sympathy for anybody and no curiosity about what would happen next. The plot moved at the pace of molasses, and most of the book ended up being the internal monologues of really despicable people.
I stopped reading The Bonfire of the Vanities about two-fifths of the way through, when it became clear that the book would remain a festering labyrinth of toxic cynicism. I felt like I was reading a bad Seinfeld episode wrapped in thick layers of literary pretension.
I understand the social value of pointing out hypocrisy and bad behavior. This kind of thing can be a good antidote to those who are star-struck or hold unrealistically high opinions of certain groups of people. But The Bonfire of the Vanities, by making rotten attitudes and behavior seem so commonplace, ends up justifying this behavior and making it acceptable. One gets the impression that the entire world is rotten, and that rotten behavior is the norm. Given what we know about human psychology, this will make people who read the book more likely to act rotten.
This effect is magnified by the skill of the writer. Everything is so vivid and memorable that it is bound to stick in one's subconscious. Reading The Bonfire of the Vanities is quite similar to watching Triumph of the Will. I see great artistic skill used in the service of subtle and nasty propaganda, and I get grim and depressed. This book, like Catch-22, is probably responsible spreading a taint of bleak nihilism among the people of our country.
While reading the book, I found myself starting to hate humanity. I had to back up, take a breath, and tell myself that the book is not an accurate representation of society or reality. It is a caricature, one man's distorted look at a small group of people. For example, many of the characters are obsessed with issues relating to Jews. The book is full of descriptions about how people hate Jews and how Jews despise other people, how people's minds and thoughts are always focusing on this, and how the fact that one is a Jew is central to that person's identity.
But 'The Jewish Question' has never been a part of my life. It is not an issue at all. I do not know which names are Jewish, and I cannot identify a person as Jewish unless he is wearing a yarmulke. Nobody I know has ever said anything about Jews or even, to my knowledge, thinks about them as a group. Holding strong opinions about Jews is like holding strong opinions about Vietnamese or Latvians or Algerians. Thinking about them is an alien concept. Antisemitism, like public executions, is a strange, foreign, primitive thing that, in my experience, only exists in history books and news reports from Islamic countries. Maybe it was a feature of New York in the 1980's. But by dragging out this kind of old rubbish, The Bonfire of the Vanities simply serves to keep it alive and in people's minds.
I know that we all have instincts that can cause us to act beastly. When placed in a bad environment, or when given power or secrecy, people will often be corrupt and venal. But we also have instincts to follow the behavior patterns of our peer group, and we have the tools to motivate people to act well. Civilization depends on using socialization and good incentives to create patterns of good behavior. The most charitable thing that can be said about The Bonfire of the Vanities is that it shines a spotlight on a problem that needs to be solved. But the method it uses to do this causes more harm than good, by making rotten behavior seem like a social norm.