Too Much of a Good Thing: Social Critique in the Sixties

Emma Bellamy, English 118, Creative Nonfiction in Electronic Environments, Brown University, 2007, Brown University

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Both Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe tackle salient social issues in short prose pieces of very different styles by focusing their observations on one specific component of a disturbing phenomena.  For Wolfe, Carol Doda’s artificially enlarged breasts represent a greater problem.  He uses Doda’s breasts as emblems for the grossly exaggerated, American cultural ethos of self-improvement.  Just as the breasts themselves are gross, artificial, and exaggerated so, too, is the perfecting culture which drives Doda to get them, to dye her hair blonde, to wear either sunglasses or fake eyelashes.

But there are plenty of women in California who are willing to take the chances, whatever they are.  There are about seventy-five doctors in Los Angeles giving the treatment and one of them does twenty-five women a week.  There are two hundred women taking the course in Los Vegas alone.  More than half of all these patients are housewives, and some women bring their teenage daughters in there because they aren’t developing fast enough to… compete; well, Carmen is social.  And actually it’s such a simple thing in a man’s world where men have such simple ideas.  After all, Carol Doda developed, from a bust measurement of about 35, up, up month by month, to 44, through twelve months, eight sets of shots, $800.  And why not?  After all, one, anyone has fillings in the teeth, plates in the skull, a pin in the hip – what is the purpose of living, anyway?  Just to keep on living or to enjoy, be adored, favored, eyed – or – [“The Put-Together Girl,” p. 80]

Didion, in contrast to Wolfe, writes a deeply personal critique of the crazy, senseless Californian society she finds herself in. Paranoia, news headlines and irrelevant songs and passages of poetry swirl in her restless consciousness without direction or purpose. She enmeshes her mental state in the observations she makes while researching journalistic pieces, giving the reader the impression that the world she writes about is no less crazy than the writer who thinks about it. The internal mirrors the external and vice versa to show that both she and the society in which she lives are spinning out of control and missing some crucial point.

He was a nice-looking boy, and fired with his task.  I considered the tender melancholy of life in San Mateo, which is one of the richest counties per capita in the United States of America, and I considered whether or not the Wichita Lineman and the petals on a wet black bough represented the aimlessness of the bourgeoisie, and I considered the illusion of aim to be gained by holding a press conference, the only problem being that the press asked questions.  “I’m here to tell you that at College of San Mateo we’re living like revolutionaries,” the boy said to them. [The White Album p. 41]

Questions

  1. Compare and contrast Didion and Wolfe’s sentence structure?  How does the length and organization of their sentences reflect their content?  What does the syntax accomplish?
  2. Both Didion and Wolfe italicize liberally to emphasize particular words.  How does this function in their cultural critiques?
  3. Consider how both Didion and Wolfe focus their cultural critique around certain individuals who are meant to represent something greater about the society they live in. Why does Wolfe choose Carole Doda and characterize her as he does?  Why does Didion describe the nameless boy from San Mateo as “tender” and “melancholy?”  Why does Wolfe repeatedly mention a social little girl called Carmen?
  4. Didion and Wolfe mix concrete statistical facts in with prose and description that is often highly abstract or experimental.  Does this strengthen their stinging critiques or does it merely simplify them by blunting the subtleties of their language?

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Last modified 8 March 2006