Monkeys Included

Xiyun Yang, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Tom Wolfe's brand of new journalism is a far cry from the steady, uninflected prose of the conventional press media. In his 1980 bestseller The Right Stuff, Wolfe documents the frenzied 1960s American scramble into space and the astronauts, monkeys included, at the center of it all. With the privilege and indulgence of hindsight, Wolfe strings together experiences of Navy test pilots and NASA astronauts with political rumblings and emotional details into an all-encompassing narrative served with an aftertaste of mockery. Wolfe presents nonfiction as fiction; the book documents emotions as validly as it does facts. The narrator is omniscient, cruising at narrative altitudes that blur the demarcation of fiction and nonfiction (perhaps 50 miles above ground?) then nose-diving into specific personal psyches. Individuals and events are presented through contrasting perspectives. John Glenn's puritanical values are mocked through the voices of his Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving peers; the Mercury program is constantly at the reflective mercy of the Edwards's test pilots, the true Brethren. Certain characters, such as Chuck Yeager, are mythicized, enlarged into caricatures. The fragmented perspectives are held together by Wolfe's coherent and distinct narrative voice. As Didion said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Wolfe's imposition of the narrative structure over this sequence of events is as partial as any "Life" special feature on the astronauts would have been. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe is not telling the version of the story, he is telling his version.

Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this --

Wolfe closes the narrative distance between the reader and the ape by transporting the ape's emotion to the reader with a single exclamation mark. The reader is suddenly in the ape's head. Later on, Wolfe transports the reader into the collective consciousness of the Edwards pilots.

Perhaps the ape would go to the White House and get a medal. (Why not!) Perhaps the ape would address the September meeting of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots inLos Angeles. (Why no! -- another astronaut culd have done it, Deke Slayton, without flying at all!) Oh, it was a laugh and a half, the whole thing. For now the truth was out -- it was obvious in a way that no one in the world could miss.

How has Wolfe legitimized speaking from the head of an ape? Or has he legitimized it? What does this do to his ethos? Why does he speak from the Ham's perspective to begin with?

What are the effects of diving into and out of so many, and at times conflicting, perspectives? Why does he do this?

One of the themes of the book is the media's power to mold reality. By telling the story in narrative form, Wolfe has created his own reality for the reader. How would Wolfe respond to this?


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Last modified 16 November 2003