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Wolfe vs. Woolf

You have to understand that the judges of America's literary prizes are all professionals.

That's the only explanation for how Michael Cunningham's precious new novel, "The Hours," won both the Pulitzer Prize and the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award last week, beating out such works as Barbara Kingsolver's almost equally precious "The Poisonwood Bible" and Tom Wolfe's decidedly unprecious 742-page monster, "A Man in Full." Indeed, Mr. Wolfe has lost every important prize. There's something about his sprawling brand of social realism that makes our literary professionals purse their lips in disapproval. And therein lies a tale.

Mr. Cunningham first proved just how delicately and professionally he could handle even violence in a much-noticed 1988 story in the New Yorker, "The White Angel," a chapter from his delicate and professional "A Home at the End of the World." In 1995, he did attempt a purely popular novel in praise of AIDS activism. But now, with "The Hours," he's scurried back to the fold. And the Pulitzer jurors -- novelists Diane Johnson and Oscar Hijuelos and the reviewer Richard Eder -- have rightly honored the exquisite professionalism of this tiny book about almost nothing. Nothing at all.

Mr. Cunningham's novel is named after Virginia Woolf's working title for her 1925 novel "Mrs. Dalloway," and consists of three small narratives, conveyed in that dainty continuous-present beloved by the wistful authors of children's books: "Here is Kitty.... Here is Kitty's pretty gold wristwatch; here is the quick unraveling of her life."

The first narrative follows the suicidal Virginia Woolf through a day in 1923 England as she struggles to write "Mrs. Dalloway," suffers an unplanned visit from her sister and endures her protective husband. The second follows the unconsciously lesbian Laura Brown through a day in 1949 Los Angeles as she struggles to read "Mrs. Dalloway," suffers the sexual attentions of her husband and endures the relentless gaze of her 3-year-old son, Richie. And the third follows the consciously lesbian Clarissa Vaughan through a day in 1998 New York as she struggles to arrange a party for her friend Richard, suffers her ceaseless interior monologues and endures a day of shopping.

The "final intersection" of these narratives, as Michael Wood put it in the New York Times, "is a thing of such beauty and surprise that I can't reveal it here" -- although, anyone who's surprised by Richard's suicide a la Virginia Woolf, or by the revelation that the 1949 Richie has grown up into the 1998 Richard, needs to find another pastime besides reading.

What were the Pulitzer judges thinking? A Diane Johnson novel like 1997's "Le Divorce" doesn't read this way. An Oscar Hijuelos story like 1999's "Empress of the Splendid Season" really doesn't read this way. A Richard Eder review ... well, maybe a Richard Eder review does read this way. "The story of Laura's day has the shimmer of a dream," he gushed in the Los Angeles Times.

The answer is, of course, that they were thinking how exquisite and professional "The Hours" is. This was the stick John Updike used to beat Tom Wolfe in a New Yorker review that probably cost "A Man in Full" any literary prize. Producing what "amounts to entertainment, not literature," Mr. Wolfe had "failed to be exquisite," Mr. Updike pronounced.

Even Norman Mailer complained in the New York Review of Books about the author's unprofessionalism. The journalist Wolfe never acquired "those novelistic habits that are best learned when we are young" and thus lacks "the most important and noble purpose of a novelist."

Tom Wolfe may have invited such attacks. Back in the mid-1960s, he mocked Mr. Updike's "thatchy medieval haircut" and dubbed Mr. Updike's New Yorker "the most successful suburban women's magazine in the country." And then, in 1989, after the success of "Bonfire of the Vanities," he took to the pages of Harper's with a "manifesto for the new social novel." In our "weak, pale, tabescent moment," he argued, there's no one doing what Dickens, Balzac and Zola did. We have lots of talented writers, but the "American novel is dying of anorexia" because they won't go out and report on anything other than themselves.

But Mr. Wolfe, in fact, was only partly right. He saw a thousand heirs to John Updike, all possessing a professional prose so finely honed that it seemed capable of cutting to the heart of almost anything. And he couldn't understand why they wouldn't use it for anything important.

He missed, however, the extent to which a particular prose style requires a particular sensibility. It's as though our authors have all been forced to absorb something as exquisite as, say, Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," a book of semi-mystical nature-observation that has been mandatory at writers' workshops for years. And once a writer's been anniedillardated, the prose gets finer and finer, and the point gets smaller and smaller.

Mr. Updike hasn't had to pay much penalty for his prose, and even Ms. Dillard occasionally says something interesting. But their children have all been ruined. They write like angels, of course; indeed, they are angels, so disembodied that an infinite number of them can dance on the head of a pin. Even while she's denouncing capitalist America, Pulitzer runner-up Barbara Kingsolver sounds like an ethereal dove, gently expiring from consumption. Alice Munro -- whose "The Love of a Good Woman" won this year's National Book Critics Circle Award -- has a prose so fine it can't lift anything heavier than a small cup of tea. There's a description of a china cupboard in her story "Cortes Island" so profoundly pointless it has to be seen to be believed.

And Michael Cunningham? When first reached with the news of his Pulitzer, he announced that he was going to sit down and "have a good cry." His readers might have guessed as much. In truth, Mr. Cunningham's "The Hours" deserves its prizes. Its exquisiteness is measured by such passages as: "But there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another."

And its professionalism is measured by its simultaneous use of all three of the tricks by which our angelic writers cobble up the appearance of a subject on which to shower their perfect prose. With Virginia Woolf's suicide, Mr. Cunningham has found the mock gravity of historical tragedy. With his jumbled narrative, he's indulged the faux sophistication of a literary puzzle that Michael Ondaatje worked up for "The English Patient." And with his recasting of "Mrs. Dalloway," he's discovered the pretend literary density derived nowadays from retelling everything from Dickens's "Great Expectations" to Nabokov's "Lolita."

With all this going for it, who wouldn't pass up Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" to give Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" a Pulitzer? The prize novels of America ought to come with a warning: The author you're about to read is a professional. Don't try this at home.

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