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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
As a cultural arbiter, Tom Wolfe has picked a prickly fight by depicting and assessing his vision of modern college life. Wolfe became legendary serving up the counterculture and packaging New York City’s economic elite, but his latest effort is arguably his most difficult yet—decoding the profanity-laced wit and sexually charged wisdom of today’s undergraduate youth.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, a 676-page cinder block of a work, attempts to accurately portray, in typical Wolfian anthropological style, life at an elite university. Its failure as a work of journalistic fiction does not stem solely from its carefully sketched out but nonetheless hopelessly clichéd characters, but also from its moral judgment of these characters as if they are objective examples of contemporary youth.
Wolfe’s portrait of the libidinal college youth of today wouldn’t be so important if it was not Wolfe writing—with all the gravitas and supposed cultural clarity he brings to the page. Famous for the New Journalism style he virtually pioneered in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and perfected in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe is the best-known novelist of the intricacies of the American cultural scene.
And yet, with his self-professed role as witness and writer of American culture, combined with his (usually) capable ear for linguistic nuance, danger lies in the delicacy of Wolfe’s role as decoder of American life. That’s because in Charlotte Simmons he doesn’t merely depict undergraduate life—he damns it. And he damns it with the paltry evidence he marshals in page after innumerable page of colorful but ultimately stereotypical “evidence.”
The novel depicts life at Dupont University (think Ivy-League but with sports), an elite institution in Pennsylvania, for four very different undergraduates and a sprinkling of adults for unsubtle contrast. As with most of Wolfe’s novels there is a host of characters, but four comprise the novel’s main focus: Charlotte Simmons, the naïve and beautiful titular protagonist; Hoyt Thorpe, the self-obsessed fratboy; “Jojo” Johanssen, the gargantuan whitey baller; and Adam Gellin, Nerd.
Not surprisingly, Charlotte Simmons is the focus of the novel, and her jarring introduction to college life mirrors the surprise Wolfe hopes many readers unfamiliar with the subject will feel. The brainiac brunette from the tiny town of Sparta, in North Carolina’s Alleghany County, is so sheltered in her books and her quaint family life that she has never tasted alcohol, danced, or (we are expected to believe), learned the very first thing about sex. This is because, according to Wolfe, her mother abhorred the subject and—as we all know—parents are where all teenagers learn about illicit subjects.
Needless to say, Charlotte’s introduction to Dupont is a rude awakening. Her waif-lush roommate Beverly Amory, a Groton girl, makes a lifestyle out of drinking and chasing Lacrosse players, and frequently “sexiles” Charlotte (a term, like many bits of slang—including “hooking up,” “getting crunked,” and “grinding” Wolfe delights in establishing his knowledge of). Charlotte’s academic pursuits initially suffer setbacks as well, as when she takes a class on French Literature populated by “steaks” like Jojo who are ushered through easy courses to maintain GPAs eligible for NCAA competition.
Charlotte’s journey through her freshman year, not surprisingly, has its ups and downs. The ups include her stellar performance in a Neuroscience lecture that prompts a professor to praise her, which in turn prompts Charlotte to repeat, mantra-esque, the title of the novel in an annoying self-esteem boosting fashion. The downs involve her navigating the pitfalls of Dupont’s social scene, including a particularly harrowing libidinal run-in with Hoyt Thorpe, in which Wolfe uses words like “mons pubis” and “ball-peen hammer” to describe genitalia.
The incident leads Charlotte to question her moral character relentlessly, and engage in a bender of self-doubt in which she is described, simply as “depressed,” literally dozens of times by an uncharacteristically unimaginative Wolfe. Charlotte also mentally appeals innumerable times to “Mama,” her mother back in Sparta, a maternal figure straight out of the ’50s—the 1850s.
To make matters worse, the narrator even makes fun of Charlotte, the novel’s principled princess. When drunk for the first time, Charlotte starts to say something, forgets it, and the narrator dryly explains: “the truth was, she couldn’t remember whuh wuz funny, dude.” Assuming for the sake of argument that Charlotte is believable, open contempt of her foibles defeats the very purpose of her creation. If Wolfe is siding with the reader in critiquing Charlotte, he shouldn’t present her as the objective witness to college pandemonium at the novel’s outset. In this case, Wolfe is acting as both creator and judge, which not only breaks up the narrative drive, but also results in heavy-handed moralizing and poor portrayal.
The other characters are no more nuanced, and—surprise!—their stories collide towards the novel’s end. There are times when Wolfe veers towards originality in characterization, as when Jojo accepts Charlotte’s promptings and enrolls in difficult classes in an attempt to break the mold his creator has set for him; or when Hoyt, for a few pages, seems like he might carry a glimmer of redemption. Yet the rivers of characterization rut deep in Charlotte Simmons, and deviating from their firmly established course does not go beyond tiny rivulets of original writing.
None of this would matter, necessarily, if this were just some hack novelist who was inaccurately depicting college life with the clumsy log of his pen. But the author is Tom Wolfe, a man whose celebrated eye for cultural detail leads those who know little of his chosen subject to accept his account as truth. In a famous 1988 essay entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe lambastes his literary contemporaries for not trying to accurately document the frenetic vagaries of our nation’s reality, the “irresistibly lurid carnival of American life.”
The current topic is certainly lurid, if you would believe the seventy-three-year-old authorial voice masquerading as wide-eyed Charlotte. The use of free-indirect-discourse throughout the novel often betrays Wolfe as the man behind the curtain, as when Charlotte critiques the pastiche of hotel lobbies “these days,” making her sound as if she has done and seen just about everything in this great land, until we are reminded that she doesn’t know the most basic juvenile slang.
Wolfe the author does manage to shine in the realm of dialogue and linguistic nuance, and the level of detail he picks up, from the extensive research he is famous for, pays off a number of times. Particularly astute is his inclusion of “Sarc1, 2 and 3,” graduated forms of sarcasm that forestall their victim’s realization of mockery. And college movie buffs will enjoy his inclusion of Frank the Tank’s now famous mantra “It tastes so good when it hits your lips!” which is not explained, adding more to Wolfe’s credentials as an eager ear for detail.
But even Wolfe’s love of language goes too far, often serving as a tool to preposterously caricature his chosen subjects. “The year’s prevailing college creole,” he writes, is something called “Fuck Patois,” a language centered around—you guessed it—that most descriptive of four-letter words. Wolfe does get it right here, at least initially; college students swear an awful lot, and create new and intricate forms of words that used to only have a few. But he gets too giddy when he includes the telltale word seventeen times in a half-page of dialogue. And his imitation rap by the fictionally famous “Doctor Dis” that churns beneath every sweaty dance party is hilarious, though it’s not supposed to be: “spears her haunches Dirty Sanchez dude what wants her nude and slutty pseudo-ruts her butt so rudely taunts her.” Word.
And then there is the sex. A word before opening this greasy, sweaty, gyrating can of worms. Wolfe has a purpose here, which is set out even before the novel begins. In an untitled section before the novel’s Prologue we are told of Victor Ransome Starling, Charlotte’s Nobel Prizewinning professor. His famous experiment on cats demonstrated that control animals in the presence of those biologically induced to engage in rampant sex did so too simply because of environmental pressures to conform. “In that moment,” Wolfe writes, “originated a discovery that has since radically altered the understanding of animal and human behaviour: the existence—indeed, pervasiveness—of ‘cultural para-stimuli.’”
Pervasiveness is right. If you buy Wolfe’s view of college students, every one of them, from the lowly virgin Adam Gellin to the satisfied stud Jojo, and even our dear Charlotte, is pressured relentlessly by their environment to believe sex is the end all of existence. In this world no one, no matter how lofty his or her sense of self, can escape the “ripped” grip of lust. We are all of us frenzied cats, unable to buck the tide of hormonal rampage that courses through our veins and coed halls.
A sample of Wolfian stream of consciousness makes his view nauseatingly clear: Charlotte forces her way through a dance floor “between the revelers, who bobbed and shrieked and ululated and exulted in bawling music drunken screaming stroboscopic girls in slices boys dry-humping in-heat bitches he’s not cool got little dickie his cum dumpster is what she is oh fuck that sucks it’s so ghetto scarfed a whole line with a green straw from the heel of her Manolo gotta get laid.”
Does this language and this sentiment exist in college? Of course it does, but it’s not new, and it’s not everything. But Wolfe seems to think it is new, or at least, that the language has changed so dramatically as to signal a serious downward departure from the “decent” sexual undercurrents of yesteryear’s undergraduates. Yet even if it had, the pervasiveness of sex in Charlotte Simmons eclipses nearly all else—academic pursuits in a supposed elite institution, genuine friendships, even romantic relationships.
All that’s left is a social order with an antiquated hierarchy (Nerds versus Jocks with Frat Boys thrown in), a few funny depictions of keggers and tailgating and the thumping, omnipresent bass of Doctor Dis. It is not enough from an author so dedicated to rigorously depicting the carnival of the American scene. While researching college life, it seems Wolfe leaned too close to the speakers while jotting down notes, for his vaunted hearing has failed him.
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