I Am Charlotte Simmons

I [Heart] Charlotte
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 19 2004 2:41 PM

I Am Charlotte Simmons

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Steve,

I know you hear me, but the headline writers, as well as the charmers at the Fray, seem to misunderstand me, and now's my only chance to set the record straight …

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So here goes: I like this novel. I like it now, having read it, having talked about it, and having read about it. And I'll keep on liking it. I'll never stop liking it. The people who like it are right. The people who dislike it are wrong. To which I am obliged to add: You are wrong.

Charlotte is not an allegorical figment out of Comus. She's a vain, redneck distance-runner with a kindly and despotic mountain mother and a jalopy Kaypro computer that her father and brothers fixed up for her because she's also an intellectual, and intellectuals need computers. Have you ever seen a Kaypro? I remember light gray-blue casing, the false impression of portability, and a strange shape; it was as though you had to look down a tunnel, as if into a stereopticon, to see the green figures on the deep-space black background. Any undergraduate at a Harvard-like university who is writing papers now on a Kaypro, especially one rigged by her kinfolk, has a story to tell. That's a story we'd do well—and here I'll risk the David Brooks line, or the Tom Wolfe one—to listen to.

(Glimpse a Kaypro here.)

Charlotte is not Chastity. She loses her virginity at 18, which sounds fairly average to me—not devastating either way—and she falls apart, while she does, not because she then embodies Sullied Chastity, but for the worthwhile reasons that college girls usually fall apart: because a guy isn't calling her and because she's let down her mother.

Dupont University is not a Gomorrah. It is, rather, a place of learning, with—it must be said—intriguing course offerings. (Wolfe heroically rejects the long tradition of tedious David Lodge-style parodic course titles, creating instead "Nineteenth-Century Poetry: The Courtly, the Pastoral, and the Symbolist" and "The Renaissance and the Rise of Nationalism," with which he makes a point worth acknowledging: Wolfe still believes in college.)

Dupont does not—miracle!—conform to the popular and now 20-year-old cliché of a university of passionless PC slackers who are morally dead because sex is no longer the terrifying centerpiece of existence, the way it was for Allan Bloom and Philip Roth and the other men who came of age before early puberty and coeducation and the ultimately very peaceable disbanding of the American branch of the cult of female virginity. Wolfe came of age back then, too, and he's no doubt been amused and even appalled to hear his twentysomething daughter's accounts—the book is dedicated to his children *—of how times have changed.

But, unlike those other big daddies, Wolfe evidently really listened to those girls when he invented Dupont, wresting from them and his other sources details about bulimic roommates, cell phone use on campus, computer centers, eye makeup, Diesel jeans, new college cuisine, the Kaypro …

Something about the idea of Tom Wolfe doing all that research is endearing; it constitutes the sweetness of the book. Though scorned for being middlebrow, Wolfe is among America's few monster novelists to have gotten a Ph.D. (in American Studies at Yale), which, if it doesn't give him professore status, as it might in Italy, at least it means he deputized himself to greater minds before officially putting pen to paper.

Why do I find this book so monumentally moving, like a paper by an ingenious and strange undergraduate? Put it this way: Wolfe invented a rapper named Doctor Dis. Doctor Dis! And then he wrote songs for him!

Let's imagine this. Having listened to Nas or Jay-Z on the kids' recommendation, Tom Wolfe had a daughter help him make out the lyrics. Then he sat down at his own desk, blank page and rhyming dictionary before him, and—forgoing yet another chance to write to his strengths (none of his old subjects are shoehorned into this book, which is also commendable)—he tapped out the meter to a rap. And produced a cop-killing anthem with enjammed rhymes and internal rhymes!

Is Jojo's transformation not credible? Are Hoyt's and Jojo's and Beverly's overwrought family stories abandoned? Do a half-dozen first-act guns not go off? Are paragraphs here sloppily composed? Are some of the coinages silly? Is the melodrama melodrama? Are there one thousand departures from verisimilitude?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But there are also 1,001 times where the truth is rendered conscientiously, with bravado and lightness. And I did laugh reading this book, and I read it greedily and happily, and my eyes were opened, and I remember the characters.

I read your entries greedily and happily, too, however! I like your style and being right isn't everything. This has been truly high times.

Yours,
Virginia

Correction, Nov. 23, 2004: An earlier version of this piece misstated that Wolfe has two daughters. He, in fact, has a son and a daughter. Return to the corrected sentence.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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