I Am Charlotte Simmons
Virginia! We meet again! There is so much to say about Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and the university life this new novel purports to depict, that I'll skip all introductory coughing and dive right in. I Am Charlotte Simmons is a sprawling anatomy of undergraduate life that centers on four main characters: the implausibly naive character of the book's title, and the three male students who, with varying intentions, attempt to woo her: Hoyt Thorpe, a smirking, born-on-third-base frat boy in the George Bush mold; Jojo Johansenn, a hulking power forward for the school's NCAA championship basketball team; and Adam Gellin, a vengeful nerd who writes for the school newspaper. This is an eminently foolish book, by an old man for whom the life of the young has become a grotesque but tantalizing rumor. It is overdrawn, overlong, underconsidered, and filled with at least one forehead-slapping ay caramba per page. (That adds up to 676, by the way. This is the predictable doorstop, perfectly timed for seasonal gifting.) At one point I wrote in its margins, The stupidity here may actually be boundless. And yet ... and yet ... I kinda liked I Am Charlotte Simmons, ripe for the pyre as it is. I'm glad we have three days here, to help discover how this unsacred monster, with its raft of insecurities and no social graces to speak of, holds some inexplicable power to ... well, not charm, exactly. Transfix?
Going in, there's one thing you can say about Tom Wolfe: At least he's no worse than Tom Wolfe. About Wolfe's preposterous claims regarding the novel as a genre, I'll have more to say in the next couple of days. But his disdain for the overly literary is a real boon to his reviewers. The prose rates a perfect 10 for ease of use; and so, long as this book is, you glide right through it without a hitch. Wolfe will occasionally flash the Nabokovian smile—the shrubbery at Wolfe's made-up Dupont University is "euonymus," its cafeteria bathroom emits an "egestive funk"—but mostly he writes in a fat novel, book-of-the-month style, totally uninfected by modernity (much less post-modernity), and readily adaptable to its every soft-core need: "Instead his tongue veered off to the side and worked its way down the gulley from her illial crest down to where her panties began." And finally—and most important—in its unrelenting drive to leave nothing unsaid, I Am Charlotte Simmons relieves its reader of all the burdens of the imagination: "He amounted to a male low in the masculine pecking order," Wolfe describes an athletic department tutor, "who is angry, deserves to be angry, is dying to show anger, but doesn't dare do so in the face of two alpha males, both of them physically intimidating as well as famous on the Dupont campus."
OK, even in praising it, I can't hide my overwhelming dislike for this novel—it's put me in an egestive funk—so time to lay out its most obvious deficiencies. Three related and unaccountable choices inform the structure and substance of I Am Charlotte Simmons. The first is the wholly incredible nature of Wolfe's Dupont University. Wolfe is unequivocal: Dupont is an institution mentionable in the same breath only with Harvard. And yet, in Wolfe's depiction, it's more like a land grant school crossed with the Thunderdome. The jock subculture exists nearly everywhere (I went to Wesleyan, of cafeteria pot-smoking and "Womynist House" fame, and I'm here to tell you: Jock subculture is everywhere) but Wolfe portrays it as the single, utterly dominant fact of campus life and virtually the sole medium for sorting out the status pecking order of the young. Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 1, then, is that Wolfe has somehow run together Harvard with N.C. State, thus producing a complete chimera.
By his own telling out on the promotion circuit, to research I Am Charlotte Simmons Wolfe toured several American campuses, talking to undergraduates about their experiences. This leads to Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 2. For on his journey through the groves of academe, Wolfe appears to have collected every bit of sexual folklore, no matter how hand-me-down, and bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Dupont is a place where women on a nightly basis cake on makeup and crawl, in an abject drunken stupor, up to lacrosse players, begging them for psychic validation in the form of brutally commitment-free sex. For the credulous Wolfe, even Ivy League college life seems to be one endless cloacal flow, filled only with beer bongs, body-sculpting, and animal rutting.
And this leads, finally, to Hopeless Structural Flaw No. 3. By imagining college life as so debased, Wolfe must then imagine his heroine as correspondingly pure. Charlotte Simmons is a little mountain girl, a modern-day Walton, who has known in her life only hard study, dutiful but dirt poor parents, and the simple mountain ways of North Carolina. (And the novel hasn't seen such a tediously guarded virginity since Richardson's Pamela.) Well, that's it for starters, Virginia. We'll be revisiting each of these as we go, I suspect. I'll finish with a question and one last observation. First the question: What did you make of all the abs, delts, pecs, and various slabs of muscle, loving descriptions of which are larded—excuse the mixed metaphor—into virtually every chapter?
And here is the observation: Dutiful Tom Wolfe, the little naiad in his white suit and his notebook, trucking off to university after university to do his research. Compare this to the genesis of the greatest academic satire ever written, the category killer known as Lucky Jim. In 1948, Philip Larkin's old college chum Kingsley Amis visited him at the University College at Leicester, where the young Larkin had recently been appointed librarian. As Amis recalled his visit to the Senior Common Room years later, "[I] looked around a couple of times and said to myself: 'Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.' Not that it was awful—well, only a bit; it was strange, and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got onto, like the SS in 1940, say. I [decided I] would do something with it." That was it: a turn of the head in the Common Room; a few sniggering letters to and from Larkin. But between their four eyes they managed to nail the enterprise, and for all time. But of course, as Wolfe would remind us, it was six eyes: Larkin was a myopic, bespectacled, spectral geek, a weakling who devoted a lifetime to his own self-pity. And besides, what do you think that pays, librarian?
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.