I Am Charlotte Simmons

The Wolfe in Rut
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 17 2004 7:51 AM

I Am Charlotte Simmons

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Hi, Stephen! Steve-O! Steve-man! The Night of the Skull Fuck! Hillbilly Beaver! Huh!

Damn, I am already violating my vow not to channel the enchanting voice of Wolfe's frat guys or any of his bozo characters. But you gotta love those particular bonebrains (hey, hey, U.Va.) and also this book is date-raping me.

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I agree there's much to say. In regular Slate pundity sentences, even. But do we have to be the ones to say it? My first response to finishing the book has actually been to savor the silence, since I'm worn out, having been shouted down by that loudmouth Wolfe and his twerpy T.A.s—Jojo, Hoyt, Adam, and yes Charlotte, our Maiden No More. Can't you and I, fresh from the 676-page exhortation to—what?—face facts?, now relish a quiet duller world, the one between Wolfe productions, free of "ruttingruttingrutting" and fake Ebonics and typographical stunts like "::::::STATIC:::::" and the grinding of the mons pubis?

And, with that, my second response: to get to the task of exchanging glances with everyone who's lugging this unmistakable $28.95 hardcover around that says, "OK, hi, what is it with 'mons pubis' and 'cleft in the rear declivity' and 'winking navels'? Why does Wolfe introduce these wack expressions as though they're fresh wit and he hasn't used them a half-dozen times on the facing page?"

I am trying to come up with a glance that can convey this.

Finally, my third response is to go to you, Steve, and concede first that, all right, the shouting is style, but what about those glitches? This book is made of glitches! Strange mistakes that speak of cognitive irregularities in the maker, to say nothing of an absent editor. I'm not complaining so much as brooding. How do they happen?

Consider:

Charlotte looked at the pair with a sinking heart. Crissy and Nicole. On top of everything else, they were both –ey girls. All the cool girls at Dupont, the ones who were with it, were –ey girls—Beverly, Courtney, Wheatley, Kingsley, Tinsley, Avery, and now Crissy. Of course, there was Nicole. . .and Erica. . .but thinking of Erica made her sink still farther—

What in hell? I'm sure you see, but I'll spell it out: First, neither Crissy or Nicole are -ey girls, if –ey girls have names that end in ey. Second, Nicole is Nicole, so why is she an exception to a list that includes Nicole?

I guess this could seem like a trivial thing, and maybe it's manly to just slop out your prose and leave small-minded fault-finding to the typing pool. But, when they recur, slips like this one—which are now common in literary fiction in our post-book-editor world—addle the critical mind, since they suggest very badly wrought urns. It's especially stupefying when evidence of carelessness capsizes one of Wolfe's pedantic passages, as above; just as he's coining phrases and codifying distinctions most aggressively, he falls off the dais—and we can't trust him. If I had more stamina for deconstruction, I'd try in fact to prove that this passage is the very heart of the matter, the proof that Wolfe's social taxonomies, which are this book's sine qua non, are lazy lies. Moreover, this other me would argue that the text's mischief is to disclose, over and over, the fraudulence of those taxonomies.

But why bother, really? Shouts, lies, mistakes—who cares? I Am Charlotte Simmons is, as you say, marvelously easy sledding; it's thoroughly disarming, a breeze to read, even thrilling. Yeah, there's a devil's deal in it, but once you make that deal—stop counting the gaffes, stop tracing out The stupidity here may actually be boundless in the margins—this novel's got the enzyme that makes you crave it. Don't you think? It's really working the whole Tom Wolfe soothsayer thing, present in the Geertz-like thick descriptions of things like moving in to a freshman dorm; parents' fearful interaction with your roommate and her parents; the boring and sexual atmosphere of a dormitory Common Room late at night; uncomfortable hours spent with bland, unlikable freshman "friends"; the fudging of facts and tone involved in letters home; the drudgery and ecstasy of fraternity parties; the appearance of a shared hotel bathroom on a college road trip …

Wolfe reminds me of John Edward of Crossing Over. From a few data points—derived in this case from his fact-finding college tour—he supplies connective material and nuance until he seems, as I live and breathe, to be talking to the dead. You may know just how he does this—gets a page of Cosmo Girl or the liner notes to a Ben Harper CD and spins it into what seems like a narrative miracle amid novels by Iowa-trained senior citizens who never leave their Tidewater farmhouses. But even as I fought to keep my head clear I found myself thinking, on the brink of tears, "How does he know this about my college life? It was just like this!" (True, I don't really know how John Edward does it, either.)

I also admire the way some of Wolfe's warhorse effects undergird the nouveau speech act he's evidently interested in here: the Affirmation. I'm not sure, in other words, that—as you say—postmodernism, or its tricks, have passed Wolfe by. When he gets into free-indirect discourse, which is pervasive—later I may remember this as a book narrated by Charlotte Simmons, but of course it's in the third person, with Wolfe visiting several consciousnesses very closely—Wolfe leans on a telling locution. He'll write, "But he, Jojo, Jojo Johannsen, of whom they all chanted 'go go, Jojo,' could not be seen doing this!" or "But he, Hoyt, was the chevalier!" or "He, Adam, Destiny's Adam Gellin, promised himself that vengeance was his!" Wolfe doubles and triples the names—pronoun and proper noun and epithet and etc.—reminding us with his boozy, emphatic, redundant loops that so much of what passes for mental life is just the repetition of one's name. Virginia, OK, you can do this. Or, rather, I am Charlotte Simmons. I like this title.

I'm sounding awfully close, I realize, to Samuel Richardson's female groupies, who raved that he knew their lady-hearts better than they themselves did. Who knows who, of the aged monster novelists—Bellow, Roth, Updike, whoever—will win, in the end, in the final final Rapture? (Someone has to, though; is that an article of faith with you, too?) For now I'm with Wolfe.

Wahoowa,

Virginia

P.S.: Let's admit you also went to U.Va. As I did. And also—your question. This is a dialogue. The traps, lats, delts—yes, there are many references to them. Personal trainers of America should pay Wolfe for his description of Charlotte's very clinical way to arousal: "running her fingers over his wonderful abs and lingering in the crevices between the units." But what doyoumean by calling attention to Wolfe's salaciousness about the college guys? The cover's got I Am Charlotte Simmons in curly letters right over Tom Wolfe's initials. Seems like drag to me. I take it for a big, gay book. Not you?

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.