Books — I Am Charlotte Simmons
I Am Charlotte Simmons

By Lisa Parsons

College in the eyes of Tom Wolfe

Much ado but not much about Charlotte Simmons

I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 676 pages.

If a novel is going to be 670 pages long, it had better be good.

Tom Wolfe’s latest, a fictional study of college life, is good at first, but all too soon the rich prose of its early chapters gives way to plodding, unmoving verbiage piled on by the shovelful.

The setup is promising. Charlotte, a sheltered innocent raised in near poverty, arrives for her first semester at prestigious Dupont College and is shocked to find coed bathrooms, rampant drinking, continual swearing and blatant disregard for academics. But poor sweet Charlotte wants to fit in, so she accompanies two semi-friends (she’s not so good at making actual friends) to a frat party, where she alternately resists and falls for the wiles of a handsome frat boy, setting the stage for a school year’s worth of two steps forward, two steps back. Various subplots concern institutional favoritism (toward school athletes), political correctness and academic cheating. But Wolfe is really here to talk about big stuff: ego, animal instinct and the nature of man and woman.

Promising, but unfulfilled.

Exactly who are we meant to identify with in this book, and what is Tom Wolfe trying to accomplish?

Normally you don’t find yourself asking these questions as you read a book. With I Am Charlotte Simmons, you do, because the narrative voice is so confused.

Each character talks out loud in his own style, but they all think in Tom Wolfe style. When a frat-party scene gives us “laughter, shouts, and inexplicable ululations,” that last word (one Wolfe uses a lot) stands out painfully, even in light of Charlotte’s superior intellect, and it feels more like Tom Wolfe than Charlotte Simmons thinking. Yet the narration generally isn’t omniscient, and it feels like we’re supposed to be in the characters’ heads, not Wolfe’s. So the arcane word stops us in our tracks. And then again, if it’s not Wolfe’s head, then which character are we supposed to inhabit? The point of view roves even within a single scene — we’re thinking like Charlotte, now we’re the nerdy tutor boy, now we’re the frat boy — and this impels us to revert to the overhead Wolfe perspective just to keep our heads from spinning.

Too much of the time it is unclear whether Wolfe is (i.e. wants us to be) making fun of wholesome Charlotte or celebrating her; making fun of beastly frat boys or of nerdy tutors; disdaining people who use words like “ululations” or disdaining people who can’t define “ululations.”

 The novel’s flow is repeatedly jolted like that. Again: “her eyelids were spilling with tears, and the sting of it filled her rhinal and laryngeal cavities”. Even Charlotte doesn’t consistently think in such technical terms, so it’s jarring.

The problem reaches its peak when a character eyes Charlotte and his, or Wolfe’s, perception of her physique comes to us as, I kid you not, “Oh, loamy, loamy loins!”

Did I mention that I Am Charlotte Simmons won a British award (from the London-based Literary Review) for bad fictional sex writing?

Yet I’m still not prepared to totally trash the book. Because Tom Wolfe is my elder, with a slew of best-selling and critically acclaimed books behind him. Also because, damn it, I like the meatiness (not to be confused with loaminess) of the story, at least at its start; I like that it tackles the college milieu, which needs tackling. I think Wolfe is great at showing us how depraved and immature college students are; he puts us right into it.

Unfortunately he barely moves us from the place he first plops us down.

At story’s end, Charlotte, though objectively more experienced, is the same half-naive half-sophisticated, half-independent half-needy soul she was at the start.

About the only resolution we get is a last-minute answer to the question of whether Charlotte will ultimately resist or be assimilated into the culture of college life. By that time, I was too frustrated by the book’s ponderous shape-shifting to be much impressed either way.

This is a book about people who enjoy the life of the mind as opposed to those who don’t. It’s a good bet Tom Wolfe sides with the former. But even the most ardent thinker won’t enjoy a story as protracted as this.


—Lisa Parsons

 
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