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Onyx reviews: I Am Charlotte
Simmons by Tom Wolfe
One writing adage declares that authors should write about what they know. If
that was an absolute rule, only police and murderers would write mysteries, and
science fiction and fantasy wouldn’t exist. However, when it comes to
mainstream fiction, the axiom has something to recommend itself. Should a
seventy-something author attempt a novel about the contemporary university
scene, as Tom Wolfe does in I Am Charlotte Simmons?
The eponymous coed hails from Sparta, North Carolina. Her rural roots make
her transition to Dupont (a thinly disguised and resituated Duke University)
something akin to the Beverly Hillbillies. Though exceptionally smart, Charlotte
is also astonishingly naïve. However, that doesn’t stop her from being
embarrassed by her parents. In fact, her defining character trait is disdain for
nearly everyone else, including her roommate and most of her fellow students.
Her narrative voice scoffs at her father’s tattoos, her mother’s dresses,
the family vehicle, their choice of restaurants, and the way they speak.
She identifies with Charles Bovary, who considered himself a country bumpkin
with great potential. Having consumed the Flaubert novel in the original French,
she’s astonished to discover that her classmates read translations. Only
occasionally does she feel guilty about her intellectual superiority.
The book’s title is her mantra, and while Wolfe may have intended it as a
way for Charlotte to cling to her self-identity while overwhelmed by a flood of
new experiences—coed dorms and the decadence of collage life among them—it
comes off like a statement that would conclude “and I am better than this.”
It’s unclear where Charlotte’s morality came from, though, for surely even
in the Appalachians they’ve heard of Cosmo magazine and had access to rap
music, which are depicted as shocking revelations to her.
Wolfe reportedly researched campus life and interviewed contemporary
students, but he seems incredibly out of touch with the times. His observations
are more akin to a cultural anthropologist’s treatise than narrative. The
vernacular that he attributes to his characters bears a detectable accent, as if
he were writing in a newly learned foreign language. He emphasizes the alien
nature of the dialog by putting quotation marks around words and phrases that
have been familiar to young people for at least a generation. A lengthy aside
about the various usages of the f-word contains no surprises for anyone under
fifty. For no good reason, the authorial voice is that of an observer far
outside the social context. This distances readers from the story instead of
immersing them in it.
For all his research, the campus details are oddly out of date. Though a few
students are addicted to computer games, they aren’t as obsessed by computers,
online chatting and text messaging as one would expect. Students drink to
excess, but where are the drugs that are so prevalent on campuses? Where are the
metal heads, the gamers, the Goths, the Rastas, the skateboarders, the
ecstasy-fueled dance parties? Where is the foreign student subculture? Where is
the academic competition that is a hallmark of an Ivy League institution?
The supporting cast is composed of a small group of stereotypes. The nerd,
the jock who, upon meeting Charlotte, decides to challenge himself academically
despite his limitations, the Britney Spears clone roommate, the heavy-drinking
frat boys who try to hook up with coeds in seven minutes or less, the coach who
chastises his players for attempting classes that aren’t pre-screened as being
sufficiently easy to pass, and his nemesis, the professor who guns for any
athlete in his class. These characters all share one thing: the capacity to
attribute deep meaning to the subtlest of looks on other characters’ faces.
Occasionally, Wolfe’s writing shines. Of two students he says, “They
enjoyed setting fire to the tails of tender thoughts.” However, his trademark
excesses are in full play. Sentences are interrupted by odd interjections, like
the omnipresent “bango!” Exclamation marks litter the pages. The drama is
overblown, Gone With the Wind-ish. The author’s prodigious vocabulary gets in
the way of the storytelling. The book contains more references to the amygdala
than is found in most medical texts. When was the last time someone used the
word otorhinolaryngological in a love scene?
A summary of the plot takes far less space than the book’s nearly seven
hundred pages should allow. Charlotte arrives on campus, meets her roommate,
attends classes, encounters an interesting cross-section of her fellow students,
is tempted, resists, is seduced, is dumped, castigates herself for her weakness,
and recovers with a new world view. Side stories explore fraternity life, the
conflict between academia and athletics, and a mostly irrelevant subplot
concerning illicit sexual activity between a famous politician and a student.
The book would be easier to like if Charlotte was sympathetic. Instead, she’s
self-absorbed, aloof, and selfish. While in the dark pit of depression, her
friend Adam coddles and nurtures her for weeks until she recovers. When Adam is
distraught over a crisis that threatens his academic career, though, Charlotte
becomes bored and can’t be supportive of him for more than a day. Wolfe’s
attitude toward her doesn’t help—she’s just another depressed schoolgirl
who can be painted with the same brush strokes as any other. It’s unclear
whether he intends to laud her or satirize her.
Wolfe’s position in the arena of gender politics also seems out of touch.
During a scene where Charlotte’s whining gets on Adam’s nerves, he yells at
her to stop. She immediately does and beams at Adam with “respect bordering
oddly on pleasure, as women sometimes do when a man claims the high ground and
What is the book’s take-home message? Little is revealed about college life
that even a casual observer doesn’t already know. There’s a lot of drinking,
cursing and sex. Athletics exert undue influence on campus economy, politics and
society. The truly studious are regarded with disdain by the party animals. Is
Wolfe telling parents to keep their children away from places of higher
education lest they be corrupted?
References to Madame Bovary indicate that Wolfe’s hypothesis is that tragic
ends arise from mistaken goals. However, that presumes that Charlotte’s
original goals were mistaken. She arrived at Dupont intent upon getting the best
education possible while remaining true to herself. Considering her family’s
financial situation, getting to attend Dupont on full scholarship was a
blessing, yet she nearly squanders the opportunity in her first semester over a
puppy dog crush on a crude frat boy who barely eked out a C average. College is
where many young adults discover their identity, but it seems strangely
subversive that Wolfe portrays it as a place where someone who arrives with a
very strong sense of self loses—or surrenders—her identity and has to
reinvent herself as a somewhat lesser person.
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