Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


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 rebukes them.”

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.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.