Book: I Am Charlotte Simmons (Tom Wolfe)
I Am Charlotte Simmons starts off like the pearl-clutching exhortations of an old world outsider peering in on the debauchery of post-millennial collegiate life. By the end it’s more like a hatchet job on liberal education in America. In the expansive middle you’ll find a handful of the most hateful characters you’re ever likely to come across. Congratulations, Tom Wolfe. You’ve crafted a pretentious book about unpleasant people thatarrives at agenda-laden conclusions. Also? Nice suit, Orville.
From the very beginning, Wolfe seems scandalized by the state of college campuses: the language, the banality, the vulgar behavior. He couches this viewpoint in the character of Charlotte Simmons, naïve southern brainiac entering prestigious Dupont University without a single clue on how to cope with being outside her genteel mountain comfort zone. At first, the “why, I never” reactions seem perfectly natural coming from Charlotte, but we soon find that a) the tone spreads to characters who should know better, and b) Wolfe only seems comfortable writing from Charlotte’s point of view, both of which turn Charlotte’s point of view into Wolfe’s, which is just sad.
There was a big deal made upon the novel’s publication of Wolfe’s on-campus research and how it paid off in Charlotte’s astute observations. Which may or may not be true. I went to college at a school without a top-level athletic program or a significant Greek presence on campus, which are two of the most defining factors of the fictional Dupont. But I will say that it ends up hard to take Wolfe and his tireless research at all seriously when he appears to be so scandalized by kids saying “fuck” and “shit”.
He also suffers significantly from an old-fashioned vocabulary which, again, somewhat fits Charlotte’s character but is woefully out of place in the interior monologues of frat boys, athletes and aspiring Rhodes scholars.
Speaking of which, Wolfe is unable or unwilling to write a sympathetic character. Good thing we only have near on 700 pages to put up with them. Charlotte is snobby, selfish, hypocritical and – despite the titular mantra that should imply self-reliance – constantly dependant on the men in her life to rescue her. Hoyt Thorpe is your garden variety date-rapey frat boy. Adam Gellin is a caricature of weak-willed Ivory Tower intellectualism. JoJo Johansson is at least halfway tolerable as a basketball god with a newfound yen for Socrates. Half of a person is not enough to hold onto for such a looooong book.
It’s not all bad. Wolfe does seem to get to the root of the college male hierarchy, that at its base it comes down to those who can’t wait to fight and those who urgently avoid it. And the book’s compelling enough, so long as you stick with it. Don’t put it down for more than a day or two, though, because you will forget about this shit faster than your Prom Promise.
Near the end, Wolfe tosses in more than a few cheap shots at his more liberal characters. He seems to relish in Adam Gellin’s downfall, while giving what amounts to a “boys will be boys” pass to his other, more red state friendly, miscreants. There’s also more than a few hints of racism and sexism thrown in to taste.
It’s a worthwhile reading experience, if only to see what the fuss has been about. But it’s impossible to come away from the book without having your fill of Wolfe, of his repeated references to “fuck patois” and “the Land of Nod” and “mons pubis”, of his incessant need to spell out regional dialects (Like, we GET IT! She’s Southern!), of his contemptible characters and old-fashioned worldview. Shut UP, Tom Wolfe.