I Am Charlote Simmons

I read Tom Wolfe’s new novel last week. A super-smart country girl from Sparta, NC heads off to the prestigious Dupont University to explore the life of the mind. (My comments will not spoil the plot.)
The book is getting fairly bad reviews. NPR panned it. David Brooks in the NYT found at least something to like. This three-day dialogue in Slate covers the basics and ends up kinda balanced. Here’s NPR’s 8-minute interview with Wolfe, along with an excerpt. I rather liked the book, so I’m glad I read all the bad reviews after I had read the work itself.
The book does have a couple of flaws. For instance, the language is probably exaggerated in its vulgarity. But perhaps not by much. I mentioned that I was reading this to an Academic Dean and an Admissions Dean this past week, and both had heard the reviews (but not read the book) and said it didn’t sound accurate. I’m sure students talking to their Deans don’t talk in “Fuck Patois,” but I bet the dormitory slang approaches Wolfe’s patter. The fraternity scenes certainly had the ring of truth.
And there were a couple of inconsistencies that would have been caught with better editing. Example: A description of six students riding in a Suburban SUV, with one leaning against the window, across from the sliding door. Of course, a Suburban has four doors; the scene was probably originally written with a van in mind, when the author realized that ultra-cool college students don’t drive mini-vans, silly, and changed it to an SUV.
Chalk all this up to a choice between delivering the 700-page tome in time for holiday sales, or making it 5% better; the publisher choose the sales. I forgive them. The fact that a 70-year old white guy could write a convincing college novel from the perspective of a female lead is something quite amazing.
The book is not “about” sex, contrary to much publicity. But let us congratulate the PR people on getting that thought into the mediasphere, where I’m sure it will help sales. The book deals with a lot of sex, sexual overtones, and a lot of non-erotic sex scenes. But don’t get all excited, this isn’t Fear of Flying.
To me the book is “about” assimilation, transformation, and recognition. And status. Lots of status. What gets assimilated, transformed, and recognized are aspects about oneself, one’s upbringing, one’s nature — and one’s status. Some of these aspects are obvious and clear, and some are subtle and ambiguous. I could address this more directly if I were willing to provide spoilers, but let’s say that the ending is cleverly tied to the title, and that the resolution, while satisfying storytelling, leaves me uncomfortable about some aspects of human nature. The result being: Good book; I’ve got some things to think about in the days following.
My memories of college are expansive, fun, exploratory. Some other memories of college life this book resurfaced for me were loneliness and distance. Memories like being the first one into the dining hall to eat and get out of there so I wouldn’t be seen eating alone; general roommate alienation — being randomly thrown together with someone who is neither a friend or a companion; long walks wondering what everyone else thought about a topic of the day. And I was a popular, engaged student with lots of friends! I can only imaging what some people went through.
[An interesting read lately has been Aaron Swartz’s weblog. Aaron just entered Stanford and his day-by-day accounts provide “real-voice” support for much of Wolfe’s main thesis (modulo the sex). History lesson: Aaron won the ArsDigita prize for software engineering in 2000, when he was 13.]
One of the most powerful passages in the book describes Charlotte’s depression. I have never experienced anything deeper than a miscellaneous malaise, but in reading this 100 pages of self-pity, self-loathing, and complete hopelessness, I felt sick to my stomach.
The plot is pretty good, with three sub-plots revolving around Charlotte’s primary story, and the whole thing wraps up nicely at the end, without much contriving. As a budding writer I could see a bit of the backstage mechanics, but I was looking for them. Example: When Adam was rushing up to the stage at the rally, to talk to the professor, I thought, “Dude, don’t go there!” But a while later, it was clear that in order to establish Adam’s credibility, that scene, or one similar, had to occur. It’s hard to tell if this is good or bad. Like I said, I was looking for plot mechanics, and I found some. As an aside, the four main characters align pretty well with the King, Warrior, Magician, Lover archetypes.
I Am Charlotte Simmons is a breezy read. It was both an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and a current calibration to college life. It’s as “accurate” as any other fiction, with a satisfying story and somewhat surprising (but resonant) conclusion. There are worse ways to spend 20 hours, as Charlotte could attest.