I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe’s latest doorstop of a novel has, apparently, recently been spotted sitting atop the bedside table of George W Bush. Which, assuming George Jr. isn’t using it to conceal a covert copy of Sports Illustrated, is an interesting selection given Wolfe’s consistently cynical opinion of the American college system as a place where athletic prowess and family connections count for more than intellectual ability. Oh, and the Governor of California receives an al fresco blow job from a student in the opening pages.
Charlotte Simmons, the bright young academic star of Sparta, North Carolina, has won a place at prestigious Dupont University, one of the first students from her Blue Ridge Mountain backwater town to achieve such a thing. Having felt rather stifled throughout her school years, she arrives on campus thrilled with the prospect of living a “life of the mind” and of studying under Nobel Prize winners. Inevitably things don’t work out entirely as she had hoped. Wolfe paints Ivy League academia as a world permeated by low level corruption, where the true stars on campus are the student athletes who are granted every luxury and permitted every indiscretion so long as they keep scoring on the sports field.
With her small town background and hick accent, Charlotte doesn’t register on the social radar until frat-boy Hoyt Thorpe takes a liking to her, only then do people start to take notice. And Hoyt isn’t the only one with an interest in Charlotte: student reporter Adam Gellim is besotted from the first time he meets her, and Jojo Johansson, a campus basketball star with a desire to better himself, is also intrigued by her strong sense of morality and obvious intellect.
Wolfe has clearly done a lot of research for this novel, spending time on campuses, tuning his reporter’s ear to student slang and speech patterns. He revels in the malleability of the English language and the linguistic quirks, more often than not sex related, of the American student. “Dormcest,” “sexile,” and “sorostitute” are just a few examples he picks up on as he gleefully depicts the fratboy banter and, what he terms, “fuck patois.” There’s something a bit heavy-handed in his manner however, as if he’s documenting some exotic new species, not just the wordplay of young Americans; you do have to wonder for whose benefit he’s explaining all this, the numerous inventive usages of the F-word he describes are hardly revelatory. None the less it’s the concentration on language that lifts this, sometimes uneven and repetitive, narrative, Wolfe’s careful rendering of Charlotte’s country girl accent or the way the college basketball team slip in and out of ghetto speak.
While undeniably very readable, the novel has many problems, the biggest of which is Charlotte herself. We are clearly meant to sympathise with her, she’s meant to be this bright outsider with strong moral standards, but she frequently appears prudish and naïve to the point of implausibility. Her principles might register more strongly if she wasn’t equally appalled by the casual swearing and the – gasp – underage drinking as she is by the genuinely worrying behaviour, the rampant, faculty-sanctioned, elitism and the subtle bribery. It’s hard to believe that a girl as intelligent as Charlotte Simmons, no matter how sheltered and rigid her upbringing, could be so ignorant of the realities of campus life.
In fact the only characters who generate any level of sympathy are Adam and Jojo, though both possess serious weaknesses; Adam should be the hero of the piece but Wolfe makes him too needy, too neurotic, to root for. This imbalance permeates the writing; without exception all the girls that Charlotte encounters are either razor-cheekboned boarding school bitches with incipient eating disorders, like Charlotte’s roommate Beverly, or equally judgemental social outsiders who would ditch their uncool friends in an instant if the chance to be absorbed into the in-crowd came along. For such a weighty novel, all the women, bar Charlotte, remain very thinly sketched.
Wolfe uses his novel to make some very serious points about some very serious issues, about the way the American college system is failing many of its students, the way it’s churning out over-privileged automatons with an entrenched sense of entitlement, but he continually undermines his efforts with sloppy characterisation. Charlotte is intelligent, ambitious and has a self belief that should be endearing but she’s too erratic a character, and as a result the inevitable cynical epilogue triggers only a resigned sigh rather than the bitter laughter it was perhaps intended to create.