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Charlotte the Harlot

  I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004
Rating: 2.6

Posted: February 28, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

There are many ways in which to judge Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, the typically voluminous I Am Charlotte Simmons. One can choose to judge how well Wolfe turns his reporter’s eye for detail on the modern-day college campus (fairly well, if not particularly revelatory); how credibly he dissects the tastes, thought processes and lingo of the latter-day college student (fairly to poorly); or how tastefully he tackles the highly sexual nature of campus life (depends on your level of prurient interest). One can even judge how convincingly Wolfe bridges the generation gap -- or, for that matter, whether a septuagenarian can ever write about the social, sexual and academic pressure cooker that is an American university without sounding like an alarmist fuddy-duddy. (Probably not. Oh my gosh! These kids and all that sex and rap! Whatever happened to courtship, and, and, and Glenn Miller?

It’s true that Wolfe leaves himself vulnerable on a number of fronts in this mammoth book, and doesn’t always emerge victorious. Unfortunately for Wolfe, the subtext that accompanies anything he writes these days is that it is expected to serve as both a grand societal statement and a distillation of his chosen milieu. That’s unfortunate because, one, as stated above, the idea that the last word on college life in the 1990s and 00s can be given by a man Wolfe’s age is doomed from the outset; and two, it raises expectations that I Am Charlotte Simmons never meets, mostly for the rest of the reasons stated in the above paragraph.

But all of that is ultimately beside the point. Forget the candid journalism, the voracious, out-there sexuality, even the laughable lyrical snippets we hear attributed to the fictional rapper Dr. Dis. I Am Charlotte Simmons fails to make the grade on a far more basic level: as a story.

The synopsis: Sweet, virginal Charlotte Simmons is valedictorian of her high school class in Sparta, a hick town in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Given the alienation she feels both from her hormonally obsessed classmates and from her less-intellectually gifted friends and family, she believes that her imminent new life at Ivy League Dupont University will allow her to blossom into a “life of the mind.”

So it’s odd that the girl who seems too big for the mountains suddenly becomes an awestruck country mouse adrift in the big-city world. But that’s the crux of I Am Charlotte Simmons: Small-town rube finds herself the ultimate fish-out-of-water, scandalized to an incredible (as in “not credible”) degree by co-ed bathrooms, vulgar college boys, snotty, two-faced college girls and -- most of all -- that three-letter four-letter word: S-E-X. (The book’s title comes from a kind of mantra that Charlotte occasionally uses to remind herself of her supposed intellectual fortitude and overall uniqueness, but as time grows on, it grows less and less convincing.)

Of course, a girl as intelligent as Charlotte would presumably have gleaned, through the media or hearsay or even her own brushes with ostracism and sexual politics in Sparta, that college would offer more of the same, multiplied exponentially. But even if we make allowances for Charlotte’s culture shock, it strains credulity that she would remain quite so naïve for so long. By the time Charlotte gamely goes to a fraternity formal as the date of handsome-but-vapid Hoyt Thorpe -- after she’s already tagged him as an unredeemable pig for trying to force himself on her sexually at an earlier party -- the reader begins to feel that she deserves whatever unpleasant sexual awakening she’s likely to get. And boy, does she ever get one, fueled by her own naivety and, of course, lots of alcohol.

It’s simply hard to feel sorry for Charlotte for very long after this, even though Wolfe expertly sketches her shame and embarrassment as word of her experience begins to spread around the campus. Although we should be mortified along with her, we begin to grow annoyed with her for her country-bumpkin belief that she’s slid irrevocably down the moral path and become a modern-day Hester Prynne, an impure, irredeemably immoral creature to be shunned at all costs. This irritation on our part may be part of Wolfe’s plan, a way of showing us that his heroine isn’t entirely blameless, but it’s not the best way to compel the reader to keep slogging. (This writer, in fact, put the book down for more than a month at this very point, for just that reason.)

Anyway: The plot, such as it is, is really a series of interconnected subplots largely involving male students: There’s Charlotte’s frequent makeout sessions with Thorpe, a figure of some notoriety on campus because of his position and his involvement in an incident, a kind of campus urban legend, involving a coed fellating the governor of California; there’s her involvement with basketball player JoJo Johanssen, who finds himself losing his cherished star status even as he begins covertly exploring a dormant interest in things intellectual, and developing a distaste for the groupies that throw themselves at basketball players; and Adam Gellin, a quintessential nerd, college newspaper reporter whose position as a sports tutor leads to him writing a paper for Jojo. (Gellin, a member of a group of intellectual snobs who groaningly call themselves “Millennial Mutants,” introduces Charlotte to her beloved “life of the mind,” which makes her feel guilty for not reciprocating his obvious romantic interest.)

Wolfe draws these divergent strands around the longer, primary thread of Charlotte’s intellectual and sexual maturation for most of the book’s 676 pages, but never weaves them into a wholly satisfying conclusion. Tensions, once built up, evaporate with a whimper instead of exploding with a bang, leaving us unable even to cheer Thorpe’s inevitable comeuppance. The Gellin-Johnanssen plagiarism issue is wrapped up with a neat little bow. And although Charlotte’s eventual outcome, outlined in the last chapter, makes a kind of sense, it leaps out of left field -- we never find out why she makes the romantic choice she does, or even see her making it, and her eventual place in the social and academic scheme of things is fed to us, rather than shown, as well.

With all of that said, however, it must be stated for the record that there’s a lot that Wolfe gets stunningly and vividly right. He nails the almost-crippling social isolation felt by so many college freshmen, the shallow and fragile friendships among outcasts, the maddeningly callous nature of beautiful and bitchy girls, the nauseating spectacle of shirtless, flip-flop-wearing Neanderthals at tailgate parties, the acute wallow of depression and the torturously awkward conversations that result.

And though the outcomes leave much to be desired, the individual plot threads prove quite engrossing while they’re unspooling (particularly the one involving basketball and plagiarism). It also must be admitted that until the book plummets into its post-formal nadir, Charlotte’s romantic journey also proves persuasively engaging in a Vanity Fair kind of way. If Charlotte were a more consistently relatable (to say nothing of believable) character, and its dramatic payoffs weren’t so slight, the whole of I Am Charlotte Simmons might easily have been just as compelling. As it is, this look at the social and romantic travails of a not entirely sympathetic young woman is not so much a Bonfire of the Campus Vanities or A College Student in Full as a 21st century variation on a Jane Austen novel.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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