Tuesday, February 1, 2005

I Am Charlotte Simmons

Charlotte Simmons is the fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and ambitious, though somewhat countrified, heroine of Tom Wolfe's latest novel. The product of working-class parents in fictional Sparta, NC, and the valedictorian of her high school class, she sets off to DuPont University (read Duke) bearing her own, her family's, and her teachers' high expectations.

Things don't turn out as she planned.

Instead of finding a rarefied life of the mind, Charlotte discovers that the lofty professors she came to study under are, as Wolfe puts it, ghostly presences inhabiting the fringes of university life. At the true heart of DuPont's throbbing vitality are big-time college athletics and a beer-and-hormone-soaked fraternity culture. Wolfe's novel details Charlotte's immersion in this hissing cauldron of lust and ambition for a semester and a half. He does not tell us whether Charlotte makes it out intact.

Wolfe's trademark pleasures are here: vibrant and resistless prose; uncanny observation of the details of speech, gesture, and clothing; and a real appreciation for the virtues of the objects of his unblinking satiric gaze. At times Wolfe seems to be all eye, a hyper-accurate recorder of the exploits and foibles of his characters.

But that is not all he is. I Am Charlotte Simmons is a seriously philosophic novel, exploring Charlotte's identity through lenses alternately social, sartorial, sexual, and socio-biological. This last seems to fascinate him most, and the question most often posed by the narrative is whether Charlotte is a free moral agent or merely a set of genetic memes working out their expression in an entirely deterministic cosmos.

The book's title is Charlotte's mantra; it's what she tells herself in moments of loneliness and self-doubt. In the beginning, she knows exactly what it means: "I am someone special, destined for great things." By the end, neither we nor Charlotte are quite sure who she is, nor exactly what things she is destined for, though they are not likely to be merely ordinary.

Wolfe's portrayals of the life of college athletes, coaches, faculty, and administrators are generally delightful and hilarious. Fraternity life, however, being mostly vapid in itself, provides fewer opportunities for pleasure. And Charlotte's protracted humiliation and ultimate debauch at a fraternity formal was, to me, emotionally excruciating; I had to force myself to get through it.

In fact, the book takes a rather distressing turn toward the end, as both we and Charlotte learn that she has the survivor's ruthless streak, and that in the dangerous waters of ivy-league university life, Charlotte can bite with the best of the sharks.

But I Am Charlotte Simmons is an estimable book, and a satisfying one in its refusal to make its complex and attractive heroine entirely lovable.


Anonymous said...

Could I use this review for The Spartan News?

David Wharton said...

You're free to link to it, John, but since I didn't write it for the Spartan News, I'd prefer that you not copy the text there.

The Freeholder said...

Did you mean to say Sparta, NC isn't a real town? It most definately exists--been there, saw that.

I haven't read the book, but I can see how any kid from a place like Sparta could get an advanced case of culture shock "going to the big city". It's one thing to see it on TV, but it's another to actually live it. I've lived in both, and much prefer the small towns like Sparta.

Anonymous said...

I ran across this post trying to find a link between a work entitled I am Lavina Cummings and I am Charlotte Simmons--similar small town girl to big things plot--so first of all, any idea? Secondly, a lot of reviews talk about Wolfe's cynical view of college students. His depiction of us--2007 grad--is dead on, but adult readers should beware not to mistake our apathy for enmity. Wolfe does not do an adequate job of making the distinction himself; I doubt if his sources could provide him that intimate detail. We're testing boundaries like generations before us only in our case we have an increasing sense of isolation (the internet and the printing press had opposite effects) created and fed by others'--parents, mostly--belief in our inevitable perfection (a la Charlotte). But unlike Charlotte, we show no signs: our grades never falter, our smiles never waver. They don't have to, because the entire higher education complex needs our parents money and, were our faces to show concern, the money would vanish. In short, college students across the country are dragging down the curve simply because we can. It's not that we couldn't do more if it was asked of us. Some of us have taken to putting forth the effort required to take our classes (not much) and then we learn what we want to learn outside of the classroom. I glanced at your profile so I'll bet you're familiar with some of this. That student you see nodding off in the back row? He'll go home and read Burmese Days. The girl who never seems to be paying attention, no matter what you're talking about? She is in the middle of an in depth study of H.L Mencken. Colleges need to make a push one way or the other: make us work or give up on classes all together and just let us consult with faculty whenever we want. What the hell does rant mean?

Anonymous said...

being a duke student myself i completely concur with the above anon post, especially the last part. it's like we're all playing this high risk game of who can party the hardest and portray an image of not caring about academics while still getting good grades and entrance into top grad schools in the end. People are afraid to show their studious sides, so while in class most are wary of appearing too 'into' the material for fear of being labelled a nerd/loser, they handle their business behind the scenes. So when you see these kids drunk off their butts on a thursday night, you don't have the slightest clue that they are taking care of their academic business- just the image they intend to portray.