Friday, June 20, 2008

Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

From: The English Bookshop i Århus, while actually buying Christmas gifts for my family members.
When: December, 2007
Verdict: Vivid but flawed (or perhaps just pessimistic).
Fate: Second hand/ Charity

I wanted to read this book since it was published, and the wait has been especially hard since my copy has such a satisfying cover, with the title laid out as a swooshy print on a midriff-baring t-shirt on some faceless coed hottie. Having read the book, which incidentally felt about two hundred pages too long, I'm not so sure about that cover anymore. It seems to suffer from the same unease about gender roles that plagues the novel as a whole, and which may be brilliant but is probably just pessimistic. Possibly I came to the book with the wrong expectations, but I should say that this was hardly my fault, since the expectations were based entirely on the cover, the title and the first few chapters.

Charlotte Simmons is poor – a child of the working poor – a scion of a rural village so tiny and remote that no-one's ever heard of it. But Sparta, North Carolina, is always audible in her speech, visible in her dress, the foundation of her attitudes; in the unforgettable phrase of the team of writers currently performing as "Cecily von Ziegesar", she is "a Podunk loser, a Wal-Mart frequent shopper".

Charlotte also happens to be really, really, really bright, to have access to a good teacher, and a chance for a place in any of the Ivies. The book follows her fledgling career as a full-scholarship girl at the fictional Dupont university, and her first contacts with peer pressure, sex, alcohol, drugs, the casual cruelty of the privileged, and especially their laziness, which seems to surprise and annoy the author as much as it does Charlotte. Tom Wolfe has no patience with way many of the very expensively educated choose to view college as a four-year fuck-about, a carnival environment in which to blow off steam until the real world arrives with its demands, duties and expectations.

I myself went to Oxford as a 24-year old who already had a career, an identity and a serious boyfriend, so my situation was very different from Charlotte's, but, admittedly, I do recognize myself both in the outsider perspective on an elite institution and in the range of reactions of the students in general to its traditions. Perhaps this is also why the book ultimately felt so disappointing and, for lack of a better word, dirty. I had expected to identify with the main character, but ss the book progresses Charlotte rapidly loses definition as a person, a fictional character and a female of the species. Described as they are as contributing to her doom, I found it almost impossible to transfer my allegiance onto any of the other characters.

Although it's set up as a story about different kinds of capital – cultural, economic, social – I Am Charlotte Simmons isn't really about class. It's about three models of masculinity, represented by Charlotte's three boyfriends: the obnoxious frat beefcake, the bumbling super-jock celeb, and the ambitious ultra-geek. The story requires Charlotte to date all three, but this set-up feels entirely contrived. Wolfe explains the development with Charlotte's combination of sexual attractiveness and innocence, describing it in language which veers between nostalgia and voyeurism and often makes me physically uncomfortable. In the process, the title character becomes a servant wench to the structure of the novel. As the phrase "I am Charlotte Simmons" loses its meaning for the protagonist, rapidly subsumed in the push-pull of the college universe around her, it also loses its meaning for the reader, and the novel flounders.

I admit that might be the point. I admit Wolfe might be saying that no matter what kind of masculinities Charlotte interacts with, a bright young woman aspiring to a the social elite will have to compromise to be accepted. To sacrifice at least some of her brilliance and independence and most of her core values not to be considered unattractive, and to become both entirely predictable and entirely forgettable in the process, much like Charlotte does within the book. This kind of meta trickery is ofl course also possible to reconcile with the journalistic method of the novel as a whole, since it is indeed a fact that a lot of people of both sexes who go to really good schools end up disappointing themselves and everyone else. It is, however, a stunted and bitter conclusion to a novel about the next generation of world leaders.

The craft involved is still impressive. When Wolfe writes the characters' most secret thoughts, it makes me wonder whether this, too, is interview material. Does he empathize and understand this well, or is he – as astonishingly – able to create such trust in the interview situation that it becomes like therapy to the people who will be his characters? I don't know anything about his method, but this book makes me curious to find out, and I'm likely to spend time with both his journalism and his other novels in the future.

Buy I Am Charlotte Simmons on Amazon.

PS The kind of partying-induced slacking off described in the novel is harder to pull off at Oxford or Cambridge, where you meet your tutors weekly. The independence and anonymity of a normal type of university education – like that offered at "Dupont" – is a destructive companion to a cultural expectation that higher education is inseparable from constant intoxication.

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