I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS
By Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus Giroux. 676 pp. $28.95
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m.
According to Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, modern collegiate life revolves around "hooking up," regularly glorifies louts and tarts, and instead of civilized discourse promulgates a culture based on the fear of humiliation. At fictional Dupont University, every guy wants to be thought a "player" (or, as Wolfe spells it, "playa"), and nearly all the undergraduate women hope to be no better than sluts. Behind those ivied walls, our daughters gladly squirm out of their low-cut jeans to rut with shameless abandon, while our sons treat their one-night stands as conquests and whores. In such a world, most speech naturally aspires to the condition of grunted obscenities, and any conversation soon becomes a verbal combat, an attempt to cow and intimidate a rival, whether on the basketball court or in the quad. Social status, based on prowess (sexual and athletic), is naturally everything, so in nearly 700 pages we need hardly glimpse the inside of a classroom. In Wolfe's bleak vision, Dupont -- likened in prestige to Harvard, Princeton and Duke -- is simply a brothel attached to a sports arena. It doesn't educate our children, it corrupts them.
For more than 40 years, the magnificently gifted Wolfe has shown us that he can draw with ease on every resource of English prose and then push hard against all the limits, whether of diction, point of view or conventional taste, and still make us marvel at the result. In this new novel, set largely among Dupont undergraduates, he replicates the speech of black basketball players, spoiled preppies, aging radicals, college administrators and Southern hill people. He shows us contemporary academia with all the passionate, naturalistic detail of a Zola depicting the workers and workings of a coal mine. Yet Wolfe's narrative momentum never flags, as he carries one rapidly along to the grim conclusion he hints at, rather too obviously, in a brief foreword.
Ostensibly a passage from a biographical dictionary, this foreword describes a young psychologist's experiments with cats. After Victor Starling removes the amygdala from the brains of some test animals, the cats "veer helplessly from one inappropriate affect to another, boredom where there should be fear, cringing where there should be preening, sexual arousal where there was nothing that would stimulate an intact animal." After weeks of observing these animals, Starling invites a colleague into his lab, and one cat suddenly starts to thrust violently, sexually, against this newcomer's leather shoe. Just what one would expect -- until the visitor points out that the cat trying to mount his wingtip is one of the normal control animals. At this juncture, the biographical note informs us, Victor Starling makes the discovery that ultimately earns him a Nobel Prize:
"The control cats had been able to watch the amygdalectomized cats from their cages. Over a period of weeks they had become so thoroughly steeped in an environment of hypermanic sexual obsession that behavior induced surgically in the amygdalectomized cats had been induced in the controls without any intervention whatsoever. Starling had discovered that a strong social, or 'cultural' atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly, normal healthy animals." And so, when 18-year-old Charlotte Simmons, a brilliant, hard-working student from a poor North Carolina backwoods town, arrives at prestigious Dupont University and there discovers not a Platonic academy but a sink of licentiousness, hypocrisy and vulgarity, we already know -- at least in rough outline -- her fate. For how can pretty Charlotte, no matter how strong her sense of self and no matter how deeply instilled her traditional Christian values, withstand the pressure to turn herself into a clone of Britney Spears -- and then to forget her mighty intellectual ambitions and simply give herself, mind and body, to some hot fraternity dude or basketball superstar?
Throughout I Am Charlotte Simmons the writing is quite dazzling, as one expects from the author of The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. There are brilliant, almost too obviously brilliant, set pieces (the chapter describing the Saint Ray fraternity "formal" in Washington, D.C., is a relentlessly graphic bacchanal cum dance of death). Every page displays a master of rhetoric, working every trope in the trivium. But is this an honest portrait of contemporary undergraduate life?
I don't think so. And not because of its focus on sex, social status and the dread of being dissed as central to the life of the university. Such hormonal and pecking-order obsessions have been with us as long as teenagers, even if Wolfe treats late adolescence as largely a crime against humanity. Frat boys have often been drunken, exploitative jerks. Lots of college athletes are dolts. Young women do enjoy sex as much as young men. What bothers me is that Wolfe stacks the cards so strongly against these quite ordinary kids, shows them as depraved, callused against all generosity of heart, essentially monstrous. Aside from Charlotte Simmons, there are virtually no admirable or lovable characters in this book. And I couldn't really believe in Charlotte.
Could any young woman with 1600 SATs be quite so ignorant of American life? We are to imagine that Charlotte Simmons has never seen Cosmopolitan magazine before she arrives at Dupont. But she's read Zola's La Bête Humaine -- both in English and in French. She's never drunk alcohol or heard girls talk dirty or imagined that her roommate might actually want to be alone with a boy on Saturday night. Don't they have television in North Carolina? She's shocked that at the university "everything you say has to be ironic or sarcastic and cynical and sophisticated and sick, virulent, covered in pustules, and oozing with popped-pustular sex." (Hello, talked to any teens lately?) When a boy dares to "paw" her a little, she calls him a "cad," then later grows convinced that the most panty-obsessed stud on campus must be truly in love with her. When he invites her on an overnight trip, it apparently never crosses smarty Charlotte's mind where she'll be sleeping. Our heroine acts, in other words, like Goody Two-Shoes, while going on and on about how "I am Charlotte Simmons" and that no one can bend her will. Yet Wolfe makes it increasingly clear that at heart his lonely freshman only wants to have a cute boyfriend to flaunt in front of the cool girls. "What academic achievement, what soaring flight of genius, even a Nobel Prize in neuroscience, could ever be as important?"
In other words, Charlotte can be either Charlotte Simmons or she can be . . . somebody's hot little cupcake. Essentially, she can't possibly be a good person, good in the classroom, and good in bed. If she loses her virginity or gets drunk one weekend, these must inexorably lead to mental breakdown and the ruin of her academic career. This is patently unrealistic and sexist, not to add distinctly archaic.
Dupont University itself struck me as equally improbable: No university of its eminence could be quite so thoroughly yahoo. At the very least, the place should be teeming with ruthlessly ambitious business majors and bleary-eyed pre-med students. There might be sex and drugs on Friday night and Saturday morning, but during the week these academic hotshots would be vying like mad to outdo each other in their courses. Our Charlotte, who possesses an "absolutely clear, open, guileless beauty" -- a phrase that practically announces her future degradation -- as well as rare intellectual diligence and sensitivity, should have been a campus star just by remaining herself, with a choice of handsome beaux. Instead she's suddenly on the verge of moral destruction.
For Wolfe's university resembles Dante's Malebolge, a cesspool of filth, and nearly everyone who comes in contact with it is defiled. Or could Dupont be simply a reflection of a pervasive spiritual aridity and baseness throughout all America? Even Charlotte's one male friend, a nerdy intellectual kid named Adam Gellin, daydreams of lording it as an "aristo-meritocrat," a public intellectual living well off the "empire." The only exceptions to the general corruption are Charlotte's family -- and they are portrayed as God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth hicks. (Wolfe writes a cringe-inducing chapter in which Mr. and Mrs. Simmons invite a wealthy New England couple -- the parents of Charlotte's roommate -- to dine at a Sizzlin' Skillet.) Admittedly, one basketball star may be partially redeemed by a desire to actually learn something in his classes, yet why that impulse -- and the love of a good woman -- should suddenly imbue him with wizardry on the court is little more than the stuff of fairy tale.
Or sermon. Once Tom Wolfe might have been called a satirist (The Pump House Gang) or a pamphleteer (The Painted Word), duly calling attention, wittily and scathingly, to the evils of the day. But like Savonarola, who set up the original bonfire of the vanities, he has grown into an unremitting scold, excoriating perceived depravity with all his genius for replicating the various argots of American life. I Am Charlotte Simmons leaves no doubt that Wolfe's prose can still venture anywhere, from the ghetto to the girl's restroom. But the book remains a (slightly disguised) hellfire tirade, a vision of students who belong in the hands of an angry God. And that God is named Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe himself would like to be compared to the great realistic masters -- Dickens or Balzac -- but this latest work more often calls to mind Zola, Frank Norris and other powerful melodramatists of fiction. As so-called naturalists, they revel in zealous description, generally of life's meanest aspects, while their titanic plots turn the ostensibly ordinary into the operatically over-the-top. (Just so, a major subplot in I Am Charlotte Simmons involves the fallout from two drunken fraternity brethren observing a future presidential candidate receiving fellatio from a Dupont co-ed.) Throughout these pages one might almost hear Tom Wolfe shouting "J'Accuse," as he piles on the outrage and contempt. However, at the end of the book, we realize that its secret model isn't only Victor Starling's cat experiment (itself an homage, perhaps, to Zola's attempt to base his novels on the biological theories of Claude Bernard). I Am Charlotte Simmons is also Tom Wolfe's 1984, the story of how a man -- or woman -- may come to acquiesce in spiritual suicide. Compare the similar ironies in the last pages of each novel.
So: sermon, melodrama, dystopian vision -- I Am Charlotte Simmons partakes of all these, and does so stunningly. But it's still as much polemic as novel. One closes the book feeling soiled by its cloacal vision and emotionally manipulated by its author. Rhetoric -- the art of persuasion -- lies at the heart of all writing, but we dislike feeling too overtly manipulated, and works that blatantly force our emotions along precise paths we dub inartistic, mere propaganda or programmatic writing with a social or political agenda. I Am Charlotte Simmons is such a work. I couldn't stop reading it -- who could? This is Tom Wolfe, after all -- but that didn't prevent me from regarding the author's premise, characters and views as hardly more than an ill-tempered, Mrs. Grundy-like rant against reckless youth and this immoral modern age. Tom Wolfe can make words dance and sing and perform circus tricks, he can make the reader sigh with pleasure before his arias of coloratura description, he can do just about anything in these pages with words, including exaggerate, distort and rant.
Michael Dirda's new collection of essays, "Bound to Please," will be out later this month. His e-mail address is email@example.com. His online book discussion takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.