In the 1990s, when I was a kid, it seemed like adult bookshelves came standard with a copy of Tom Wolfe’s novel “A Man in Full.” It was a huge hardback with a man’s eye in the “O” of “TOM.” Some adult shelves had Tom Clancy on them, others had Doris Lessing, but they all had “A Man in Full.” So that, I thought, must be real literature.
How lucky for me, then, that Wolfe’s next novel was about college. By then I was a senior in high school, with all the natural anxieties. But unlike every poor prefrosh before me, thrust helpless onto the quad, I could matriculate mentally equipped by the great realist novelist (I still assumed) of our time. So, I got “I Am Charlotte Simmons” from the library, expecting Parnassian enlightenment about the four years ahead.
What I got was collegiate torture porn. Charlotte, virgin valedictorian, heads to illustrious Dupont University expecting intellectual emancipation from her Appalachian hometown. Instead, she gets 700 pages of ritual sexual humiliation by a Jock, a Nerd and a Frat Guy, before giving up her academic ambitions for a full-time position as girlfriend to, spoiler alert, the Jock. Wolfe’s cruelty to her is magnified by the crudity of these types, and I finished the book nauseous not only about college but about Parnassus, too. The shelves of my elders were freighted with that?
It’s been 15 years, now, since “Charlotte Simmons.” Despite its failures as a novel, the book is worth revisiting for what it represented in the career of Wolfe, who died last year, and in the tradition of American realism Wolfe reinvigorated with his novelistic “New Journalism” and journalistic novels. By 2004, his guardianship of that tradition was already endangered: Wolfe’s conservative politics had once served, like his famous white suits, to naughtily distinguish him from the run of right-thinking Northeastern writers. After Bush and the Iraq War, they weren’t so cute. But ultimately a writer is judged on writing, and “Charlotte Simmons” was universally found wanting. Michiko Kakutani called it “flat-footed,” Slate enumerated its “Three Hopeless Flaws” and the London Review of Books compared it to “a very bad Oliver Stone film.” Everyone noted the unseemliness of the septuagenarian writer’s research prowls through coed dorms and the rottenness of the sex scenes he returned with. And while “A Man in Full” sold over a million hardback copies (I was on to something as a kid), “Charlotte Simmons” underperformed, selling less than a third of that in its first few months.
It should have been good! Wolfe’s great theme was status in America, the mechanics of social distinction in an ostensibly classless country. As the recent admissions scandals remind us, nowhere are those mechanics more on display than at American colleges and universities, engines of social mobility and class reinforcement both. And it wasn’t as though Wolfe hadn’t covered the Youth before. Long before the real estate magnates of “A Man in Full” or the bond traders of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Wolfe made his name documenting postwar youth culture. He was, of course, much further from his own youth by 2004, but despite the cringe factor, that didn’t disqualify him. For more than 30 years, Wolfe had been advocating, against the postmodernists and the modesty of “write what you know,” for the “intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today.” A campus novel by an elderly man could have been a triumph for Wolfe, proof of the power of his technique.
Instead we got a worst-case scenario. Rereading the novel, the obvious offenses are still there: the laboriously slangy dialogue, the outrageous lyrics of the invented rapper “Doctor Dis,” the long, adjectivally clotted paragraphs hymning the trapeziuses of the NCAA and the “loamy loins” of Tri-Delt. But what really stands out is Wolfe’s contempt for the characters: on this campus, the students are slutty, the parents are venal and the professors are helplessly flabby betas. Like a slaughterhouse chicken, Charlotte herself seems genetically engineered to be too stupid to live; her three suitors are drawn with all the emotional depth of an actual slaughterhouse, and their plot unfolds with about as much freedom and surprise. The only character Wolfe seems to admire is a dapper Nobel laureate who argues, in a neuropsychology lecture, that human social life is as predictable as that of ants.
If it’s that predictable, why report on it? Fifteen years on, “Charlotte Simmons” reads less like a good-faith dispatch on early millennial culture than a crude effort to fit new facts to Wolfe’s old ideas about social status. “Even in the most intimate moments of sexual enjoyment,” Wolfe said in an interview on the novel, “the human is thinking about where she stands in relation to her ranking among others.” Maybe? But if one begins a novel with that belief and then arranges the scenarios to prove it, the result isn’t realism. It’s allegory. Confusing one for the other was the mistake I’d made as an anxious teenager.
And maybe, the mistake that ended New Journalism. It’s worth recalling the form’s famous origin story. Assigned to cover custom-car culture for Esquire in 1963, Wolfe was overwhelmed by the baroque inventiveness of a “Teen Fair” where kids seemed to have “created their own style of life,” composed of “things of great sophistication that adults have not been even remotely aware of.” Unsure how to synthesize what he’d seen, he sent a pile of notes to his editor for help. His editor published the notes. Everything renowned about Wolfe’s style — the gonzo participation, the spirographic digression, the sound effects — originated in admiring deference before a “style of life” beyond his own comprehension. In “Charlotte Simmons” Wolfe’s style has become rote, a delivery system for the author’s own theories, and the youth, sexual automatons, have no style at all.
But of course, they did. This year is also the 15th anniversary of another attempt to depict college in all its social complexity: Mark Zuckerberg’s. But in “Charlotte Simmons,” the students still use fax machines and pagers, and the Internet is barely mentioned. It might seem cruel to fault an old man for being behind the times technologically. (“Charlotte Simmons” was going to be the first novel he wrote on a computer, but he gave up and wrote the whole thing longhand.) But for a writer whose style was founded on reporting, it was a big thing to miss. The Internet was the medium, already in 2004, by which millennials were inventing new “styles of life.” And the literary styles the Internet has birthed since — from bloggy alt lit through Weird Twitter to the text-message minimalism of Sally Rooney — don’t look like the “intensely realistic” literary future Wolfe predicted. They look postmodern. They look like early Wolfe.
Nicholas Nardini is a TV writer living in Los Angeles.