Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons (2004)

I’m afraid that giving an opinion on Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons immediately classify the writer on one side or another: reviews in the US have been rather bad, so I heard, and sometimes turn into  personal attacks, as far as I can judge on this side of the Atlantic. There’s a slashing sentence I read in a NYT review that I couldn’t forget: you may never put down a Tom Wolfe’s book, but you never reread one either…

This blog isn’t the right place to discuss politics, or Tom Wolfe as a person, and I am in no position to take side anyway. I don’t know what’s really going on American campuses either. So I will look at the book on the literary side only.

First of all, to me it’s a satire, meaning an exaggeration of facts for a purpose. Tom Wolfe attaches great value to lengthy field research (he says himself that he has no imagination) and I said in an earlier post how much I appreciate his work of transcribing specific speech quirks and body language.

Yet it’s not journalism, it’s fiction: he looks at his subject through his own lenses, in terms of power and domination, of social groups, of winners and losers. Everything outside his perspective is completely ignored, and no doubt that not everything in universities and among students can be explained in terms of power.

At some point, I realized that his vision is essentially male-oriented. Even if a lot of his characters, including the main, are girls, and that female behaviors are correctly painted, he’s more successful at describing male students’ logic and choices. So all the criticism in terms of cardboard characters, weak plot (especially in the end), caricatural situations are, to me, justified but not fatal.

I think Wolfe remains a very good writer of the collective mind, to paint a particular milieu through multiple characters. And I know it takes great skill to smoothly move from one character to another, to make them unique but representative (I noted this problem in my post on The Night Watch).

I don’t believe that Tom Wolfe’s purpose is (only) to denounce moral decadence in American universities. Sexual promiscuity, alcohol abuse, competition among cliques, dubious behaviors in fraternities, star system around university athletes are nothing new, even to foreigners like me. Don’t fear, foreign universities have this kind of problems too. Only parents who don’t want to know will be outraged by the so-called discoveries of the book.

I think the point is rather to highlight that universities are no different from the rest of the world. Even if students and faculty have been selected based on their higher intellectual abilities, they are no angels. Their intellectual aspirations go hand in hand with egoist, financial, sexual, mundane desires. In Tom Wolfe’s dark world, even very bright people are scheming and cynical.

At no point can I believe that Charlotte, the naïve, puritan high-school graduate from the Blue Mountains who discovers moral decadence in her top-notch university, is a real person from the 21th century, even if she speaks with the right hillbilly accent. She’s an outsider figure (an angel, as some characters describe her over and over) so that the behavior of others can be measured up to hers.

The real question behind Charlotte Simmons’ Fall from Heaven to Hell is how much the group conditions an individual. Charlotte, brought up in a secluded, closed environment, with high expectations and puritan morals, can’t do anything else but set herself equally high and moral goals. When she’s put into an overly tolerant and libertine environment (to make it short) where the highest value is to be cool, she progressively bends toward that objective, even if it means breaking all the principles her education has taught her.

I don’t think Wolfe’s message is to say “Don’t go to university! Stay in your village!”. But I think it’s interesting for a novel to acknowledge the influence of group pressure on the individual, in opposition to countless traditional novels where the main character makes himself out of sheer will and inner strength (the “I am Charlotte Simmons” formula becomes more and more ironic in the end), and also disturbing analysis where behavior is said to derive from genetic predispositions.

And to you, big slashing reviewer from the NYT, don’t dare me! It’s true I haven’t been able to put down a Tom Wolfe’s book, but who says I won’t re-read Charlotte Simmons one day soon?


6 thoughts on “Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons (2004)

  1. Thank you very much for putting into words just exactly how I felt about the book. I enjoyed it as a read, but was uncomfortable with the focus on power, and the slightly slanted viewpoint. Some of me was saying, “Surely all US universities aren’t this bad!”. Thanks for clarifying Wolfe’s prism, and underlining the fact that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, Charlotte Simmons is still a great read.

  2. I think this is a wonderful review, Pauline! I felt very similarly about the book, and I agree that it’s a satire, rather than straight realism, and that it is ideas-oriented, rather than plot driven. Hence it falls out a certain way. I found it an ugly and disturbing and completely compelling read. And your review shows me I’m right to ignore the mainstream journalists and read my fellow bloggers on the novel!

  3. I don’t think Charlotte is the best book of Wolfe, I prefer much “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, for the description of the smart-ambient-campus-life I suggest you read (if you had not) “Douglas Coupland, Microserf, 1995” and the first book of Donna Tartt

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation: July | Smithereens

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