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The Red Stuff 

The sullied waters of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons

Thursday, Nov 18 2004
Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

"WHAT DO YOU THINK that suit cost?" I asked my wife, showing her the color photograph of Tom Wolfe decked out in a splendid cream-colored ensemble on the back of his new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Hand-stitched, custom-tailored, with mother-of-pearl buttons and a gossamer silk handkerchief tucked gently into an exquisitely angled jacket pocket, it’s really quite a suit.

"I don’t know, $5,000?" came the reply.

I Am Charlotte Simmons may or may not be the novel of the year (we’ll get to that in due course), but it sports what must surely be the year’s most sumptuous author photograph. Even the book jacket’s spine — a gaudy design of horizontal purple and yellow lines, over which Wolfe’s name is superimposed in yellow-trimmed purple letters — has a crazy, vintage–Times Square pizzazz, and is enough to blow all those other books (dull! dull! dull!) right off the shelf.

As for the title, a neo-Flaubertian slam dunk over the liver-spotted hands of Mailer, Updike, Irving and all those other heavyweights who said Wolfe couldn’t create a convincing female character or even write a decent novel, there’s nothing shy about it. Even before you’ve opened the book, Wolfe has already made most other novelists look as introspective as obscure lyric poets.

But once you do open it? I Am Charlotte Simmons begins like this:

Every time the men’s-room door opened, the amped-up onslaught of Swarm, the band banging out the concert in the theater overhead, came crashing in, ricocheting off all the mirrors and ceramic surfaces until it seemed twice as loud. But then an air hinge would close the door, and Swarm would vanish, and you could once again hear students drunk on youth and beer being funny or at least loud as they stood before the urinals.

Two of them were finding it amusing to move their hands back and forth in front of the electric eyes to make the urinals keep flushing. One exclaimed to the other, "Whattaya mean, a slut? She told me she’s been re-virginated!" They both broke up over that.

The first thing to be said of that passage is that it doesn’t read like something produced by a man in his 70s. (Wolfe is 74.) In its immediacy, in its you-are-there-ness, it feels more like the beginning of an exceptionally adept piece of hard-edged journalism written by a bemused extraterrestrial with a golden ear and a killer eye for detail. (Nobody disputes Wolfe’s talent as a reporter — it’s his novels that are questioned.) Wolfe has said that a writer’s success is 35 percent talent and 65 percent good material, and for most readers Simmons will stand or fall on whether they find reading 676 pages about contemporary college life, in all its drunken, sex-crazed, nerdy and frat-boy manifestations, worth their time. After all, you need only to watch five minutes of MTV Spring Break to get the general idea. You may even have attended college recently yourself.

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS is about a young, intellectually brilliant girl who has just arrived at fictional Dupont University on a full scholarship. A virgin, she’s from a poor family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and appears hardly to have glanced at a magazine or television in her life. Instead, she’s kept her nose in books. She has very little spending money and almost no clothes. Nonetheless, she is boarding in a coed dormitory with coed bathrooms like all the other students, only most of the other students are wealthy, teched-up, de-virginated clotheshorses. The first 200 pages or so, in which Charlotte comes face to face with status-mad, testosterone-fueled sex culture, are brilliantly done. If Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America was the blue-state novel of the year, then this is the red-state answer. Plot exuded a paranoid fear of Middle America; Simmons bears an unmistakable dislike for the liberal elites. Having come to Dupont in search of "the life of the mind," Charlotte is plunged into a 24/7 morality-free celebration of the body from which it is impossible to hide. Sexual modesty is not an option — it’s a despised anachronism that will be punished.

Navigating Dupont’s sullied waters (in very different ways) are the three male students who will play pivotal roles in Charlotte’s life: JoJo Johanssen, the only white player in the starting lineup of Dupont’s basketball team; Adam Gellin, a needy and ambitious intellectual on the college newspaper, The Daily Wave, who makes ends meet by "tutoring" (i.e., writing papers for) athletes like JoJo; and Hoyt Thorpe, the last word in frat-boy cool and one of the two students horsing around in the men’s room in the novel’s opening paragraphs quoted above. Charlotte will be brutally deflowered by one of them, pursued by another and won over by a third.

The book’s central problem is that for all of Wolfe’s huffing and puffing, he never quite breathes life into his heroine. (Score one for his critics.) Charlotte seems, in fact, oddly soulless. But perhaps that should be expected. Back in 1996, Wolfe published a fascinating article ("Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died") about developments in neuroscience that pour ice-cold water on the quaint notion that we have "souls" or even free will. (It was reprinted in his 2000 collection, Hooking Up.) To the neuroscientist, we are simply machines — what the poet John Ashbery called "the talking engines of our day" — and it’s no surprise that Charlotte’s favorite subject at Dupont turns out to be neuroscience. (It’s also no surprise that the neuroscience professor is the only campus intellectual Wolfe treats with respect.) Charlotte isn’t so much a fictional character as a fictional lab rat, with the laboratory being Dupont University as it refracts the dominant American culture.

Where that leaves the rest of the novel is in the set pieces, as usual with Wolfe. Whether it’s an account of a tailgate party or a gay-rights demonstration or a basketball game ("What the fuck are you man, a fucking tree?"), he pours on all the frothy reportorial details as fluently as ever, if to slightly less effect than in his two previous blockbusters, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and A Man in Full (1998). We are treated to learned discourses on "fuck-patois," tutored in student slang ("sexiles" are students who’ve been kicked out of their rooms so their roommates can have sex; "Monets" are girls who look prettier from a distance than up close), given crash courses in Socrates and neuroscience and rap and musculature and student newspapers and how to get a Rhodes scholarship and much else besides. The familiar Wolfe-isms — the block capitals and italics and exclamation marks — are all there doing their customary work, and as always the reader can almost physically sense the author perched on his shoulder, urging him on page after page like a hypomanic jockey. (See how great that passage is! Do you have any idea how much research it took to come up with a scene like that! Think Mailer could pull that off? Ha ha ha . . .) The result can be a bit wearying, but it’s undoubtedly enjoyable too — a guilty, un-P.C. literary/journalistic feast.

Wolfe the novelist undeniably seems to lack something, and strains to compensate. When he enters into a character, you can almost see his negative capability taking notes. But we’ve all read books by supposedly instinctive, natural-born novelists of which we can barely remember a word, let alone a chapter or a scene. It’s hard to imagine saying the same of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and now I Am Charlotte Simmons. Which ought to count for something. A lot, actually.

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS | By TOM WOLFE | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 676 pages | $29 hardcover

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