|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
But once you do open it? I Am Charlotte Simmons begins
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
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