A review of I am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

Usually when a reviewer compliments an author on his timing, he means it as an insult, a way of damning with faint praise. But if the author's intention is to explain what is going on all around us at a given moment, and to record it for posterity, then saying that he has a genius for timing is high praise indeed.

Since he first started writing feature stories for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, Tom Wolfe has had great timing. Before people figured out that the 1960s were really "the Sixties" he had already explained what was going on, and why, in a series of articles compiled into his first book. A year before Woodstock, when the only people who knew what a "hippie" was were the few honest burghers unfortunate enough still to be living across the street from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, he published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1967). Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) appeared just as America was waking up to the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, generation of principled black leaders had given way to Huey Newton's gang of thugs. The Right Stuff (1979) was a delightful tonic to help offset the depressing pall of Vietnam, Watergate, and Malaise. Exactly one week before October 19, 1987—a.k.a. "Black Monday," a.k.a. "the Day the Money Died"—Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanities. He missed the mark a bit with A Man in Full (1998), but that's what happens when you take eleven years to finish a single book.

I am Charlotte Simmons hit the shelves one week after the 2004 election, just in time to explain to perplexed blue-staters what people in flyover country are really like, and to confirm Red America's worst fears about what really goes on way out there in the Blue. This was not really Wolfe's purpose—just as Bonfire was not written to predict the rise of Al Sharpton, and Man in Full was not supposed to be a roman à clef about the Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco fiascos. Wolfe's plots and characters may seem to be ripped from the headlines, to borrow a phrase, yet precisely the reverse is true. Wolfe is such a perspicacious reporter that he regularly scoops the headlines simply by getting to the story before anyone else. Even with the glacial delays of the publishing industry, and Wolfe's own…difficulties in meeting his (often self-imposed) deadlines, he still manages to beat the competition.

Wolfe has in fact marveled on more than one occasion that, in terms of literary material, he seems to have vast tracts of American life all to himself. He professes amazement that no hippie ever wrote a novel about the '60s that blew Acid Test out of the water. He describes the experience of writing Bonfire as one of constantly, furtively looking over his shoulder, terrified that some other novelist (Truman Capote?) would beat him to the punch with a big, Balzacian book about 1980s New York.

And he approached Charlotte Simmons with the same spirit. Dozens of "campus novels" have been written, from classics like Lucky Jim to clever diversions like Changing Places. But most have been dreck. And, Wolfe noticed, the good ones as well as the bad ones were not so much "campus novels" as "faculty novels," written by English professors about English professors for English professors. No one had even tried to write a novel from the perspective of the students. Aren't students what the university is all about?

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So here Wolfe had, all to himself, yet another big slice of American life. And he dove into it with gusto, traveling to a dozen or so campuses, sometimes spending weeks at a time, interviewing students, attending events from basketball games to frat parties to lectures. The result is, in many respects, typical for a Wolfe novel: long (676 pages); presented through the point of view of a handful of main characters (four as opposed to three in both Bonfire and Man in Full) and several minor characters; treating a vast range of themes, some at length, some cursorily; absolutely fearless about breaking politically correct taboos (more on this later); and larded with descriptions of minute details from clothing to food to physique to architecture.

Wolfe also uses essentially the same plot structure: concoct a central event, then describe how it plays out in the little microverse of the novel's setting and characters, like plunking an enormous rock into a glassy pond and recording the splash and the ripples.

Except this time it does not work so well. Critics friendly and unfriendly have argued that plot is one of Wolfe's major weaknesses as a novelist. This is unfair. The plot of Bonfire, for instance, is as ingenious and intricate and precise as the innards of a Swiss watch. Once the rock of Sherman McCoy's "accident" is thrown into the pond that is New York City, the splashes and ripples play out exactly as they would and should. And all the various threads come together in ways that are, if sometimes too improbable to be plausible, at least always smile-inducing. Charlotte Simmons's plot, on the other hand, never really gets off the ground. Wolfe can't seem to decide if the "rock" is a nascent cheating scandal or the encounter that two frat boys have with the governor of California. The former exists only to tie the four main characters together in a forced and unsatisfactory way. As to the latter, aside from being entirely implausible, the episode has no relation to the travails of Charlotte Simmons, and little to do with any of the other plot threads.

It is safe to say, however, that Charlotte Simmons is intended to be driven more by setting and character than by plot. As to the first, Wolfe's choice to make his "pond" a fictional as opposed to a real university is disappointing. It allows him a certain freedom, but this is not used entirely to good effect. We are supposed to believe, for instance, that Dupont ranks with Harvard in terms of prestige, with the University of Chicago in the '50s in intellectual rigor, and alongside Notre Dame and North Carolina in athletic dominance. To strain credulity in this way is to weaken, by choice, what should be one of the fundamental pillars of a "realistic" novel: a believable setting. Besides, setting the book at a real university would have been more interesting. Who wouldn't—when picking up a book of detailed social realism—rather read about a real place than a fake one? Choosing a real school would have allowed Wolfe's reporting skills to ferret out the minute, telling details that make real campuses unique, rather than inventing phony traditions that read as if they were borrowed from Animal House.

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The most significant flaw in the book is Wolfe's steadfast refusal to treat the culture of protest and political correctness—or, to say better, the leftish politicization of all areas of study and all aspects of campus life—as serious threats to the university and its mission. In interviews, Wolfe has made his indifference to this theme a point of pride to show that, despite what certain critics may allege, he is not a creature of the political Right. His deeper rationale is the claim that though faculties and (to a lesser extent) administrators may be obsessed with political correctness, students these days hold it in contempt. And there is indeed evidence of this. Yet enough students still take it seriously, and faculties still take it more than seriously enough, to make P.C. a major force at the vast majority of American colleges. P.C. does make several cameo appearances in Charlotte Simmons—in the classroom, at a gay-rights rally, in the university president's office. And two characters, one professor and one student, are clearly meant to embody its spirit. But they are minstrels, and the scenes are farces. One might say that such treatment perfectly reflects the intellectual quality of P.C. and its epiphenomena, and one would have a point. 

Yet while P.C. may be completely unserious in itself, its effect on the university has been seriously awful. The decline of the humanities and social sciences—arguably the most important event in the history of American education, worthy of serious novelistic treatment—is given short shrift here, or else covered through the proxy issue of dumbing down courses for jocks. This is doubtless a real problem, and a real injustice, but compared to the catastrophic collapse of philosophy, classics, and comparative literature and the trivialization of so many other disciplines, it is a sideshow. In any case, one can only imagine how expertly Wolfe could have carved up P.C. and its ancillary phenomena had he turned his blade on them. Unfortunately, all we can do is imagine it. Similarly, one might wish that Wolfe had trained his fearless pen on the effects of quotas and double standards—euphemistically termed "affirmative action"—and told us what students of all colors really think of the practice. An honest discussion of these topics may not be allowed by current etiquette, but that's why Wolfe's analysis is especially needed—and especially conspicuous by its absence.

There is plenty to like about I am Charlotte Simmons. For instance, with this book Wolfe's ability to create and develop real characters takes a significant leap forward. This is a minority view. Most reviewers have made the usual anti-Wolfean charge that all his characters are cut-outs. Frat boy Hoyt Thorpe may be something of a stereotype, but then so too are many of the real frat boys on which his character is based (See Terrence Moore, "Wimps and Barbarians," CRB, Winter 2003). Ambitious nerd Adam Gellin's naked careerism (apparently called "résumé whoring" on campuses these days) is just unsavory enough to hint at the dark side of meritocracy. And it too is based on an all-too-real phenomenon. One might argue that basketball star Jojo Johanssen's interest in Socrates is implausible, yet through interior monologues his motives are explained clearly and convincingly; and in any case the charge of implausibility would seem to militate against the charge of stereotyping.

But no one argues that the title character is a cut-out. On the contrary, blue-staters declare confidently that no one as innocent and earnest as Charlotte could possibly exist. This shows an astonishing lack of understanding about how life is lived in those parts of the country which the coastal elites never visit but are dimly aware of, perhaps from a high-school geography class. An 18-year-old arriving in Cambridge from the Upper West Side, or in Berkeley from West Hollywood, may indeed experience no culture shock at all. But many making a less dramatic transition than Charlotte find themselves every bit as baffled, shocked, and appalled as the girl from Sparta, North Carolina, when the reality of life in Chester, Pennsylvania, begins to sink in. Right-of-center critics make the more apt point that a young girl like Charlotte, however plausible, is inconceivable without a firm grounding in religious faith. But religion plays no part in this novel, and one suspects that Wolfe's own misgivings about the subject have, once again, clouded his vision—just as they apparently inspired the odd choice to attribute a character's redemption in Man in Full to his discovery of the ancient Stoic writer Epictetus rather than (oh, I don't know, say) the Bible. Nonetheless, Wolfe's treatment of Charlotte's spiral into depression is convincing and gripping—and miles beyond anything he has even attempted with any other fictional character. Charlotte's willing Finlandization to the ways of Dupont is, sadly, all too plausible, if a bit anti-climactic to serve as a genuinely satisfying ending.

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Charlotte Simmons's greatest strengths are its set pieces and the wealth of detail Wolfe teases out of environments that are familiar yet whose inner workings are sealed off from most of us. Perhaps only someone who has played big-time college basketball could say how accurate is Wolfe's portrayal of the dynamics of a Division 1A team, especially the interaction between the team's black stars and white second-stringers. To the outsider, it certainly all seems believable—and absolutely fascinating. The two scenes of on-the-court action—written in Wolfe's characteristic third-person-point-of-view overdrive—are as good and gripping as anything he has ever written, from Conrad Hensley's encounter with the auto impounders in Man in Full to Sherman McCoy's escape from the Bronx in Bonfire.

A lot of the publicity and reviews have focused on Charlotte Simmons's depiction of the Caligula-scale debauchery common among today's undergraduates. Wolfe has performed an invaluable service in reporting this to a wider public. A lot of critics wish he hadn't, and they have their reasons. By far the most common criticism of this book has been that Wolfe is too old to write it. A septuagenarian goes to college campuses and is shocked to find that students drink and have sex! But this is disingenuous, a way of changing the subject. Few reviewers deny the truth of what Wolfe describes. Fewer still—even those of a culturally liberal (not to say libertine) bent—are probably comfortable admitting, even to themselves, that things have gotten this bad. It is hard for blue-state critics simply to laugh off the depravity presented here as harmless fun. But it is even harder for them to denounce it. That would imply an underlying moral judgment that they are not entirely comfortable making. More than that, it might force them to confront what contribution their own ideas about sex and drugs might have made to dragging us to these depths. Besides, all their rhetorical artillery has for decades been trained rightward, at religious prudes and other bluenoses, and it's too heavy and caked with rust to be turned on other targets, no matter how deserving. Much easier, then, just to denounce Wolfe.

Overall, these strengths—and there are many, many more of them—outweigh Charlotte Simmons's flaws by a significant margin. The book is as compulsively readable as any of Wolfe's works, and as much a mirror of certain aspects of our time. Wolfe accomplished what he set out to do, and we should be grateful, because no other novelist would have dared it, nor been able to do it so well. Yet one could reasonably wish that he had set out to do more. For a long time our universities have needed—begged for—a talented, iconoclastic outsider to come along and give a full and brutally honest account of all their follies and excesses. Wolfe's offering is brutally honest as far as it goes, but it is not quite, as we might have hoped, a Book in Full.