Volume 17, Issue 1: Ex Libris
I Am Charlotte Simmons
Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
The response of the book critics to Tom Wolfe's latest 700-pager,
I Am Charlotte Simmons, indicates the white-clad
Virginian has poked some eyes that needed poking. A goodly portion of them sit aghast at the book's central set-piece, in which
the heroine gets deflowered and humiliated by the boorish
rut-rut-rutting frat boy she's taken up with. One fellow complains,
"[It's] neither an effective set piece nor an emotional rite-of-passage"like all sex scenes should be"It is merely
gross."1 But Wolfe, who won a prize from London's Literary Review for "worst sex scene," has said that if anyone got turned on by
the scene in question, then he has "failed as a
writer."2 Still others have carped about the absence of a nuanced exploration into
the various college cliques or the fascinating labyrinths of university politicslooking for the sort of commentary he offered
in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in
Full. But why take those thingsand, by extension, the university itselfseriously? A
casual glance at Charlotte Simmons might tell a critic that Wolfe intends no such thingbut then again, most of them went into
the deflowering scene hoping for arousal.
Christians just might approach the novel with the same expectations the critics did. We might think that since so much
of the book stomps around in the raunch of college sex, we should stay away lest we find it
tempting. Or we might go into it wanting Wolfe to lock worldview horns with the Darwinists and the feminists, perhaps dashing their ideas to pieceswhich he
just doesn't do. Heave your expectations aside and tough through itbecause in Wolfe's clinical descriptions of university lust,
he does, in fact, illustrate the ethical deadness of what passes for the life of the mind on the modern campus. He just does it
far more cynicallyand far less hopefullythan a vertebrate Christian would want him to.
Primarily, the story of Charlotte Simmons at the fictional-in-name-only Dupont University gives Wolfe a forum to
explore his favored themes of late, most notably the social-climbing tendencies of mankind, and the hopeless mysteries of
neurosciencewhich he explored in a crackling, incisive collection of essays called
Hooking Up. Charlotte, despite hailing from
a washed-up backwoods town with a nondescript economy, gets set up quite quickly as a fiercely competitive, sniping
young woman. While she is the best thing her high school class has to offervaledictorian, full ride at a blue-state Ivy
League, fetching good looksher competition, at least as far as she has sized them up, yielded without a fight. At the same time, it
sure is lonely at the top of that heap. But college, where the life of the mind is the one that they offer, will surely improve on this.
Of course, it doesn't. Charlotte's roommate is a rich little slut, her co-ed dorm little more than an inept Bacchanalian
mess, her friends the type of people whose company you only settle for. Dupont, she finds, far from being an intellectual ivory
tower, is a collision of goopy, backbiting hormones walking around in barely sentient, immaculately-kept and -manicured hard
bodies. So Charlotte wards off her loneliness and lurking depression with her school-work, and seems to be the only one who
cares about her grades on the whole campus.
Of course, Charlotte remains a looker, and she attracts the attention of three campus typesHoyt Thorpe, a
fratboy riding high on a legendary encounter with a security guard the previous year; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player
on the basketball team; and Adam Gellin, the `globalization' major, Jojo's tutor and a sniveling liberal. Wolfe has a lot of fun
with Adamthe kid carries around a hefty chip on his left shoulder, and has the backbone of an earthworm. His biggest beef
with lifeand oh, there's a regular stampede in this chucklehead's skullis that here he is, within a year of finishing his undergrad
. . . and he's still a virgin! Fortunately for us, he remains too much of a wimp to really make it with Charlotte, who prefers
the guys whose heads sit on top of their necks. As the
London Literary Review informed us, Charlotte spends part of the book
being wooed by Hoyt, to the great detriment of her grades. Adam sorta tries and completely fails. As for Jojo . . . well, there seems
to be a heart somewhere beneath his morel-sized brain.
That, more or less, is the story, sans subplots. In the subplots, Wolfe skewers some of our favorite shish-ka-bobs
Adam's swishy liberalism pales in comparison to the petty hypocrisy of Jerome Quat, the history prof whose dedication
to academic standards pales in comparison to his religious devotion to political causes. The athletic department has all
the integrity of the Clinton White House. Charlotte's roommate is really, truly, a disgusting little harlot. The book, taken as
a whole, offers few surprises, telling us what we already know about modern college life; what's more, it shares something of
our revulsion for it.
However, Wolfe includes two observations about Charlotte that ought to strike at our hearts. Onewhen her father
leaves her at school, he says, "We love you, Charlotte." Wolfe goes on: "[He] didn't know how much it would have meant to her if
he could have only brought himself to say I." TwoCharlotte had no idea what she was in for, and so was woefully
unprepared for it. In these two areas lie our susceptibilities as Christiansinadequately prepared and vaguely-loved children. If for no
other reason, I Am Charlotte Simmons is worth reading as a kind of yellow journalism, as a type of worst-case scenario.