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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 politics—looking for the sort of commentary he offered in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. But why take those things—and, by extension, the university itself—seriously? A casual glance at Charlotte Simmons might tell a critic that Wolfe intends no such thing—but 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 pieces—which he just doesn't do. Heave your expectations aside and tough through it—because 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 cynically—and far less hopefully—than 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 neuroscience—which 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 offer—valedictorian, full ride at a blue-state Ivy League, fetching good looks—her 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 types—Hoyt 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 Adam—the kid carries around a hefty chip on his left shoulder, and has the backbone of an earthworm. His biggest beef with life—and oh, there's a regular stampede in this chucklehead's skull—is 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. One—when 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." Two—Charlotte had no idea what she was in for, and so was woefully unprepared for it. In these two areas lie our susceptibilities as Christians—inadequately 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.

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