As Charlotte encounters the paragons of Dupont University's privileged elite, she is seduced by the heady glamour of acceptance, betraying her values and upbringing before she grasps the power of being different and the exotic allure of her innocence.
In the end, the novel is multi-layered. It's about higher education, but it's also simply about one girl (I don't say woman, because she isn't one) being startled by the absence of morality at her ivy league school. It's about the brilliance of a star growing dim. She cannot achieve without being constantly admired, so she settles for being liked instead of being good. She lacks moral judgement and courage.
Thumbs up from me. If you can stomach the copious amounts of sex, drinking, poor English, disrespect for all things beautiful, and general debauchery, then give it a go.
By the way, right now I don't feel like being all political and editorializing about the current lack of educating that goes on in schools but--I shall just say--it's not a baseless indictment.
Know what's interesting? I listened to this on audiobook and at the very end there is a brief interview with Tom Wolfe. At one point, he's asked if he created Charlotte as an answer to the criticism that he has all but ignored women in his writing. He had an answer that went on about how he hadn't set out to do it on purpose but that he found Charlotte so compelling as a character and he really wanted to find out what happened to her.
So who is this Charlotte that is so compelling that Wolfe had to write about her? On the surface I suppose she's an intellectually stimulating virgin saving herself for marriage with no patience for those morally inferior to her but prepared to mother inferior men into superior versions of themselves. She gets to Dupont despite her inferior economic class, her lack of opportunity and her failure to have everything handed to her on a platter. She's come to college to experience intellectual pursuit only to discover that all potential women friends are simple, slutty, guttermouth girls and while all men seemingly fall at her feet, they're unworthy of Charlotte's attention due to their morally inferior character.
While making Charlotte an object of conquest to three men (a starter on the basketball team, a major player in the biggest fraternity on campus and the token smart boy with a chip on his shoulder), Wolfe also makes it clear that no woman will be her true friend. Charlotte quickly alienates her roommate and makes no real attempt to create a social circle for herself outside of two hangers-on that merely get her to our fraternity guy. It really is this dull, and yet Charlotte seems to take great glee in this lack of friendship as a badge of honor. After all, why be friends with those who are morally inferior to you?
Of course, she does have the guys that are constantly after her and her and her morally superior ways. And why exactly do these guys stick around after the first few conversations? She has nothing in common with these men (well, virginity with one of them and she likes him least), she is clueless about popular culture, her ability to empathize is non-existent, she has no discernible hobbies and she can't even accept a simple invitation to lunch without being completely annoyed. I can understand the equally social-awkward guy who complains constantly about his virginity putting up with some of this behavior for a prolonged period - but the player in the fraternity (even as a conquest?) or the starter on the basketball team? With no real kindness that comes from Charlotte ever - with no moment where she even remotely lets up or has a moment of fun that isn't her gushing about her being superior to others simply trying to fit in, why am I to care if this girl from a small mountain town really makes it as arm candy?
Then again, it's Wolfe's fantasy and not mine.
I had two main problems with this novel. First, while still a keen observer of social interactions, the author's "big picture" insights are hardly bold or new. Basically, Wolfe builds his story around the following observations: (1) college students like to drink and have sex, (2) student bodies are stratified along economic, racial, and class lines, (3) most college athletes aren't particularly good students, and (4) sometimes professors act out of self-interest. Perhaps I'm too familiar with the subject--I teach at a university somewhat similar to the one described in the book--but I suspect that anyone who has ever been to college will not be shocked or entertained by these revelations.
My second problem with the world Wolfe creates is that not one of the characters is remotely likeable or even particularly interesting. As other readers have noted, Charlotte is portrayed as naïve to the point of being unbelievable. More fundamentally, though, the way she turns her back on everything and everyone she stands for in the span of a few short months makes her very hard to root for. Most of the others--JoJo, Hoyt, Beverly, Adam--are one-dimensional and come off as mere cartoons. Sadly, after finishing the book, I couldn't think of a single character whose story was compelling enough to redeem the experience of having slogged through almost 700 pages.
I'm still a fan of Tom Wolfe, but after this book I won't automatically buy and read his next one.
Charlotte Simmons, the eponymous heroine is from Sparta, North Carolina, an american small town. As class valedictorian and academic superstar, she is expected to go far, and is due to attend Ivy League Dupont university. She expects to meet her intellectual equals at Dupont, something which has eluded her so far in Sparta. However, she is disappointed to find that students are Dupont appear to be more obsessed with drinking, partying, making out and sports, than they appear to be with studying. Wolfe also highlights the importance of sports teams to the american university system.
The story in not told solely from the perspective of Charlotte Simmons. We also meet frat boy king Hoyt Thorpe who is determined to be remembered as a legend within his frat house and white basketball star Jojo Johansson who undergoes a seachange in his attitude to his studies.
I mainly like the character of Charlotte Simmons, though I did find her a little sanctimonius and overly naive at times. However, her growing attempts to fit in and be seen as popular will reverbate with lots of readers. The most endearing character in the book, as far as I'm concerned is Johansson, who is determine to move beyond the jock athlete stereotype.
The book is quite long, but it literally zips by due to Wolfe's pacy writing and I never once found it a chore. Critics of the book have said that it does not accurately reflect college life but I never once felt that it over exaggerating. It's a whirlwind tour of the college experience, but its a remarkable acheivement for a male writer to capture a female mind so well.
That is why when I first came to Mount Holyoke College I craved books of the college genre; one book in particular. I could not seem to get my mind off of the Tom Wolfe novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which I had read in high school. I felt close to the title character Charlotte because we were both North Carolina girls from the foothills attending a New England college and attempting to carve out a successful future for ourselves.
During my first couple of weeks at Mount Holyoke every new college experience I had (i.e. unpacking my things in my new dorm, using the communal bathroom, eating in the dining hall) caused my thoughts to turn toward similar scenes in Charlotte Simmons. Each day, my preoccupation with the book got worse and worse until I finally reached a point where I thought enough was enough, and so I walked to the college library to check out the Tom Wolfe novel and began reading it for the second time. It was better than the first time. I could actually relate to Charlotte so much more this time around as a first-year college student trying to adjust to college life. I would read the scene of her unpacking her things in her dorm on the fifth floor and it would strike me that I was also living on the fifth floor of my dorm. I would read about Charlotte’s first time using the coed bathroom (the disgusting scene where two boys are on the toilet making crude bowel noises and boasting about it) and I would suddenly feel very grateful that I had decided to go to a women’s college. In scene after scene, chapter after chapter, I experienced a sense of familiarity that was a blessing to have during that time when I was trying to adjust to new surroundings.
I will never grow tired of I Am Charlotte Simmons.
I was scanning reviews on another site, and one of the positive reviews started with "you have to love Charlotte." Perhaps that is true, but I can't imagine anyone loving Charlotte in the least. She is an insufferable utterly humorless prig, who clearly believes understanding anything about popular culture is beneath her notice and that made her destruction satisfying. Given the general availability of things like television and the internet in the time covered here (even in the South Mr. Wolfe!) she would need to make a choice to be so utterly naive upon her arrival at college. And even assuming she was raised Amish or in some sort of anti-technology cult (which does not appear to be the case) she should have been able to catch up a bit when she reached civilization. Yet she has no interest in learning or adapting, simply in judging (herself and others) and wondering why everyone else is so awful. When lonliness or awkwardness finally knocks at her door rather than learning (her intellect is purported to be exceptional, and all things can be learned) she chooses magical thinking and abdandonment of self over simple observation and thoughtful modification. In our protaganist I wanted to find Alice, or Gulliver, or Hank Morgan. What I got was an sour combination of Cotton Mather, Gladys Kravitz and Fanny Price. She is not believable, she is not likable, she is not relatable. I suspect she is Tom Wolfe -- I hope not, but if so count him on my list of people with whom I never want to hang out.
Things don't really improve when one moves on from looking at just Charlotte. I am not of the generation portrayed here. I received my undergradute degree in 1984 and completed my graduate work in 1989 so it has been over 20 years since I lived on campus. The endless drinking, the random sex, the confusion between sophistication and ennui, the anti-intellectual zeitgest -- that is EXACTLY what college was like in 1980. Actually, forget 1980 -- it could be 1960. This is like "Animal House," with Doug Niedermeyer in drag front and center. Actually, make that 1950 since I imagine these charcters would work as a prequel to the wonderful "Bonfire of the Vanities". ("Kindling the Bonfire: The College Years!") Maybe I am lowbrow, but I'll take Blutarsky over Niedermeyer any day. Both are going to hell, but only one is making the trip fun. If Mr. Wolfe was interested in focusing a lens on the millenial generation, he needed some much fresher research and keener observations.
I don't really know how to wrap this up: I enjoyed reading the book, perhaps in part because I found so much of it objectionable, and in part because dude knows his prose. As social commentary, or allegory though, it failed spectacularly
I should add that the scenes of social awkwardness are absolutely excruciating. If, like me, you find humiliation harder to stomach than violence, this is at times an agonizing read.
I guess Wolfe was out to write the definitive book about college life. And indeed the book is nothing but a long (700+ pages) description of the frivolities of college students. It is full of stereotypical characters: the basketball players who get academic discounts and lead a life (literally) above the rest, the drunken frat boys and the giggly sorority girls, the group of smart nerds who are after the Rhodes scholarship and, above all, the innocent hillybilly who cannot believe it all - Charlotte. Wolfe, in his charcteristic style, does not leave much to the imagination when describing Charlotte's encounter with college life. One of ther first experiences on campus are the sounds produced by a boy defecating loudly in the stalls of the co-ed bathroom (I will spare you the details). Shortly thereafter, Charlotte's room-mate throws her out in the middle of the night so that she can spend time there alone with her boyfriend; thus Charlotte learns what it means to be "sexiled". And so on and so forth.
Despite its weakness in credibility - I refuse to believe this is what life in Ivy League colleges is all about - what saves this book is Wolfe's excellent writing style, captivating the reader and transporting him to a world that although removed from reality seems at the same time very realistic. I read the book while travelling between three continents and it was a faithful companion on the long flights and sleepless nights. As far as pop fiction goes, it's an entertaining read.
One final thought. Wolfe, author of excellent books such as Bonfire of Vanities and A Man in Full, gives thanks in the foreward to the book to his daughters, who apparently let him into the secret lives of college students based on first-hand experiences. If I am Charlotte Simmons faithfully portrays what Wolfe's daughters went through in college, I shudder to think how he reacted, as a father, when hearing their stories.
Enjoyable, but sure to offend some (for many possible reasons). Also possibly annoying are the repetitive, staccato-style, incoherent, rambling thoughts of many clueless and bewildered characters, which makes the book wordy.
Clichés? Maybe. But, then again, there's only a thin line between fiction and reality sometimes...
This book was a long time coming. Tom Wolfe’s battle with depression is over. He is back. And this book is his best.
Let there be no doubt. I love reading Tom Wolfe’s books. He is always showing us something we have not quite appreciated. In each book he creates a memorable scene. Who can forget the “out came the dress uniforms” refrain in The Right Stuff; or how about the Masters of the Universe ramping the bond offering in The Bonfire of the Vanities? And then there is Chapter 4 – the visit to the work-out committee – in A Man in Full, one of the funniest chapters I have ever read.
This book includes several. There is the f**k and s**t patois, the shared bathroom in the co-ed dorm, the pre-season basketball scrimmage before 10,000 fans, the football tailgate, the fraternity formal and the frat house mixer. That a 74 year-old writer grasps the intricacies and nuances of the college youth culture is a tribute to his talent. While I would love to know the origin of his amicus towards Lacrosse players, there is no question he spans the chasm of generations to capture the college life.
This book may have been a long time coming, but here is one reader who prays Wolfe has one or two more books left in him.
Many of the major critics of the novel seem to cast aspersions at Wolfe's portrayal of the current collegiate zeitgeist. Not surprisingly, they say, this septuagenerian just doesn't "get" today's youth culture and thus his attempt to capture its nuances falls flat. Ah but if only this were the whole story.
Wolfe's novel is both descriptive and evaluative. It may be that on the descriptive level he fails (although, as a recent gradate of a prestigious liberal arts college I feel eminently qualified to suggest otherwise) and thus finds himself evaluating caricatures and straw men. But even if we grant that his descriptive effort is exaggerated it seems clear that it isn't an abject failure. Yes, it may be the case that Wolfe is evaluating caricatures, but these caricatures, based as they are on legitimate portraits, are still worth evaluating.
At times the novel reads as satire but I took the main thesis to be allegorical. To wit, it seems to me that Charlotte Simmons represents that which is noble, good, and pure about the university and as we watch her unraveling, we can see in it the collapse of the modern university and the moral and epistemological edifice that has long supported it. As the academe has been tempted by the siren songs of fame, fortune, politics, and big time sports so has been Charlotte Simmons in her own more plebeian way.
Furthermore, we find that the life of the mind, under the guise of neuroscience, has turned on itself as a way of writing the "mind" (and its lofty pursuits: truth, beauty, justice, and the good) out of existence. It should come then, as no surprise, that couched in the latest Churchlandian neuro-philosophy the mind and its pursuits give way, unapologetically, to animal instinct.
For those on a college campus in the late 90s and early 00s, this is the most spot representation of our experience I have seen yet. I say that with great regret.
I was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. Wolfe usually is a master of capturing voices different from his own-New York yuppies, Southern frozen food magnates, Southern Californian factory workers. But his attempt to voice the inner thoughts of American college students seems one-note. The book veers from earnest to satirical, and never quite decides exactly what it wants to be. Having gone to college in the late nineties, I definitely recognized some of the familiar characters ("smart" kids acting stupid, fraternity keggers, one-night hook-ups), but they all seemed either too flat or too over the top to engage me. And the ending is so chaotic and abrupt that I lost all sense of connection to the characters.
I heartily recommend Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, but I would suggest skipping this one, or at least waiting for the paperback.
This latest work is rather more problematic. It's sometimes amusing, and sometimes a page turner, but it also feels like a 65 year old man complaining about how everything sucks these days, how the kids have no respect, today's god-awful music, how everything is now too complicated and so on.
I don't know if it's that he isn't, at root, really interested in the lives of students, or if he has just let his misanthropy run wild, but the book feels false in so many details, and when the details one is sure of feel false, one's natural inclination is to doubt the veracity of the rest of the book. Meanwhile, at the end of the day the main thing a book like this has going for it is its claim to be an accurate portrait of America.
Details I felt rang false included:
* The descriptions of technology. Tech devices (computers, digital music players, cell phones) are constantly portraited as these alien artifacts. We are expected to believe that Charlotte is startled by a phone menu. We have Charlotte being afraid to make long distance calls because they are so expensive. We never have casual reference to the realities of student tech like utilizing a laptop to access library catalogs, or instant messaging, or email. This is tech as seen by a technophobic old man, not tech as seen by students.
* Charlotte is supposed to be a genius, but Wolfe seems quite uninterested in exactly where her genius lies. It's not in a science field, but now we are expected to believe that a genius in the humanities nonetheless has no idea of contemporary American culture or, for that matter, the perennial human condition of trying to figure out oneself and the opposite sex. (Sure she is supposedly taking a neuroscience course, but in Wolfe's description neuroscience appears to be a blend of philosophy, history, and literature; certainly not, god forbid, a science with math and chemistry and physics and suchlike.)
* Wolfe is quite happy to scold us on how awful it is that students feel compfortable with sex (and even worse, that some of them feel comfortable being gay), but appears uninterested in ever asking what these students think, or for that matter, quite why he feels so discomforted by them. Rather than taking the fact that they are so much less hung up on sex than he is as an interesting fact and riffing off that, all we hear is the standard story of how awful it is that the new generation thinks differently about these matters than he does. And Charlotte, being his alter ego, comes across as a much less interesting, and much less pleasant person, for being so dogmatic about something for no reason.
Towards the last third of the book, he becomes quite hysterical about this, like he's channeling Paul of Tarsus or something, going on and on about animal urges, how disgusting the human body is and so on.
With respect to Charlotte's story, for example, he could have justified the point he is trying to make through arguments about how we all feel a tension between our long term and our immediate desires, and that society would do well to teach us how to resist short term urges that work against our long term goals. But all we get is this inane ranting about the evils of the flesh.
* DuPont seems populated by a small fraction of hypersexed lookers and athletes, and a large population of everyone else. The everyone elses make occasional appearances as lonely lookers on at parties, as people sitting in corridors watching others go by, but Wolfe is uninterested in them. At the end of the day, it's not at all clear what he's after. One way or another, he indicates that the 90% of DuPont that aren't beautiful are both leading standard university lives (with lots of studying and small amounts of sex and partying), and that they're not worthy of serious interest. What he cares about is the fact that the beautiful people are behaving like beautiful people, something he finds terribly upsetting.
At the end of the day, I find the morality of the book horrifying. Wolfe's primary concern is that casual sex is evil. Manipulating people's emotions, or faking a committed relationship are rather less wicked. People drinking destructively is even less of a problem. And, at the very bottom of the totem pole in importance are issues like the structure of a social system that possesses a very obvious aristocracy whose children can behave like idiots at frat houses and not have others criticize them.
What everyone tends to marvel over is how well Tom Wolfe, an old man, writes Charlotte, a young girl. Well, most of those people probably aren't young college girls either. He does a fairly good job of portraying the macro-experience of college life, but he never adequately manages to motivate Charlotte, or explain her reactions.
Perhaps the worst thing about his book is the language. I'm no prude, and certainly heard and sometimes used that kind of language on my college campus, but since I was listening to it in my car, I never knew when I was going to be stopped at a light with my windows down, and have a character let out a string of obscenities that made me worry how much the car next to me could hear.
I don't think I'd read it again, but neither do I hugely regret having listened to it. Kinda wishy-washy, I know, but that is really the best I can do!