Posts Tagged ‘Tom Wolfe’

Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

August 20, 2014

I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
(Harper, 2004)
738 p.

A satire about modern university life has, among the many targets that leap into view, three that are nearly irresistible. There is, first, the prevailing political correctness. A related second target is the quality of intellectual life in our halls of learning, which consistently — and, one sometimes suspects, deliberately — fails to turn out students who are educated, in the sense of being well instructed in the great intellectual tradition of the West. Third, there is the delinquent social life of undergraduates.

In his novel about freshman life at a premier American university, Tom Wolfe has touched on all three of these themes, but his focus falls very much on the last: the drunken debaucheries and sordid spectacles that pass for social functions, the predatory and exploitative sexuality that passes for dating, the inarticulate vagary that you know passes for like intellectual life, and the corrosive effect of all this on the hearts and minds of the students.

Charlotte Simmons has been raised in a small mountain town in North Carolina, but earns a full scholarship to the (fictional) Ivy League university of Dupont. She is extremely intelligent, academically far superior to anyone she has ever known, and she looks forward with anticipation to starting university, eager to live the life of the mind to its fullest. But Dupont is not what she expects. To be sure, she takes classes, and has a few moments of joy in intellectual discovery, but mostly she is appalled. Her fellow students are, if anything, more surly, debased, and vulgar than those she left at home. For a while she maintains her balance and her focus; “I Am Charlotte Simmons!” she says to herself. She is destined for greater things.

But before long a crushing loneliness together with a complete lack of privacy in the student dorm (even the bathrooms are co-ed at Dupont) conspire to break Charlotte’s spirit. It’s hard enough not having friends; it’s worse to be rejected and excluded as a killjoy or a naif. Urged on by friends (whom she meets while ‘sexiled’ from her room at the insistence of her skanky roommate), Charlotte ventures out to some parties, and begins to attract the attentions of a number of men. From there the details of the story become more complex, but the general shape of the story does not: it is the beginning of a long, slow spiral of decline for Charlotte.

Why is it, I have often wondered, that those whose lives are most debauched and corrupt also show the greatest confidence in the conduct of that life? They are the most shameful and the least shamed. This happens at Dupont, and Charlotte, to her peril, falls for it.

There are a few central male figures in the story. Each of them has an interest in Charlotte, and that interest enters into their personal struggles to grow up as men. There is Hoyt, the ultra-cool frat boy who has his pick of campus women, and sees Charlotte’s innocence and reticence merely as a special challenge. Then there is Adam, a nerdy, slightly pretentious intellectual, who nevertheless has a genuine passion for learning and a good heart, and who proves, in a time of crisis, to be the only real friend that Charlotte has. And there is ‘JoJo’, a campus basketball star (Wolfe has a lot of fun skewering the phenomenon of the ‘student-athlete’) whose friendship with Charlotte does him great good. All of them see in Charlotte something extraordinary, and respond to it in different ways. Hoyt sees her as prey, something to despoil; Adam sees beauty and intelligence, and falls in love, but is too unsure of himself to be successful; JoJo is simply, confusedly, dazzled, encountering in her something intangible that he has not known before, but which he is unable to bring into focus. The ways in which these relationships unfold and interconnect are central elements of the story.

Wolfe’s writing is, on first acquaintance, decidedly mediocre. He is no great stylist. The tone is colloquial, informal, artless. There appears to be little craftsmanship in the prose, and the dialogue is unremarkable — unremarkable, that is, except for the astonishing density of profanity. His characters speak a kind of patois in which certain four-letter words function as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, imperative, and pretty much any other part of speech. It’s appalling.

Yet, on further acquaintance, my assessment of his craftsmanship changed; the merits of his writing become more obvious on the large scale. The novel is well-constructed, the characters are life-like and distinctive, and the story is compelling. Indeed, I liked Charlotte very much, and it was hard to watch her wander, step by painful step, off the high road. And although it is true that his dialogue is poorly written, perhaps this is only because if you were to write down what people actually say, it would be poorly written dialogue.

The book could be read as a critique of the sexual revolution, and in that respect would make excellent penitential fare for the baby boomers who raised the liberating cry in the 1960s. What hath freedom wrought? On Wolfe’s campus, the old standards of decorum and respect, which were guardians of the sense of mystery which the one sex ought to inspire in the other, are entirely gone. The moral law and its social adjuncts, which had rightly sheltered the intimacy of lovers from the wolves of appetite and power, has been forsaken. Even the tradition of dating has died, replaced by ‘hooking up’, a euphemism for casual and frank mutual sexual exploitation. These young people who have learned the technicalities of sex before having experienced love, approach sex mechanically, so that it almost fails to be interpersonal at all — a condition captured brilliantly by Wolfe in a jargon-laced depiction of Charlotte’s seduction.

Perhaps most painful was Wolfe’s canny portrayal of this crack-up on young women. In this book they have forsaken the feminine virtues of modesty and grace, yet remain strong on the feminine vices of manipulation and guile. Worse, they have begun to adopt the vices that have traditionally been the peculiar province of men: they are foulmouthed, lewd, and boorish. Is there anything less attractive? Is there anything less likely to inspire in men the honour and devotion that men are able, and, in my opinion, really want to owe a woman? It is very sad.

I said at the beginning that this is a satire of university life. Like all satires, it reveals while concealing. The world presented here is not the whole of campus life — certainly it bears little resemblance to the life I lived on campus, but then I expect that I was rather atypical. Much of what Wolfe portrays rings true (take, for example, his superbly barbed depictions of campus dance parties, so aptly called ‘clubbing’), and that is both admirable and depressing.

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Books briefly noted

August 5, 2012

Quick notes on a few novels I have read in recent months:

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1987)
690 p.

Wall Street and the street collide in this tragicomedy about a high flying bond trader’s fall from grace. It could happen to anyone: a wrong turn down the wrong street on the wrong side of town becomes, faster than you can say “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, a nightmare that threatens to send Sherman McCoy’s life up in smoke. Wolfe, in his rollicking way, in pretty probing here: how much of McCoy’s troubles are due to his own hasty prejudices and bad decisions, how much to plain bad luck, how much to modern media’s voracious appetite for sensationalism, and how much to the politics of class and race in America? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, and, despite its arguably topical subject matter, it stands up well. It is particularly good, in its frolicsome way, at conveying the psychological devastation of a normal person thrust into the center of a media storm. It is also outrageously funny: it has been years since a book stirred me to gales of laughter, and for that blessing I owe Wolfe humble and hearty thanks.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
(MacMillan, 1944) [1942]
575 p.

I will admit that I approached this novel about the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous with some wariness. It is fair to say that most of the art associated with Lourdes leans toward the saccharine, and I was afraid that the novel would do the same. I needn’t have been so worried: it is a surprisingly good, even excellent, book that handles its somewhat difficult subject matter with a sure touch and plain-spoken confidence. The story is not obviously devotional in spirit — Werfel was not a Catholic, and cannot have been expected to have any particular devotion to Our Lady — but neither is it a skeptical novel. In fact, there are skeptics in the novel, and they do not come off well. Werfel seems to have been content to tell the story more or less according to Bernadette’s own testimony — she, you will recall, never did claim to have seen the Blessed Virgin, but only “a lady” — and to leave the reader to make of it what he will. Werfel does a lot of things right: portraying the public controversy, the politics, the popular enthusiasm, and the ecclesiastical turmoil that surrounded Bernadette, but his great triumph is Bernadette herself, who is rendered as a quiet and simple girl whose innocence of spirit disarms and confounds the powerful forces swirling around her. Reading the book has certainly increased my admiration for her.

A few bits of trivia: the structure of the book reflects the structure of the Rosary, being laid out in five sections, each of ten chapters (the Rosary being, of course, a prayer especially associated with Lourdes); Werfel wrote the book because during the Second World War he and his wife had been sheltered by Catholic families in Lourdes while fleeing from the Gestapo; more incidentally, Werfel’s wife was Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Interesting.

Hannah Coulter
Wendell Berry
(Counterpoint, 2004)
195 p.

This is just one of the numerous books Berry has written about the residents of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, but it is the first that I have read. Hannah Coulter is an 80-year old woman looking back over her life and the lives of those closest to her: her two husbands, her children and grandchildren, and her friends, the “membership” of Port William. It is a novel about the importance of family, the dignity of the farming life, our obligations to the people and the places with which we come into contact, but perhaps above all it is about how the world affects the home. Hannah thinks a great deal about the manner in which the pressures of the modern world affect traditional ways of life and thought, such reflections being forced upon her by the events unfolding around her. The book is quiet and thoughtful, but not a sedative. Hannah is a very likable woman: warm and clear-sighted, with a firm moral center and a fine sense of humour. There are pages of great sadness here, and of delighted joy too; the overall impression is of a life being gathered up and regarded with love and thanksgiving. It is a good novel, and I would like to read another of the Port William books as opportunity arises. Recommendations are welcome.

Martin Chuzzlewit
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth, 2008) [1844]
864 p.

If it doesn’t seem quite proper to you that I shoehorn a Dickens novel — Dickens! — into the bottom of this post, I offer this consolation: it doesn’t seem quite proper to me either. The trouble is that I don’t have enough to say to justify giving it its own post. Martin Chuzzlewit is, I think it is fair to say, second-tier (or even third-tier, if there is a third-tier) Dickens. It was written after Dickens’ first trip to America, and it can be considered his “American novel”, in the sense that he sends poor young Martin state-side to seek his fortune, and uses the misadventures of his hero as an occasion to heap disdain on America and Americans. One gets the distinct impression that Dickens had found the United States exasperating, and has here taken opportunity to vent. Not that I am complaining: Dickens in a satirical mood is hard to beat, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit were my favourites. When Martin and his friend Mark Tapley are duped in a real-estate deal and dumped in a swampy backwater, lodged in a falling down cabin, surrounded by wilderness, the ever-cheerful Mark attempts to make light conversation with a neighbour:

‘The night air ain’t quite wholesome, I suppose?’ said Mark.
‘It’s deadly poison,’ was the settler’s answer.

Meanwhile, back in England, complicated intrigues surround the elder Martin Chuzzlewit — the young Martin’s grandfather — as a variety of parties try to position themselves to inherit his estate. Among them is the simpering Seth Pecksniff, surely one of Dickens’ finest villains, who hides his avarice behind a mask of self-denial. But then there is a cluster of characters — Chuffey, Tigg, Nadgett, Slyme, Spottletoe, Mrs. Gamp — who have given me a good deal of trouble. I honestly cannot tell you what they are doing in the story, nor how they are related to one another. I will readily concede that this is my own fault — I have been reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed each night, when my powers of lexic retention descend to their diurnal minimum — but, as the books of moral instruction tell us, acknowledging one’s fault does not, in itself, remedy the evil that was done. Sizable chunks of the plot remain dark to me, and this no doubt accounts, at least partly, for what I must acknowledge with regret is my decided lack of enthusiasm for the novel.

Having said that, this is still Dickens, and naturally there is something to enjoy. The open-hearted warmth, jocular affection, and righteous indignation so characteristic of Dickens are here as usual. In Mark Tapley, and perhaps even more so in Tom Pinch, we have examples of that fine Dickensian type: the genuinely good man, whose innocence and cheerfulness are a continual delight. Pity that we didn’t see more of them.

Martin Chuzzlewit was written after Barnaby Rudge, and can be considered “middle-period Dickens”. (Dickens was only in his early 30s, but already had five earlier novels under his belt.) While writing the middle sections of the novel he took on a side project, a little piece called A Christmas Carol which is still read from time to time. His next novel was to be Dombey and Son, and it will be my next (Dickens) novel too.

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.


If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.


Happy New Year!