I Am Charlotte Simmons
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.