I Am Charlotte Simmons
Readers of the last post should have seen this coming.
Before the sociologists got to the subject of campus sex, the novelists had gotten there first. Well, one novelist and because the scrivener in question is Tom Wolfe you get a two-fer. Wolfe the novelist is also Wolfe the journalist and before there was the fat juicy novel (2004) there was the Wolfe-length article (before 2000).
This is the third of Wolfe’s novels and I can’t help but wonder what deep streak of self-loathing keeps me reading them. As a journalist, Wolfe has shown me the inner workings of numerous sub-cultures. And because he’s got that Yale PhD I very often get the bonus of seeing a cultural moment explained with a hint of scholarship. Maybe what I miss in the novels is the scholarship.
Or maybe the ellipses are finally getting to me.
The ellipses have always been there. They go back to the article that launched Wolfe, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” in 1963. Yes, that’s a title.
The article, allegedly just a brain dump of Wolfe’s notes about a custom car show which he submitted when he couldn’t find a narrative thread, helped launch what was called the New Journalism. His language was kinetic, especially compared to the decorous approach to magazine journalism at the time, and made liberal use of unexpected punctuation to convey style and meaning.
But Wolfe has one blind spot. Like a bop soloist who can’t play a slow ballad, his toolkit does not contain a rest. When faced with the need to pause he reaches for the three dots the way I reach for marjoram at the stove.
This time his subject is college life and the chosen vessel for this journey is Miss Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina. Charlotte is the valedictorian of Alleghany High School and the smartest girl ever to graduate the school. So much so that she is bound, on scholarship, for fictional DuPont University in Pennsylvania.
When he wrote of New York, in Bonfire of the Vanities, the firms referenced did not exist but were identifiable. Here, despite the Pennsylvania location, DuPont is clearly Duke University picked up and dropped somewhere southwest of Philadelphia.
If I had to guess I’d say that’s because Wolfe needed a big time athletic program for his tale. Remember that Dr. Wade established a strong link between hookup culture and the on campus presence of fraternities and big time athletics. As Roy Blount, Jr. once said, college athletics in the Northeast are like French food in South Carolina, hence the substitution.
DuPont is also seemingly an Ivy League school. It might even be the Ivy League school because there’s nary a mention of the others, which might be a matter of alumni courtesy. Dr. Wade demonstrated hook up culture exists at all types of universities so the elite shouldn’t be spared.
Charlotte arrives and experiences culture shock. Sparta is not just small town America, it’s hardscrabble America located deep in the mountains where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina meet. I’ve been in the area and it’s best summed up by a lyric*: ‘authentic people that you can see, living out on Route 33.’
Charlotte’s family has been rolled by an economy that’s seen decent jobs move overseas and so they cope, working multiple jobs, putting up their own food, managing to scrape by. The family, her mother in particular, are religious in the fundamentalist sense. Charlotte is, well, the best word is sheltered, in spite of all her book learning.
So Charlotte is bewildered when she moves into a coed dorm with a roommate–fresh from boarding school–whose father is the CEO of an insurance company–John Hancock, thinly disguised It’s a meeting, to borrow a phrase, of Martians and earthlings.
I think Wolfe’s intention was to draw a stark contrast between cultures. On the one hand there’s the privileged elite who have the resources to misbehave and suffer few consequences. On the other there’s the deserving striver whom the gods of admission have deemed worthy of inclusion, thereby saving her.
Amazingly, where Wolfe doesn’t want to go is to where the actual gap is: class. Charlotte isn’t at sea because she’s from Appalachia. She’s at sea because her parents work for a living and teeter near the precipice of extreme want. People who are solidly middle class, or higher, and who worry about economic misfortune cannot imagine the sacrifice and doing without that come along with laboring for a living.
So Charlotte enters the life of a freshman and tries to be a diligent student, to be the woman who did not let her upbringing stand in the way of getting where she is. She has some successes. She’s noticed by a professor who is a Nobel laureate. She meets a group of students, the self-declared Millennial Mutants, who can over-analyze almost anything and excite her to the possibilities of a life of the mind. This group includes the token Jewish characters who are drawn in a way that makes me wonder how Wolfe has managed to live in New York for 50 years.
Charlotte can’t escape reality, though. Early on she’s ‘sexiled‘ when her roommate, an avid hook-up artist, needs the room. At least that’s how she meets her first friends. She also meets a varsity basketball player whom she essentially shames into taking education seriously. And she meets Hoyt Thorpe, a frat boy whose middle name is trouble.
Hoyt is Charlotte’s downfall. In the end she falls for his social capital. Hoyt embodies two of the things Professor Wade identified as constituting ‘hot’: good looks and membership in the best frat. Charlotte is a sitting duck as he initiates her into hookup culture and proceeds, after eventual success, to treat her in the prescribed manner. Our heroine is devastated and blows her semester.
The plot is fairly obvious and the didactic bits were better delivered in the earlier, shorter article. You wonder about padding when, at different points, you get full-page expositions of ‘fuck patois’ and ‘shit patois’ which, except for their root word, are basically interchangeable. You also realize that except for the race to the behavioral bottom, campus life retains its basic form.
In the end it all works out a bit too neatly. Why, you might ask, didn’t I just put the book down and move on? Aside from being congenitally unable to do that, I was intrigued by the opportunity to revisit the pedagogical approach I mentioned in my earlier post.
But the real answer is, it’s Tom Wolfe. So even if it takes 644 pages to get there (and the book is longer, I warn you), it’s worth it when Charlotte describes the besotted-for-her, falling-apart friend who has, for good and for ill, unintentionally wreaked havoc across the university, as an “insipid Samson.”
* There are no lyrics (or MP3) online for Charlie Pickett’s 1985 album Route 33. Someone should resurrect it.