Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

Many early readers of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons have been openly disappointed with the book, probably because Wolfe normally spends so much time researching and writing his novels that it's especially frustrating when he comes up with a plot this slight and forced. Charlotte Simmons lumbers through a naïve Southern girl's tumultuous first semester at a prestigious private university. Given Wolfe's renown for making the mundane look exotically ceremonial—not to mention his knack for introducing just-so phrases like "The Me Decade" and "Radical Chic" to the pop lexicon—it's shocking how much of Charlotte Simmons is inelegantly written. Wolfe relies on exaggerated stereotypes of country folk and rich folk, all the while chasing down contemporary college slang like "sexiled" and "hook-up" with the smirking manner of a dirty uncle.

But Charlotte Simmons is far from the washout some have made it out to be. Wolfe frequently gets on a roll, like when he describes the compromises and crackerjack athleticism of championship college basketball, and the way a fraternity party sways between honored ritual and defiant lawlessness. Wolfe's barely suppressed fury at the wastefulness of contemporary youth sprays acid across the pages, as he lays into the way these overgrown kids in overly sexy outfits carelessly destroy institutions that have stood for hundreds of years. His heroine's staggering loneliness and insecurity drive her into the arms of three men—a lazy basketball star, a thuggish frat boy, and a nerdy, needy neo-radical—and all four of them are united in their belief that everyone on campus is scrutinizing their every waking moment. Wolfe finds the links connecting students' incessant cell-phone use, their obsession with misogynist hip-hop and violent country-rock, and the way they turn each others' failure into entertainment. He's discovered the Look At Me Decade.

That relentlessly cynical take on modern youth gives I Am Charlotte Simmons a sour taste. Wolfe seems to genuinely dislike and distrust all of his characters, and none more so than Charlotte, a shallow academic superstar who somehow lands a scholarship to one of the best schools in the country, though she appears to lack both passion and interpersonal skills. Wolfe makes her petty and weak, and puts her through more trials than the heroine of a VD education film. He has intense sympathy for Charlotte when she's dumped and depressed, but he can't pull a satisfactory resolution to the mess he creates for her, because he apparently doesn't believe that the lives of any of these kids today can be salvaged.

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