Casey's Reviews > I Am Charlotte Simmons

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
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Jun 30, 13

bookshelves: grungy-shelf, wannabe-serious-lit
Read from June 13 to 30, 2013

I Am Charlotte Simmons was published in 2004, which was the year in which I matriculated at my alma mater. I guess that makes Charlotte and I the same age (except that Charlotte is, obviously, a shadowy, fictional stereotype of someone my age and, thus, not real). Charlotte Simmons is a sheltered, smart girl from a small town in the mountains of North Carolina, who ends up at a top university and is shocked by what she sees there. I was also a sheltered smart girl from a small town in the mountains (of Southern California. In case you were unaware, California is also overrun with idiotic Republican whack job Jesus freaks, at least once you get away from the coast and into the shit-hole provincial towns. They're probably spouting nonsense about the glories of gun-ownership via semi-literate Facebook posts as we speak).

All this is to say that Charlotte and I are both girls from small towns who got into prestigious universities, only to find that they didn't fit the Elysian vision of intellectual nirvana we had created for ourselves when we imagined what college would be like. The main difference between us is that, while I was disappointed, I didn't find this particularly surprising.

But wait, you may say, it's unfair for you, as a reader, to hate on a book because it doesn't mirror your own experiences! And this is true, to a point, except that Wolfe wrote a book rife with inaccuracies about what life was like for college students in 2004. This paragraph serves as a running inventory of specific things Tom Wolfe got wrong: Charlotte's roommate brings a fax machine with her, and sets it up in her dorm room (??). Wolfe describes cell phones as if they're super fancy gadgets possessed only by the elite. A fraternity brother asks to borrow porn videos from the other brothers, instead of searching for porn on the internet like a normal human being. Wolfe forgets that we're a bit too young for Animal House and Swingers to be the defining films our youth (although he is correct in assuming that we all watched Old School). I'm pretty sure we're not the first generation to forgo last names when introducing ourselves. Rap and reggae were not the only genres people listened to (I mean, isn't Belle and Sebastain one of the prototypical college bands? Also, reggae has always been pretty niche). Britney Spears peaked when Oops…I did it Again came out in 2000. The Stairmaster may have been big in 80's, but young women have been partial to the elliptical since at least the early 2000's. No cool girl would willingly call herself a "douche" (or a trekkie, for that matter).

To be fair, Wolfe got a few things right. Often, my classmates would proffer answers in class that were so idiotic, I couldn't help but wonder how they had gotten into the university in the first place. Athletes really are treated like gods, even at schools with fairly middling athletic programs. Also, we played a ton of drinking games.

Nevertheless, the millennial cultural narrative doesn't align with Wolfe's story of an edenic fall into a tawdry, quasi-intellectual underbelly populated by hormone-crazed sex drones. In reality, we went to college, like our parents before us, we studied, we graduated, we attempted to obtain gainful employment. Things would be a lot easier if previous generations hadn't managed to screw up both the economy and the environment, but that's a different story. With Charlotte Simmons, it seems to me that Tom is not so much a prescient social commentator as he is a self-indulgent writer who cried wolf.

The main problem with I Am Charlotte Simmons is that that Wolfe fails to satirize the (very real) issues of entitlement and lack of racial and economic diversity on prestigious college campuses. Instead, he adds his voice to the cyclical, and ultimately untenable, diatribe against "kids these days," forgetting that we've been there before, and the overhyped prognostications about the end of polite society have consistently proved to be, shockingly, anticlimactic.

Two stars: one, because the writing is remarkable (this is Tom Wolfe, after all. Dude knows how to write). Two, because there's a great description of the horror that is the fast-casual dining experience.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Wendy (new)

Wendy As an 05 metriculator, I say, "great review!" I laughed at the long list of generational anachronisms--it seems that finding a millennial, college educated beta-reader wouldn't have been too difficult. I wonder if maybe much of his writing/research happened in the early 90s?
P.S. I'm intrigued by this horror that is the fast-casual dining experience...

message 2: by Casey (last edited Jun 30, 2013 06:18PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Casey Apparently he had his children read the book (his daughter graduated from Duke in 2002, which kind of explains the Britney Spears thing, I guess). But I'm guessing he was really writing through the lens of his own experience.

The fast-casual dining experience is written as a scene at The Sizzlin' Skillet, which is an obvious facsimile of Chili's. It's funny, because when I was growing up I thought it was fancy, because we didn't have any chain restaurants in our town (you had to go to the "big city" aka the closest suburb to get it). I didn't realize that the mom and pop shops in my town were much higher quality! Wolfe gets the fried food and kitsch down perfectly.

message 3: by Alex (new)

Alex This is a fantastic review, Casey.

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