Christopher Lowe's Reviews > I am Charlotte Simmons

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
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Aug 27, 2012

really liked it

** spoiler alert ** I wrote the following review a few years ago and cringe a little on reading parts of it. Worth recording here though perhaps. He's got a new one coming out soon.

Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel charts the the trials and trepidations of a beautiful, poor, working class southerner in her first semester at a fictional elite University. Critically the book was poorly received but having just finished it myself I think that this general appraisal is unfair. If anything this book is not so much intended for the audience that lapped up The Bonfire of the Vanities in the 80s. I believe this book is of more interest to, and perhaps intended for a younger generation of readers.
As a novelist who only releases an opus into the world every ten years or so, it’s only natural for him to try and capture the zeitgeist in some way. Though in some respects true to form, this is more than just an expansive journalistic novel about life for American University students in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
I believe it’s telling that one of the ‘athlete friendly’ courses available to students of Dupont University is entitled ‘The French Novel: From Flaubert to Houellebecq’ (and I don’t believe this to be just a casual reference). For me Houellebecq is the most successful contemporary novelist in capturing the spirit of our times and unfortunately, it ain’t pretty. There are themes and set-pieces in Wolf’e's last novel that synthesise the nihilistic houellebecqian world-view that reduces us just to the subject of our drives. I am Charlotte Simmons, like all of his novels, positively oozes testosterone despite the principle character being an eighteen year old girl. Indeed, they are in accordance with the way in which societies denigrate status along alpha beta distinctions, and one’s success or failure is further complicated by the unrealistic expectations fostered by a hyper-sexualised consumerist society. Weedy beta-male Adam who is Wolfes’s counterpoint to all the muscular superstar jocks and frat boys is a sexual failure and makes desperate trips to the gym in order to ‘buff up’ and adhere to the fashionable ideal for male students. He indulges in revenge fantasies about Dupont’s celebrity ‘student athletes’ who are the source of much of his torment.
Amongst other things, this book is very much about sport and the pre-eminent position it occupies in the American University system. How the system works, of kids going to college primarily to play ‘football’ for instance, on the basis of sporting prowess rather than academic ability, had always been something of a mystery to me. My conclusion: it’s just plain weird; and a little creepy. In Wolfe’s novels the main athletes and alpha-fratboys think of themselves as a privileged warrior class who are entitled to all the spoils of war.
The ‘might is right’ attitude that reflects America’s imperial ethos and pervades its educational system has crept steadily into the British system also. The Yealmpton press the other month had an article about Yealmpton Primary school and it reminded me of my experience there as a student teacher on an observation week in late September last year. It was quite an enjoyable week in that I was able to walk there through the woods everyday as I had done as a child, and be home again by about a quarter to four each day. The children were incredibly sweet, some of them at least, and I was quite smitten with them towards the end of the week. I got a sense of the school as being at the heart of the community with parents (mostly mums) having an integrated relationship with the institution. Rural village primary schools are a little microcosm, everyone knows everyone else, parents are involved on a day to day basis with the running of the school, and staff have to be amenable to this. This aspect of village life remains constant and rightly so, but much has changed in the last twenty years or so.
When I attended it form the mid eighties to the early nineties it was a primary school with a second to none reputation for music tuition in the county. This was due largely to the commitment of the then Head, the eccentric but well meaning Dennis Breeze. He must represent the last of a generation of teachers for whom the national curriculum was something to be promptly disposed of each year. For better or worse, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it now. He taught what he knew and what he knew was music, perhaps to the detriment of non-musical children, but nevertheless he was widely respected, despite some of his more unsavoury views. The local community was aware of what the school was like, what it valued and tried to nurture, and could opt out of sending children there if it wanted to.
These days the school is still widely respected but in a different field altogether. Now it is regarded an exemplar in the world of primary physical education. I picked up on this in my time there by the fact that a few of the staff were wearing tracksuits; all of the time. Now, I believe that as a youngster myself I would have found this slightly out of the ordinary and questionable. The reason being that staff on the days they were teaching P.E (which seemed to be most days) there simply wasn’t enough time to get changed, with all the demands on your time that the job entails. I believe however, that attire is important as it gives of certain messages, it reflects deeper structures. Call me old fashioned, but doesn’t a school master have a duty to dress smartly and like an educator, not like an athlete?
It’s a slippery slope if you ask me. Once our culture has been so utterly ravaged beyond all recognition all that’ll be left is sport and millions of baying screaming morons at the side-line.
Tom Wolfe doesn’t do things by half and there’s no doubting his dedication and success, to my mind, in capturing the vernacular of his young subjects, an aspect that some critics found unsatisfactory. Unfortunately the book is more infamous for it’s winning the Bad Sex Award in 2004. This in my view is not entirely undeserved, the excrutiating accounts of copulation are calculatedly cringe-worthy. And at times he lays in on a bit thick and you can’t get that voice out your head reminding you that this is a book about modern teenagers written by someone in the their seventies.
If I am Charlotte Simmons has one main flaw it is that that it is overly long at nearly seven hundred densely printed pages. I think this maybe Wolfe’s ‘up-yours’ to the contemporary convention of shorter novels. Having finally gotten through it myself I feel I have spent a whole semester at ‘Dupont’ University my self – and that is how it should be. Personally I like longer novels – it becomes more of a voyage, the joy of the novel is that it is long and involving process in way that a piece of cinema never can be for instance. Wolfe consciously adopts a literary style that predates cinema and television and I admire his commitment to this ideal. I think more people should read this book and that the popular press did us a disservice by so promptly dismissing it, bad sex and all.
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