Formal Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

From time to time I write formal book reviews on works I particularly like. Previous formal book reviews have been on affirmative action, national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, atheism, and the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace. This review is on I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, an entertaining and thoroughly researched take on a bright, rural, innocent college freshman adapting to campus life. Thanks to Jesse Berrett for reading a draft of this.

It is painful to read about a bright young mind destroyed by violence, insane parents, or any other of society’s corruptive influences. We try hard to identify gifted youth and steer them toward pure brands of life which can incite their intellect to invent and change and publish without distraction. We have magnate schools, MacArthur Fellowships, centers for gifted children. Anything that staves off vices which make the gifted regress to simply average out of pure self-consciousness. Many would place America’s top-notch universities in the same boat: beautiful, ensconced campuses attracting the brightest minds from all over the world, devoted to the joint pursuit of ideas. This vision, Tom Wolfe shows in his newest novel, is grossly inaccurate.

His protagonist Charlotte Simmons is a brilliant high school student. She wins all the academic awards, delivers the valedictorian address, and is repeatedly told that she will shape the future we all live in. Moreover, she’s drop dead gorgeous. Charlotte, though, is not an east-coast boarding school student. Her lower-class family hails from a small town in North Carolina where the Southern accent rides high and cursing / drinking / sex are absent from an adolescent’s reality. Money is tight, clothes and make-up sparse. Charlotte is, in short, the sole pride of this small mountain town, and so receives a full scholarship to attend among the most prestigious universities in the land: Dupont. Some say Wolfe modeled Dupont on Duke University, which is probably an accurate guess, as Charlotte also considered Yale and Harvard. Dupont attracts the smartest and richest students, which means mostly white, attractive, upper-class students who studied at elite private high schools. When Charlotte arrives at Dupont for real academic challenges and "the life of the mind" as she puts it, she instead finds a stuck-up roommate, co-ed bathrooms, and endless alcohol and casual sex. The culture shock is overwhelming for Charlotte. Not just the blatant displays of wealth and SAT-tutored perfect white kids, but the anti-intellectual current that runs contrary to the brand name "Dupont". Sex, kegs, and jocks trump academic achievement at every turn.

Innocent Charlotte grapples with the competing tugs of mind and body: her quest for serious intellectual pursuit and her stated commitment not to drink or have sex, on the one hand, and her hormonal urge to do just that, on the other. This tension drives the narrative, as we see Charlotte creep, and creep, and creep. It starts with going to a frat party. Then a frat party where she sips a drink. Then a frat party where she sips a drink and dances with a basketball player who seeks out "fresh meat". Then a frat party where she sips a drink and dances with a guy and follows the guy to a room, only to then realize a room in a frat house with drunk college students means a room for sex. "I want some ass! I need some ass! Anybody know where’s some ass?" one man yells at the party. As she progresses up – or down? – the ladder, I’m torn. I don’t want her to become as dirtied as the alcoholic jocks or materialistic bitches (and "bitches" is truly the most accurate term for these designer outfit girls who live in her dorm), but I also don’t want her to sit in her dorm room all day in miserable isolation.

Charlotte’s good looks, brains, and virgin-status overwhelm the jock social stars. She accepts an invitation to go to the winter formal in Washington D.C. with the most popular senior basketball player on campus. Like in all her social activity, she does so with deep reservations, but a quiet sense of curiosity and secret urge for physical closeness precludes her from declining altogether. With her willpower eroded from the immense peer pressure to drink before the dance, Charlotte gets trashed the night of the formal. Again, depending on how you look at it, her drunkenness is either the nadir of her existence at Dupont – a prodigy converted to a wasted slut – or a sign that she’s finally broken out of her mountain-time shell and learned how to have fun and "live a little". That night, her date, Hoyt, brings her back to the hotel room and they have sex. In the throes of action Charlotte only said, "I’m not sure about this." Hoyt goes ahead anyway and once finished ignores Charlotte for the rest of the night and rest of the year. He got what he wanted. The de-virginizing of Charlotte represents the climax of the night and of the novel. She is scarred for months, enters a deep depression, and her formerly stellar grades tank.

Charlotte’s negotiation with all-hedonism, all-the-time college life is gripping and we get anxious when we leave her for too long, but there are several side plots which are equally demonstrative of Wolfe’s solid grasp of his setting.

The dominance of athletics is the primary one, a force which invades Dupont like it invades many other universities (Duke lacrosse, anyone?). The jocks are under qualified, secluded, and shepherded through special classes, but still manage to run the social life. The basketball coach demands nearly a full time commitment to the team and dissuades players from taking any class from a professor not cleared by the athletic department as being easy on athletes. At Charlotte’s encouragement, basketball player Jojo decides he’s suffocated genuine intellectual interests long enough and signs up for a philosophy class. He is sharply reprimanded by his coach who makes a mockery of him in front of the team ("Fucking idiot! A moron! An imbecile! You simpleminded shit! Socrates!" the coach says). Screwing prostitutes, on the other hand, is more in tune. Their games are broadcast on ESPN, so when the players go on road trips women show up at their hotel room unsolicited. The coaches endorse the surprise sex as de-stressing. Elsewhere on campus, a professor not cleared by the athletic department reviews a paper submitted by a basketball player and deems it plagiarism. And of course it was. A basketball "tutor" – a smart nerd named Adam – was asked to write the player’s entire 10 page paper.

Despite the professor’s commitment to make an example out of the plagiarism case – about an athletic department gone too far, about university life here and elsewhere being hijacked by greed and alcohol and sex – he runs into staunch opposition….From the President of the University! The President involves himself in the case to protect the basketball team, a shocking but realistic portrayal of the influence athletes and their sponsors command on campuses. Wolfe misses an opportunity here to provide the more complicated explanation – beyond, say, the President’s desire for high quality sports teams – for why Dupont and others must kiss the asses of athletes. Indeed, it would have provided good fodder for Wolfe’s effort to de-romanticize higher education in America: universities are corporations which need revenue to balance expenses. And jocks, no matter how inept in the classroom, often earn more money in the real world than their nerdy counterparts, and therefore give more to their alma mater i n appreciation for all those keg parties. Also, when sports team do well, alumni donations go up. Mr. Quat, the professor battling for discipline measures against the plagiarist, notes the "corruption of the scholarly ideal" and worries that he may be alone in pursuing the "mission of a university." But the Mr. Quats forget that the mission of a university has evolved – as it must – to a 21st century reality, where prestigious colleges are luxury brands whose primary constituents are far away from the undergraduate, where students’ drive come less from within and more from external factors, where pornography’s easy availability is creating a new sexual revolution but of a darker, more private kind disgustingly unfavorable to those uninitiated in MTV and strip clubs and house parties.

The one redeeming quality I see in Charlotte attending a place like Dupont is her developing new kinds of social skills. Exceptionally smart people probably need to learn how to interact with less gifted. Dupont exposes Charlotte to a broader range of beliefs and psychological quirks which will doubtless help her in the future. I’m not sure, though, whether this plus makes up for the sheer misery she endures her first year at Dupont. Wolfe is making a smart point here: Charlotte chose Dupont because it’s the most prestigious. But real choice exists and "fit," as so many college counselors will tell you, is important. If you don’t want to see the rift-raft of athletes and stuck-up preppiness, all-star students should go to Swarthmore or Sarah Lawrence, not Amherst, or the University of Chicago, not Princeton. Some schools have a reputation for harboring adventurous minds while shielding them from the polluted seas of alcohol and fuck-buddies. What "fit" really means is "fitting in" – being who you are without being sniggered at. For parents, this trade-off is appalling. Why should one’s college decision be premised on where the student can fit in and why should that fit live on extremes (fanatically academic or athlete-driven)? Why can’t a student choose a college based on the climate, departmental strengths, quality of the living quarters? Those criteria are fine, if you accept the probably antiquated notion that in a large university like Dupont everyone can find their own niche, their own friends, and live a happy, undisturbed life for four years. Instead, Wolfe nicely captures how hierarchical campus life is. Even nerds who vow never to attend a frat party only last so long. In the end, it’s a small world, and peer pressure wins.

When you’re finished with the book, a central question is the state of Charlotte Simmons in the last few pages. It’s March Madness and Charlotte is sitting in the stands at a basketball game cheering along her boyfriend and star player Jojo. She has emerged successfully from her depression, regained some self-confidence, and re-focused on academics. She helped her friend Adam emerge from his own depression and even motivated her jock boyfriend to embrace academic life. Charlotte may be happy, but Wolfe doesn’t make it that simple. At the basketball game one of Charlotte’s early champions – a neuroscience professor – gives only an unfriendly nod to his student now ensconced in normal university life, his student who managed to get a C- in his class — a grade nearly unthinkable for her at the start of the year. Charlotte doesn’t let this shake her up. She just focuses on the game: "Ohmygod…She clicked on the appropriate face just like that. Since the crowd had now launched into rhythmic clapping to the one beat cadence of Go go Jojo, Charlotte figured she had better join in, too."

Ah, finally, Charlotte learns how to fit in, how to join in, and be happy. Ohmygod, this is so awesome!! Finally, Charlotte can sit back and bask in the glory of her exploits: a popular, famous basketball player. The novel ends here. We’ll never know what lasting effect Dupont has on Charlotte, whether she can ever regain the unwavering passion for intellectual life she carried before entering university. No one knows, really. No one knows how many people have quite understandably tried and failed to live up to the wise words, "It’s no measure of health being well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

How disturbed all this makes you feel depends on how realistic you think Wolfe is being, and whether Charlotte and college life is a microcosm for contemporary culture. I believe in this novel Wolfe follows in his realist tradition, constructing a character that’s not an abstract synthetic of all of culture’s woes, but rather the accumulated reportage of real college life. It coheres into an impressive portrait that’s entertaining and exhausting. But let’s not overstate Wolfe’s aims. College life is a fascinating time in someone’s life. It deserves to be scrutinized. Yet it’s not life. It’s not America. It’s its own beast increasingly disconnected from the real world. And I trust girls as smart as Charlotte Simmons will figure this out, grab their degrees, and be the first to walk off the campus after graduation.

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