Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Am Charlotte Simmons

I have a soft spot for books that go down easy. It's one thing to write literature. It's another thing to write a book that is, moment-to-moment, pleasurable to read.  And I Am Charlotte Simmons went down oh-so-smooth.

But let's not confuse pleasurable with pleasant: Tom Wolfe is never that. I am Charlotte Simmons is a rude, mildly-to-moderately misogynistic, 99.5% cynical indictment of the moral lassitude of today's college darlings, and it is a billion pages long to boot. Over the course of those pages Charlotte, the eponymous college freshman, arrives from the backwoods of Sparta, NC, to live the life of the mind at the famous Dupont University.

Once at Dupont, Charlotte, obsesses about her image, falls into and out of various social groups, and "gets the dust knocked off her" in the cruelest of ways at a fraternity formal. Charlotte is not particularly likeable, but it's still uncomfortable to watch her go through Wolfe's wringer and come out: not bowed or broken, but both.

It's a  jam-packed 600+ pages.  And yet, in the end, it's hard to intuit Wolfe's thesis. He makes some rhetorical stabs in the direction of "we are corrupted by our environment;" but if this was the thrust of the book, why not make Charlotte's pre-collegiate self more sympathetic? Pre-Dupont Charlotte, preoccupied by status and cool, doesn't seem so far-removed from the canny coed Charlotte becomes.

And for all its crudity- and that crudity is creative, voluminous, almost magical in its inventiveness- the book has a curiously puritanical underbelly. Charlotte sins, and she is punished.  As are her friends -punished- by themselves, by their compatriots, or through sheer authorial mischief. 

While the ax is getting around to falling, though, it's some party.

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