Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I Am Charlotte Simmons

Author: Tom Wolfe

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date of Publication: November 9, 2004
Pages: 688 (Hardcover Edition)

(Note: This review was previously published in The LamLight, the physician newsletter

Tom Wolfe’s voluminous (688 pages) I Am Charlotte Simmons has been criticized as just a bloated, sleazy “expose” of college campus life. It is the story of Charlotte Simmons, a genius from small town Sparta, North Carolina.  She graduates from her public high school as a hero because she has received a full academic scholarship to fictional Du Pont University, one of the most prestigious universities in the country.  The reader follows Charlotte as she arrives on the Du Pont campus in her father’s pick-up truck.  She is totally intimidated by the University and her wealthy and more socially sophisticated classmates.  The novel’s title is actually the mantra that her high school guidance counselor, anticipating adjustment problems, tells Charlotte to repeat when she becomes confused, depressed or discouraged. This young academic phenom, who felt guilty for weeks after crossing against one of her hometown’s three stoplights, is gradually exposed to drunken debauchery, academic fraud and sexual shenanigans worthy of the last days of the Roman Empire.  So what?  One critic has gone so far as to say “What’s so new about college students drinking a lot, partying too much and having sex?”  Mr. Wolfe became famous, in part, for lampooning modern culture and trends in previous works The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.  In this book he certainly holds nothing back exploring campus life, modern rap music, the hypocrisy of the “student-athlete”, grade inflation and grandiose, self-important college professors.  On the surface none of this seems like new territory.  Do we really need an “Animal House” for the new millennium?

Mr. Wolfe’s books are never exactly what they seem, however.  I’ll never forget one of my mentors in medical school telling me to read Mr. Wolfe's The Right Stuff, exclaiming “This is not a book about astronauts.  It’s a book about surgical residency!!  It’s a book about perseverance, what it takes to achieve a goal!”  So what is this book about?

            At first I thought I Am Charlotte Simmons was a book about power.  The author provides many examples of the power of money to corrupt.  Mr. Wolfe’s view of the national championship basketball program at DuPont defines this concept very well.  The power of privilege is exhibited by Charlotte’s roommate Beverly, a pampered boarding school product who flaunts her wealth and heritage at every opportunity.  Charlotte discovers sexual power as she slowly realizes that her natural beauty and refreshing naiveté attracts campus “celebrities”.  Charlotte’s fragility is betrayed by her inexperience when she becomes involved with a sexual predator who demonstrates a most negative power.  At the conclusion I realized that this is a book about identity.  It is about self-image.  It is about how we develop self-esteem and identity in the modern world, mainly through our perceptions of how others see us.  Charlotte’s character goes through chameleon like changes.  First, she sees herself as a country bumpkin in a world entirely too sophisticated for her, then as an intellectual, then as a sexual object worthy of attention, then as a failure and, finally, as a mentor, friend and “better half” of a seven foot academically challenged basketball player.  She defines herself by her own perception of how others view her.  She finds and then abandons friends depending on what “phase” she is in.  What is the scariest is that Charlotte defines her value entirely through others’ eyes.  This metamorphosis is foreshadowed early in the book when Charlotte debates her Neuroscience professor (a Nobel laureate, of course) on the theory of evolution and Darwin’s own concept of what causes change or adaptations in animals.

There is a scene in the movie “Elf” where the comically naïve Buddy Elf, a human raised by elves at the North Pole confronts a department store Santa by hissing “You sit on a throne of lies.”  Similarly, the characters in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” are all living lives of deception and illusion.  The underlying message from Mr. Wolfe for this decade may be that the constructs that we call our lives are really amalgams of our perceptions of how others, even perfect strangers, think of us.  These characters choose the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, even the classes they take, to conform to the “self” that they perceive others see.   There is no reality for these characters except through the eyes of others.  There is one unforgettable scene that underscores this theme.  Hoyt Thorpe, president of the most prestigious on-campus fraternity is exposed as a liar and cheat in the campus newspaper.  As he views the article which essentially ends his hopes for future employment and success he can’t get past the accompanying photo.  He assesses his attire and thinks to himself “How can any college man look this good?”

In a way, I Am Charlotte Simmons is also an indictment of my generation: the over 50 “Baby Boomers” who idealistically wanted to change the world in the 60s but settled into the “me decade” of the 70s and the greed and consumer cultures of the 80s and 90s.  This world of Dupont University in the 00s is a microcosm of the world we have fashioned and left behind: a world based on appearances, deceptions, photo-ops, sound bites, misperceptions and “looking out for #1”.  There is a memorable scene towards the end of the book which takes place in a professor’s office.  The professor is a balding, overweight and pompous history professor who is meeting with a student he has accused of plagiarism.  There are posters of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix on the walls of the office.   The professor waxes philosophic about how his generation “lost the fire” and abandoned its ideals, “selling out” to greed and consumerism.  Much to the consternation of the student involved, the professor chooses this occasion to stick to his principles and make an example of this one individual.

There is much to not like in I Am Charlotte Simmons.  The language is foul.  Every dialogue, it seems, is peppered with the F-word.  The sex scenes are worthy of a pornographic magazine.  The ending is unsatisfying.  The reader is unsure of whether he is seeing the final metamorphosis of Charlotte Simmons or that the author just got sick of writing about her and decided to end the story.  That said, I think that this is an important novel.  It makes the reader assess modern culture and what it says to our children who must somehow develop or evolve, if you will, into functioning, contributing adults.  Mr. Wolfe’s keen sense of humor and irony is on full display here as well.  His full page grammatical analysis of the many uses of the F-word (and later in the book, the S-word) is hilarious.  His eye for details and cunning use of setting are superb, as usual.  The Dylan poster behind the history professor is one example.  The stack of Beverly’s electronic equipment (lap-top, cell phone, MP-3 player, TV/DVD player, etc…) all connected via wires and surge protectors juxtaposed to Charlotte’s table lamp and alarm clock is another.

If you are a Tom Wolfe fan, you will probably enjoy this novel as I did.  If you need an introduction to this author, read The Right Stuff instead.

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