Two unrelated items from The New York Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2004, direct our attention to crises in American higher education. The first, which appears on page A16 of the national section, is grim. Entitled “Drinking Deaths Draw Attention to Old Campus Problem,” it is a report on the deaths of two teenaged undergraduates at American universities. One, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Colorado State University, died of alcohol poisoning “after an evening out with friends in which she drank the equivalent of 30 to 40 beers and shots”; the other, an eighteen-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado, died after a night spent “chugging whiskey and wine as part of an initiation ceremony with his fraternity brothers.” Such deaths, as the article makes clear, are not all that exceptional: according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,400 college students between eighteen and twenty-four die each year as the result of excessive drinking.
The campus culture of binge drinking is, as the Times article goes on to suggest, intimately connected to two institutions deeply rooted in American campus life: fraternities and athletics. It’s no accident that some universities, faced with the problem of excessive drinking among undergraduates, have banned the sale of alcohol at both fraternity houses and football games. You’re somehow not surprised to learn that in Boulder, the town’s largest liquor store is owned by the University of Colorado’s athletic director.
The second item, which appears on page E10 of the Arts section, is a boldly cheery, rather eye-popping full-page advertisement. It is an advertisement for a new novel. On the left-hand side of the ad there is an image of the mauve and yellow cover of the novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons; just below is a schedule of the author’s US tour appearances. On the right is the familiar figure of the journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe; he is standing in one of his white suits and looking into the camera with an expression—half frown, half grin—that suggests both resolution and bemusement, as if to say, simultaneously, “I did it!” and “What am I doing here?” The explanation of this expression is to be found in the upper-left-hand corner of the ad: “Look who’s getting into college.”
This line is meant to convey the information that Wolfe, who from the beginning of his career, first as a reporter and later as a novelist, has been an acute and extremely popular satirist of the pretensions of whatever scene he chooses to focus on—hippiedom (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), self-congratulatory liberalism (Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, 1970), the art world (The Painted Word, 1975), the architecture world (From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981), the space program (The Right Stuff, 1979), the Eighties (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987)—has now found another victim. As it happens, the college that Wolfe has gotten into is, in many respects, a place identical to the one described in the article from the national section.
That place—a fictional Pennsylvania university called Dupont, a Duke look-alike that smolders resentfully just behind Princeton on US News & World Report’s annual ranking of colleges—is, in many ways, not so different from the teeming terrains that this novelist has explored in such great detail before. In his two previous novels, Wolfe has amused himself by orchestrating his vast, arching plots and metastasizing subplots in ways that cause his favorite themes—race and racism, athletics and masculinity, money and social pretentiousness, political corruption, the South—to explode with a dazzle that illuminates the entire American landscape. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, a car accident involving a Park Avenue investment banker and a black youth from the Bronx projects sets in motion a series of events that ultimately show the otherwise hidden links between the worlds of money, politics, the media, society, race, and class in 1980s New York City. In A Man in Full (1998), an accusation of date rape—the victim a white debutante, the accused a black football star at Georgia Tech—functions similarly as a prism through which are filtered similarly glaring social issues.
I Am Charlotte Simmons also sets out to treat those familiar themes. The novel has, essentially, the form of a Bildungsroman, the Bildung in this case being that of the eponymous heroine, a brilliant eighteen-year-old country girl who, after graduating as valedictorian of her high school in tiny Sparta, North Carolina (population nine hundred), goes on a full scholarship to prestigious Dupont. Charlotte, an unpopular girl who prefers books to boys, has been remarkably sheltered, and it is through her unnaturally innocent eyes that Wolfe intends his reader to perceive the rot at the core of American privilege. (Just in case you don’t guess that this is what Charlotte is there for, Wolfe tells you. “It’s like you came here with clear eyes,” someone says to her admiringly, “and you see things exactly as they are.”)
The rot is symbolized by the exceedingly unappealing students with whom Wolfe stocks his fictional university. Charlotte’s roommate, Beverly Amory—she and her family are obviously intended as vehicles for the author’s send-up of upper-class snobbery—is an anorexic nymphomaniac, the daughter of the CEO of something called the “Cotton Mather Insurance Company” in Boston. (Mr. Amory flies his little girl to her first day of school in his private plane, while Charlotte’s “Momma and Daddy” drive ten hours and back on the same day in order to save the cost of a motel room.) Beverly, who ceaselessly ridicules Charlotte’s countrified ways—and her virginity—is obsessed with “hooking up.” The targets of her lust are the Abercrombie & Fitch–clad fraternity boys who spend their days drinking and watching ESPN, waiting to assume their identities as investment bankers upon graduating. The clean-cut looks of such young men, as pretty much everybody but the preternaturally innocent Charlotte understands, belie a ruthless, even grotesque misogyny. Among other things, they refer to girls as “cumdumps.”
Lording it over everyone are the empty-headed, narcissistic, muscle-bound athletes. These jocks, the campus gods, routinely cheat and plagiarize, confident of the protection of a university administration that is hell-bent on using winning teams as a means of inspiring alumni donations. Again, in case you missed the point, the author has the clear-eyed Charlotte tell you: “You wouldn’t believe how important sports are here,” she writes to her parents.
Inevitably, Charlotte is faced with a moral dilemma during her first semester at college, one that pits the values of those good, plain parents with those of the larger world which she’s encountering for the first time. As the semester wears on, she becomes increasingly torn between her intellectual ambitions (and financial realities: her scholarship depends on her attaining excellent grades) and the pleasures represented by boys—pleasures which, apparently despite her “absolutely clear, open, guileless beauty,” she has never before known, but with which she will become only too well acquainted, given that the only activities that the snotty, cruel students of Wolfe’s fictional university seem to engage in are drinking and fornicating. At first, Charlotte is revolted by the latter: soon after her arrival at Dupont, she goes to a dance and is disgusted at the sight of “all these people rubbing…their genitals together!” But eventually, she comes around.
Like the mythological Paris, Charlotte is presented by her creator with three potential champions, each clearly representing a different stratum of the university’s riven culture. Each one, too, represents a different kind of man; for all that the novel is named after its heroine, this book, like Wolfe’s other fiction (and nonfiction: The Real Thing, for instance), is preoccupied to the point of obsession with masculinity. There is the stud Hoyt Thorpe, a dead ringer for Cary Grant, a suave fraternity boy whose interest in Charlotte has more to do with her rare virginity than with her intelligence or personality. There is Jojo Johanssen, the six-foot-ten starting forward on the university’s nationally ranked basketball team, who is something of a rarity himself. (He’s the only white boy among the team’s bona fide stars, and this allows Wolfe to work the race angle amusingly: “I’m sick of the whole black player thing… If two players have equal ability and one’s black and the other’s white—they just assume the black player’s better…. It’s gotten to the point where it’s a fucking prejudice, if you ask me.”)
Finally, there is the nerdy scholar Adam Gellin, a “Jew without money,” as he thinks of himself, who has secret ambitions to be at the center of a “cenacle” of young intellectuals whose ideas will be the “matrices” of important cultural trends yet to be imagined. Hoyt, puffed up with insights he’s gleaned in his medieval history course, declares one day that all men were once divided into three groups—priests, warriors, and slaves—and it’s clear that the three choices offered to Charlotte are meant to reflect these classes in their Dupont reincarnations.
Sex and alcohol, inevitably, are the sparks that cause this sociocultural tinderbox to ignite in Wolfian fashion. In a prefatory chapter, Hoyt and a fraternity buddy, wildly drunk, come across a distinguished alumnus—the Republican governor of California, destined to be his party’s presidential candidate in the next election—being fellated in a bosky grove by a comely undergraduate female. In this novel as elsewhere, Wolfe is more interested in society—in the dynamics of status—than in politics tout court, and when this information is finally wielded, hundreds of pages later and in predictably damaging ways, the motives have less to do with party allegiances (pretty much all the students at Dupont are too busy rutting to care about politics) than with simmering class resentments. For the information falls into the hands of Adam, who may be a lowly intellectual but also happens to be a reporter for the countercultural student paper, the Wave. By the time the novel is ready for a climax, the tousle-haired, disheveled young man has plenty of reasons to resent both Hoyt, who has sexually “dissed” the girl Adam loves, and Jojo, whom Adam has been hired to tutor (i. e., write his papers for him), and who fatefully “disses” Adam himself one night in a thoughtless display of what Wolfe, who famously loves to wield up-to-the-minute jargon, describes as “alpha-male” behavior.
The ultimate triumph of the “beta males” over the “alpha males”—of, you can’t help thinking, Tom Wolfe over the jocks and studs of the world—is pointedly contrasted with Charlotte’s disintegration. In the end, she is no match for the powerful forces she must contend with—which is to say both libido and, to a lesser extent, class. In the novel’s closing pages, the once-prudish star scholar has been reduced by her own craving for “acceptance” to being arm-candy for a famous college jock, recognized only as his groupie-girlfriend rather than the budding neuroscientist she was only months before. (The novel’s title derives from the phrase she keeps muttering to herself, with ever-decreasing effectiveness, as a reminder of who she really is, and all that she can be.) However up-to-the-minute I Am Charlotte Simmons pretends to be—much has been made of the author’s deep research into the speech and habits of today’s college students—at its center there beats the heart of a nineteenth-century novel, or perhaps opera. It is a text about a fallen woman.
Thinking about nineteenth-century novels leads you to understand the reasons why I Am Charlotte Simmons fails. For a failure it is: bloated, schematic, heavy-handed, and, it must be said, boring; impotent in its attempts to suggest a lived reality—life on American university campuses at the turn of the millennium, the life so shockingly alluded to in the Times article—and, oddest of all, flaccid as social satire.
Which is to say, it fails precisely to be what Wolfe himself has said the novel today must be. In 1989, presumably high on the huge success of The Bonfire of the Vanities—a novel that, for all its girth, zipped along amusingly and aimed its satirical barbs unerringly—the author wrote an intentionally controversial essay for Har-per’s in which he called upon American novelists to abandon solipsistic psychological navel-gazing and engage the great world in the manner of the great writers of the nineteenth century: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Zola. The Zola of the Rougon-Macquart novels, in particular, seems to have been a model for what Wolfe himself wanted to achieve in his own densely detailed, almost documentary realism—a style, he wrote, that “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” His own previous novels, thick with minute descriptions of the accoutrements of late-twentieth-century life—weight-training routines, police and courtroom procedures, the design of college locker rooms, Fifth Avenue soirees and the clothes, hair, and makeup you’re likely to see at them, frenzied Wall Street trading rooms and discreet Wall Street law offices, the chaotic semiprivate cubicles in which magazine writers work—bore witness to his belief in his own program.
In Wolfe’s best work, as in many of his nineteenth-century models, the lavish, meticulously researched details served the purposes of a very literary agenda, one notoriously difficult to bring off: social satire. Wolfe’s impulse has always been satirical: when he shifted from journalism to fiction in the 1980s, he wasn’t changing course so much as switching to a bigger vessel. The deadly journalistic eye that zeroed in on the details guaranteed to make Leonard Bernstein’s 1970 cocktail party for the Black Panthers fodder for amusement in Radical Chic (“She is wearing the simplest little black frock imaginable, with absolutely no ornamentation save for a plain gold necklace. It is perfect. It has dignity without any overt class symbolism”) was the same eye that described, in savagely clinical detail, the pretensions of the “informal” $1,800 centerpieces at a Park Avenue dinner party in The Bonfire of the Vanities. What makes such passages work is the way in which the details become the vehicle for something more vital: the outrage that burns in the heart of every satirist. The key is not to let the emotion show. The great satirist—and in those earlier works Wolfe is at least a gifted and sharp one—never shows outrage, only contempt.
In I Am Charlotte Simmons there is plenty of detail, but it doesn’t have the old ring of authenticity. It’s not hard to figure out why. Before the acknowledgments page, Wolfe has included a thank-you to his children—“My Two Collegians”—in which he recounts how he’d given them the manuscript of his book in order to “vet it for undergraduate vocabulary”:
I learned that using the oath Jesus Christ establishes the speaker as, among other things, middle-aged or older. So does the word fabulous, as in “That’s fabulous!” Today the word is awesome. So does jerk, as in “Whatta jerk!” It has been totally replaced by a quaint anatomical metaphor. Students who load up conversations with likes and totallys, as in “like totally awesome,” are almost always females. The totallys now give off such whiffs of parody, they are fading away, even as I write. All that was quite in addition to the many times you rescued me when I got in over my head trying to use current slang.
The problem is that so much of what you get in I Am Charlotte Simmons feels “learned”: Wolfe’s encomium of his children’s input has the unfortunate side effect of reminding the reader that the novel that follows will, in fact, be a satire of a world in which the author is not really at home. All too clearly an outsider to the sex- and beer-crazed youth culture he so fervently indicts, Wolfe writes like someone who’s studied a language diligently but isn’t quite fluent: over and over again, there are bizarre slips in tone and emphasis.
He is, among other things, never quite sure which of the terms he’s studied need explaining and which don’t, and the wearying result is that he feels compelled to explain everything. Who, exactly, has to be told that (for example) ours is an age in which young men go to gyms because being well-muscled is now fashionable? Or, for that matter, told what StairMasters are? Or what Trekkies are (“after the old sci-fi TV series”)? Or an “everything bagel”? And then there are the lengthy explications of the various slang uses of obscenities (“Fuck Patois” and “Shit Patois”), unnecessary for anyone who’s been to a popular movie in the past ten years. Designed to demonstrate his mastery of the subculture he’s targeted, these passages, filled with information that Wolfe has boned up on, merely demonstrate how shaky the author’s grasp of his material, and his audience, is.
This reminder that Wolfe is approaching the object of his satirical energies not as an intimate but as a foreigner leads to a much larger problem. In 2000, the author wrote an essay called “Hooking Up,” in which he denounced the “feverish emphasis” on sex in American culture, and it’s clear, as you slog through the many repeated, and repetitive, descriptions of the sex lives and drinking habits and foul-mouthed orations of the jocks and studs at Dupont, that his new novel is meant to be a bitter comment on that sorry preoccupation. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Wolfe declared that “I personally would be shocked out of my pants if I was at college now,” and went on to say that for him, the book is about
sex as it interacts with social status. And I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if anyone gets the least bit excited. So much of modern sex is un-erotic, if erotic means flight of fancy or romantic build-up. Sex now is so easy to consummate—it is a pressure that affects everybody, girls more than boys, I think.
“Shocked” goes to the heart of the book’s fatal weakness. While the sex is perhaps unerotic—although it must be said that the seven solid pages devoted to the humid mechanics of Charlotte’s defloration abound in the kind of detail I haven’t seen since my surreptitious perusals of the “Forum” section of Penthouse during my own undergraduate days—there is a suspiciously large quantity of it, far more than the surgical needs of good satire require. The extended passages, clotted with the new lingo Wolfe has learned, in which he describes the sumptuous musculature of Dupont’s athletes and, far more often, the ripe bodies of its female students, with their jeans riding low on their hips the better to glimpse their “winking navels” (a favorite locution), suggest that Wolfe—like, in all fairness, many an aging parent—still hasn’t gotten over his shock at the sexual freedom enjoyed by today’s undergraduates…and not enjoyed, you suspect, by undergraduates of Wolfe’s vintage. Like the nerdy virginal Adam, the author can’t stop trying to visualize
how many of Dupont’s 6,200 students were rutting away at it at this very moment, visualize in the sense of being able to see through walls and spot the two-backed beasts herkyjerky humping bangbangbang…up there, in that bedroom in Lapham—there, in that room in Carruthers—up there, on the floor of that empty seminar room in Giles—over there, in the euonymous shrubbery because, bursting with lust, they couldn’t make it all the way back to a bedroom—and there, up against a locked rear door on the other side of the tower, because doing it where they might get caught gave it a fetishistic kick they couldn’t resist….
To be horrified by all that rutting is a legitimate enough position. But the intensity of Wolfe’s upset undercuts his satire; he’s gotten so worked up about sex and drink and four-letter words that passages such as the one I’ve just quoted overwhelm the novel, eroding the tenuous plot lines (the sex scandal, the cheating scandal) that are meant to weave the larger social satire together. By the time the randy governor gets his comeuppance, the episode in question has virtually slipped your mind. And so the overall impression here is less of supercilious detachment than of a kind of prurient envy masquerading as outrage. I Am Charlotte Simmons is the first book Wolfe has written in which he loses his cool.
To this failure of tone, this failure of satirical cool, must be added notable structural and formal failures. Unlike Wolfe’s other novels, in which he expertly balances his plots and subplots, this one feels clankingly schematic. There are those explications of the characters’ narrative functions; and, too, obvious “signposts” along the way to mark, say, Charlotte’s moral decline—she buys some designer jeans; she lies to get into a bar; she misses a class.
There are other problems. For this morality tale to shock, as Wolfe clearly intends it to do, we must see everything through Charlotte’s innocent eyes; and yet, in order to be at Dupont in the first place as an impoverished scholarship student, she also needs to be unusually brilliant. But how, you keep asking yourself, can anybody so allegedly brilliant be so clueless? Charlotte has 1600 SATs, but seems never to have watched TV or seen a popular movie: she doesn’t know what “giving head” or “doing lines” of cocaine is, and admits to never having laid eyes on an issue of Mademoiselle. (Forget about pop culture: anybody who claims to have read Zola in French, and who remains so ignorant of sex, clearly needs to study her Petit Larousse harder.) The tension between who Charlotte needs to be, for the purposes of Wolfe’s story, and who she probably would be is too great to bear, and it cracks the novel into pieces.
So Charlotte is wholly unpersuasive—not so strange, given that Wolfe has never shown interest in his female characters. But then, very little about Dupont persuades. As someone who has been both a student and a professor at an elite institution that is one of the models for Dupont, I find that Wolfe’s picture of university life is woefully incomplete; his outrage—or preoccupation—has given him a lopsided view of what life on such campuses is like. Which is to say that his book fails the other test to which we submit good satire, which is that it must represent its social milieu accurately enough for the satire to stick—and to sting.
I have no doubt that college students—elite or otherwise—think constantly of sex, and have it almost as often; are obsessed with being “cool,” and, because they are insecure, can be terrible snobs; and, as the result of their obsessions and insecurities, suffer downfalls that make them skip their classes, lie to their professors, and do slack work. They can certainly be revoltingly foul-mouthed. (And in this are they so different from grownups?) Nor do I doubt that college athletes enjoy tremendous privileges and indulgences that often debase the “scholar-athlete” ideal. And I can testify that alcohol is a major problem on campuses.
What I do very seriously doubt is that the sex, and the obscenities, and the snobbery, and the drinking (and the drugs), and the special treatment are central to the whole picture. Here again Wolfe wants to have his cake and eat it too: Dupont is allegedly elite, but it’s hard to see why. In the seven hundred pages of Wolfe’s novel, you never encounter a student (apart from Charlotte, at least at the beginning) who betrays intellectual motivation or curiosity; you never see students showing genuine respect to their professors (or to each other); you are never shown students deeply involved in and committed to campus life or religion or social activities or charities or politics (other than to promote broadly caricatured “PC” agendas); are never shown “school spirit” in anything but the most cynical light. In other words, you never get to meet typical students at elite universities—young people who, for all that they are prey to their hormones and insecurities, move their teachers precisely because they have so clearly come to college in the belief that it will be a transforming experience.
That no such students exist at Wolfe’s fictional university is partly, I suspect, because his very real outrage, and perhaps other, more obscure emotions, have blinded him to their existence. But it is also because their existence would spoil the validity of a pet theory that he is hell-bent on proving. He puts this theory in the mouth of a fictional Nobel laureate in biology who, we learn in a prefatory note, demonstrated that “a strong social or ‘cultural’ atmosphere…could in time overwhelm the…responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals.” This is the proposition that the subsequent hundreds of pages—that is, the story of pure and innocent Charlotte’s gradual moral collapse under the influence of the culture of jocks, sex, and snottiness—are meant to “prove.” But a fictional proof of a fictional theory is an empty exercise. And in any event, even in the fiction, the sample is unrepresentative, and the experimenter, to put it mildly, biased.
In this respect, at least, I Am Charlotte Simmons bears a striking resemblance to a bona fide collegiate experience. A Comp Lit professor I know likes to tell the story of the student who, asked to write about a certain great nineteenth-century novel about a fallen woman, handed in a term paper that began, “Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a great novel because it reminds me of when I broke up with my boyfriend in prep school….” Time and time again, students will get worked up over some wildly tendentious paper topic from which they cannot be dissuaded; because it has more to do with their own adolescent preoccupations than with the subject of the course, the result tends, alas, to consist of pages and pages of what Tom Wolfe likes to refer to as “a common tauro-scatalogical epithet.”
December 16, 2004