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Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I've read many bad books. The Sun Also Rises. Opal Mehta. The Rachel Papers. The Black Album. Shopaholic. The Scarlet Letter. There are legions, because nowadays anyone can get published. But nothing compares with I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Yes, I'm aware that I'm two years and eight billion bad reviews late, but I don't care. I've only just read this tome (738 pages of nothing--almost impressive) and now it's time to carp.

I Am Charlotte Simmons strives to do one of two things: a) accurately chronicle college life or b) viciously satirize college life. However, since his descriptions and characterizations are neither outrageous enough for satire nor authentic enough for truth, Wolfe fails in both objectives. The stock characters abound--the aging-hippie professor, the drunk frat boy jocks, the politically aware yet socially down-trodden nerds, the sorority beer sluts, the bullying anti-intellectual coach, and of course, the eponymous small-town virgin. The prose is just that: prosaic, with repeat-offender use of certain adjectives and nouns ('lubricious', 'loins', and 'lissome' among them...sheer alliterative agony). The devolution of the characters and the plot is unbelievable at best. All in all, the book reads as though no editor ever made its first draft bleed.

Maybe Wolfe really did visit numerous universities in his attempt to research the idiocy and glory of college students. Maybe he really did flee the cops at parties with frat boys. But reading I Am Charlotte Simmons makes this purported research a tad hard to believe. Do normal human beings not attend Duke and Cornell and every other elite prep school the novel is based on? Are the Ivies really just costlier versions of high school? I'm not decrying Wolfe's age; I don't think he's out of touch with what the kids are doing; I simply don't think that he's ever actually met a college student.

I attend college. Admittedly it's a state school, not a smarmy private institution, but it's college nonetheless, and while there are indeed the athletes who get free rides, the slutty drunk girls who never spend a night in their own room, and the pseudo-philosophical nerds, there are far, far more students who are nice and average and decent in every sense of the terms. I have never seen or heard of a so-called 'geek' getting beaten up or verbally abused for not playing lacrosse. None of the geeks I know would take that sort of crap, even off a vaunted athletic star, and most of the athletes I know have grown up a little since graduating high school. Furthermore, Wolfe's insinuation that the youth of today have no moral compass is purely insulting. I'm not talking moral in a religious sense, but in the sense of having personal integrity: what you will and will not do. Everyone has principles--everyone--and if you don't want to drink or smoke or have sex with every basketball player you can get your hands on, then by all means DON'T DO IT. No one can force you to, and that is why I find the character of Charlotte Simmons (not to mention her roommate, and numerous love interests, and every other character in the novel) so implausible: they apparently can't think for themselves.

Call me an idealist, but I refuse to believe that of students. We are not a cliched mass of lemmings, hurtling off every social cliff because the girl with the Gucci stilettoes says it's cool. Is it so hard to fathom college students who have their act together? Wolfe writes disparagingly of Charlotte's act of 'moral suicide', yet he never allowed her to have morals in the first place, only knee-jerk reactions born of her upbringing. So what does he have to be disappointed about?
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