I Am Charlotte Simmons is Tom Wolfe delving into college life. You’d think a 74-year old man would not be able to portray such an environment with any accuracy. Somehow the old reporter pulled it off. Being almost eight years out of college I’ll tell you that I Am Charlotte Simmons is pitch perfect. He got teenager’s cadence and obsessive use of “like” and “totally” down pat. Males’ need to constantly watch SportsCenter as well as their need to get drunk are also spot on.
With Wolfe’s pen sex becomes a character itself in this novel. If you’ve read his essay “Hooking Up” you understand Wolfe’s fascination with the total removal of romance from sex. Sex for the students in the book is about quenching their carnal thirst. Look “cool,” get drunk, find someone “hot,” have sex, lather, rinse, repeat.
A shallow reader would assume the author is just obsessed with sex. A deeper reading of the book would find something more profound. Wolfe’s theme in this novel is belonging. Characters are either trying to fit in, maintain their place in their group, or leaping up the social ladder.
The main character, Charlotte Simmons, comes from the hills of North Carolina. While in high school she only has one friend her age. She looks at the rest of her classmates as vulgar, stupid, lame people who will not move beyond the backwater of Sparta. She, Charlotte Simmons, is her class valedictorian with a 1600 SAT, and a full ride to the pinnacle of higher learning, Dupont University–think of it as Harvard but with really good sports teams. At Dupont Charlotte thinks she will live the “life of the mind.” There she thinks she will be able to comisserate with those like her. Reality slaps her in the face the day she moves in when her country folks go to dinner with her rich roomate’s parents. Class and status consciousness abound. The rungs of the social ladder are covered in spilled beer and used condoms.
Coed bathrooms, being “sexiled,” frat parties, all these the reader experiences through Charlotte’s naive eyes. While those around her are acting in ways in complete contrast to how her parents raised her Charlotte continues to take part. Her alternative is loneliness.
Charlotte has a desire to be cool. She wants others to see her hanging around cool people on campus. She likes showing off her legs sculpted from cross-country running. At a fraternity formal, she drunkenly laughs that one of the brothers is so vain. Ironically, all she has to do is look in the mirror to see someone else just as vain.
Charlotte’s desire to belong with the cool crowd gets her drunk and in bed with a fraternity brother named Hoyt. In the weeks Charlotte hung around Hoyt she thought his smile and the way he touched her meant there was actual love behind the frat boy’s lust. She gives up her virginity only to find she was nothing more than a conquest, an “accomplishment” to tell his fraternity brothers.
Charlotte forsook her mother’s morals. Her punishment was her loss of innocence and a crushing guilt. This takes her into a depression which causes her grades to plummet which creates a vicious cycle. Without her school newspaper reporter friend/Rhodes Scholar wannabe Adam holding her in the night in his apartment and scolding her to get to her finals Charlotte wouldn’t have passed anything. The tender, compassionate, accurate display of her depression was the most emotional, moving writing on the subject since Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.
I won’t give the ending away. I will tell you that on the surface it’s a happy ending. Charlotte may be more comfortable at Dupont, but her life is a far cry from the ideal she had at the beginning of the school year. Charlotte may have thought she wanted a “life of the mind,” but belonging won out.
Any accomplished novelist could set a story on a modern college campus. But when you read Tom Wolfe you expect more. The reporting as fiction (A.K.A. The New Journalism), the melding of high-level ideas like neuroscience and sociobiology, and the social satire place Wolfe a step above other novelists. But what makes Wolfe Wolfe is the zig-zag, BANG! ZAP! rat-tat-tat-tat style wordslinging. He is one of the few fiction writers who can rip off a paragraph that fills an entire page without the reader pausing. Sentences crackle, letters fly over you. Through it all Wolfe makes sure his novel doesn’t fall into a postmodern morass. The plot moves forward, and the characters remain living, breathing creatures.