April 23, 2007 | I started Tom Wolfe's 2004 novel I am Charlotte Simmons with no thought of this site or its themes. I read it on the recommendation of a friend who described the author of Bonfire of the Vanities in glowing terms: the social observer who, every ten years, produces the novel that defines that decade. This one, he said vaguely, was about one's college years.

But -- perhaps inevitably for a novel of modern college life -- I am Charlotte Simmons could almost have been written for this website. And what keen and accurate observation it is! In addition to visiting college campuses and fraternity parties more or less undercover for research, Wolfe acknowledges in the foreword the help of his "two collegiate" children in getting the language right. Indeed the vocabulary of his characters -- sexiled, i-banking, walk of shame -- is so much that of a modern Ivy League student one wonders if Wolfe (born 1931) could be any more in touch were he a college student today.

The novel follows the brilliant but unworldly title character as she begins her life at the fictional Ivy League school of Dupont. The culture clash is immediate as Charlotte makes the transition from a small-town, traditional home in the North Carolina mountains to the in-your-face modernity and vulgarity of Dupont's Pennsylvania campus. But this is much more than a fish-out-of-water social satire. The reader does not sympathize with Charlotte merely as an underdog unable to assimilate in a new environment: the analysis of her predicament is openly moralizing, and the moral failings are in those she encounters.

These intertwining cultural and ethical themes are powerfully introduced from the moment of Charlotte's arrival at Dupont. Wolfe ensures the reader feels her embarrassment as her penniless, uncultured parents, invited to dine by the wealthy parents of her new college roommate Beverly, take the party to a fast food restaurant. To their disgust, her tattooed father excitedly fulminates about the cheap, greasy food and huge portions to the CEO and his wife, while showcasing his un-PC views on outsourcing to Mexico. But in some of the ways that matter most, Charlotte's parents are plainly better people than the parents of her roommate. While socially superior, Beverly's parents are passive before their daughter's foul mouth and obvious bulimia, and - we soon learn - have been utter failures at instilling in her the ability to say "No' (if they ever tried).

Most immediately offensive to Charlotte's modesty is the co-ed bathroom she discovers on the first night. The graphic passage where she first meets it serves as a powerful if vulgar demonstration of what such trendy ideas can mean when put into practice: One wonders how much some who support the notion of co-ed bathrooms might re-think their stance after experiencing one vicariously through Wolfe's accurate prose.

Charlotte flees the bathroom in horror, but comes to find this self-satisfied indecency an inescapable part of Dupont's culture. I found particularly biting one of the book's softer passages, with Charlotte trying to study as Beverly socializes brainlessly in their room.

They chattered away. Charlotte tried to tune out, but she heard Erica saying, "That's not Sarc Three, Bev, that's only Sarc Two. I mean, it's almost as obvious as Sarc One. I can't believe they let you out of Groton without passing Sarc. Sarc One is when I look at you, and I say, "Ohmy-god, a cerise shirt. Cerise is such an in color this year.' That's just ordinary intentionally obvious sarcasm. Okay?"

On and on, for all in earshot, Beverly's friend drones, elucidating the layers of complexity:

"in Sarc Two you say the same thing, only in a sympathetic voice that sounds totally sincere. "Oh, wow, Bev, I love that color. Cerise. That's like so-o-o-o cool."

While obnoxious to anyone uninvolved, this worthless conversation is for those who are part of it proof of their wit and genius, and they are determined everyone hear it. I couldn't count the number of times I've been in earshot of college-aged chatter matching that description.

Wolfe explores whether Charlotte can retain the values and instincts she grew up with through 700+ pages of an alternative as insidious as it is all-encompassing. The profundity of her struggle is captured in a plot that never strays into the implausible -- indeed, whose power is in its realism. Like Charlotte, I have sat in a car as rap music came on the radio and heard fellow passengers lovingly burst into vicious, hate-filled lyrics, as if it were the most natural, unobjectionable thing in the world. Yes, if "playas" -- not sociopaths but average college guys -- find the poor girl they "hook-up" with to be a virgin, some really will glory in showing the blood-stained bed to friends after deflowering her. When realistic enough, fiction can horrify without any need for axe-murderers.

In a prelude to the main story, Wolfe quotes a supposed Dictionary of Nobel Laureates describing an experiment on cats' brains that turned them into frenzied nymphomaniacs (if such a term can be applied to felines). What earned the experimenter a Nobel Prize was what he discovered upon the accidental release from its cage of a cat from the control group into the crowd of the unhinged: this cat acted just like the crowd it joined. Despite never being operated on, the cats in the control group had been observing for weeks the frenzied promiscuity of the others, and this was all it took for them to act accordingly. All of the story that follows serves as the vehicle for Wolfe's exploration of the idea that people are scarcely less susceptible to such persuasion.

It may be that as a message,  I am Charlotte Simmons is no more than the sum of its parts -- an anthology of accounts of modern college life sympathetic to the pro-modesty point of view. But I don't think it is. Read in full, Wolfe's novel gets across, perhaps better than any oratory or polemic could, the degree to which modesty, chastity and consideration cannot really coexist with an endless stream of conversational and behavioral sewage. For all the liberal protestations of diversity and live-and-let-live, the modest attitude imposes on no one while its alternative overwhelms when let loose. The co-ed bathroom forces everyone to experience the worst of male crudeness. Loveless hooking-up trivializes and debases sex for those who participate and for those who must witness it, overhear it or are "sexiled" from their dorms so it can occur. An atmosphere in which brashness and vulgarity are celebrated and quiet modesty derided will triumph over a kinder, gentler vision lacking in the same assertiveness. In short, give even an inch and they take a mile. Either we can win or they can.

In economics, Gresham's Law states that the bad money will drive out the good, as people prefer to use and be rid of any forged currency that falls into their hands while holding on to the real money they are surer will be accepted. If there is a cultural version of Gresham's Law -- bad culture driving out the good -- Wolfe captured it perfectly in I am Charlotte Simmons.


 




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