Despite all of my exam induced disciplinary reading of only the most relevant of materials, I still managed to find to read Tom Wolfe‘s latest book I am Charlotte Simmons which was recommended to me by my stepfather.
It’s a novel telling the story of one young ms. Charlotte Simmons, arriving from her outback North Carolina village at the prestigious Dupont college on her ambitious way to the stars of modern academia, and finding that college life isn’t quite what she had expected. With promiscuous sex, drinking, drugs, massive ambitions and weekly worship ceremonies of the local sports teams, Tom Wolfe, now 74, describes American college life based on extensive research through numerous American campuses.
It’s funny how a man that old finds college life, even though he does his best to tell his story through the perspective of his characters in the style indirect libre, his ironic amusement with the complete self-absorbed hedonism of these young people seems evident.
The book has received very mixed reviews, some praising its sharp criticism of how the colleges with their heavy focus on sports teams, often more so than any actual research, others have slated it for being too focused on the sex and alcohol, unfocused and overly long. I think both groups of reviewers miss the mark by a certain length and that Wolfe most of all seeks to make a subtle statement about “young people” today, rather well wrapped in apparently shocking sex and drugs.
I had good fun reading the book and comparing it to Madame Bovary which seems to be Wolfe’s main stylistic inspiration. Just like Flaubert, Wolfe never actually judges the moral actions of the characters but rather hides behind the individual perspectives of the characters to describe one another. And these American teenagers are immensely cruel.
As Charlotte’s rich, intolerable Paris Hilton-lookalike roommate explains it, there’s a system of sarcasm meant to keep people in their place. Wit and coolness are as important as anything in this system. The system breaks down like this:
“Sarc One is when I look at you, and I say, ‘Ohmygod, a cerise shirt. Cerise is such an in color this year.’ That’s just ordinary intentionally obvious sarcasm.”
“… in Sarc Two you say the same thing, only in a sympathetic voice that sounds like totally sincere. ‘Oh, wow, Bev, I love that color. Cerise. That’s like so-o-o-o-o cool. Unnhhh…no wonder it’s so like…in this year.’ By the time you get to the ‘so in this year,’ your voice is dripping with so much syrup and like… sincerity, it finally dawns on the other person that she’s getting fucked over. What you’ve really been saying is that you don’t love the color, you don’t think it’s cool, and it’s not ‘in’ this year. It’s the delay in it dawning on her that makes it hurt. Okay?”
“Okay. In Sarc Three you make the delay even longer, so it really hurts when she finally gets it. We’ve got the same situation. The girl’s getting ready to go out, and she has on this cerise shirt. She thinks it’s really sexy, a real turn-on, a she’s gonna score big-time. You start off sounding straight – you know, flattering, but not like laying it on too thick. You’re like, ‘Wow, Bev, I love that shirt. Where’d you get it? How perfect is that? It’s so versatile. It’ll be perfect for job interviews and it’ll be perfect for community service.'”
Sarc 4 is only hinted at, but I think Tom Wolfe would like to think that his book is operating on this level, enveloping the bigger sarcastic remark in a smaller one. By focusing on the extremes of American college life, the Jocks and the geeks, the Fraternity and Sorority crowds and innocent freshmen shocked and fascinated with it all, he creates easily recognizable stereotypes that it’s easy to relate to and make fun of. Yet, by accepting these stereotypes and that fun, we as readers at the same time have to accept more and more of other elements as the novel progresses, slowly peeling away at the egotistical and vain onion that is young people today, whether they want to save the world or not.
Charlotte is the obvious main character, with her complete faith in her own abilities and her impending success (at any time she suffers a setback of some sort, she steels herself to the words: I am Charlotte Simmons, and no wrong can harm her. She will succeed). In this way, the book attempts to put poor young Charlotte into a role much like that of Emma Bovary: Innocent, yet tempted by all the wonders she sees, she slowly grows bolder until her teenage passions and fascination with the cool crowd make her vulnerable to the inevitable sarcasm, plunging her into deep depression.
But also her three suitors – the popular basketball player Jojo, frat dude and coolness incarnate Hoyt, and the ‘millenial mutant’, geek and would-be intellectual Adam – are all just as self-centered as Charlotte, driven by uninhibited social ambition to rise up beyond their sad lower middleclass or working class backgrounds. They all attempt to play by the different sets of rules offered them in their various arenas of interest (ghetto-attitudes and disinterest in learning, cool-factor and disinterest in learning, political and social consciousness and interest in learning, respectively). While, at the same time either giving into or abstaining from their sexual drives as might fit them.
Wolfe has a field day combining young cool and ambition with the inherent insecurities and unfazed self-centeredness of that age. And it does work quite well. Through Charlotte’s Nobel-prize winning Neuroscience lecturer discussing the extent to which our genetic code decides our actions, Wolfe indirectly introduces a lovely metaphor for the social and cultural inheritance nested in the hopes and ambitions that all of these young people bring with them from their parents:
“If anyone should ask me why we’re spending so much time on Darwin,” he was saying at one point, “I would consider that a perfectly logical question. Darwin was not a neuroscientist. His knowledge of the human brain, if any, was primitive. He knew nothing about genes, even though they were discovered by a contemporary of his, an Austrian monk named Gregor Johann Mendel – whose work strengthens the case for evolution tremendously. But Darwin did something more fundamental. He obliterated the cardinal distinction between man and the beasts of the fields and the wilds. It had always been a truism that man is a rational being and animals live by ‘instinct.’ But what is instinct? It’s what we now know to be the genetic code an animal is born with. In the second half of the last century, neuroscientists began to pursue the question, ‘If man is an animal, to what extent does his genetic code, unbeknownst to him, control his life?’ Enormously, according to Edward O. Wilson, a man some speak of as Darwin the Second. We will get to Wilson’s work soon. But there’s a big difference between ‘enormously’ and ‘entirely’. ‘Enormously’ leaves some wiggle room for your free will to steer your genetically coded ‘instincts’ in any direction you want – i there is such a thing as ‘you’. I say ‘if’, because the new generation of neuroscientists – and I enjoy staying in communication with them – believe Wilson is a very cautious man. They laugh at the notion of free will. They yawn at your belief – my belief – that each of us has capital-letter I, as in ‘I believe’, a ‘self’, inside our head that makes ‘you’, makes ‘me’ distinct from every other member of the species Homo Sapiens, no matter how many ways we might like them. The new generation are absolutists. They – I’ll just tell you what one very interesting young neuroscientist emailed me last week. She said, ‘Let’s say you pick up a rock and throw it. And in midflight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.’ So later on we will get to the ‘conscious little rock,’ and you will be able to decide for yourself: ‘Am I really… merely…a conscious little rock?’ The answer, incidentally, has implications of incalculable importance for the Homo Sapiens’ conception of itself and for the history of the twenty-first century. We may have to change the name of our species to Homo Lapis Deiciecta Conscia – Man, the Conscious Thrown Stone – or, to make it simpler, as my correspondent did, ‘Man, the Conscious Little Rock.'”
Apart from showing the immense verbosity of Wolfe’s prose (which stretches for more than 650 pages. It’s an easy read, but it is far too much. Though he will probably claim that it is necessary to bring the direct language, the ‘Fuck Patois‘, of the American youth to full effect and drive the drifting perspective based narrative on, it is still too much. He has some good ideas and interesting points but any good editor could easily have chopped two or three hundred pages off it without losing any of them), this passage touches upon the ever-interesting theme of social ambition, as well as the more obvious theme that Charlotte herself also recognizes: The hormonal and instinctual rollercoaster that we all board and ride through puberty, accelerating into adult life to the point where we get better at controlling it, though not at slowing it.
Both themes are central in both “Madame Bovary” and “I am Charlotte Simmons”, though I would hardly say that the latter comes anywhere near matching the former.
Just too bad I’m not writing an essay comparing Charlotte Simmons with Madame Bovary, the continuity in petty bourgeois self-centeredness, social ambition and sexual freedom between mid-19th century France and 21st century America – sounds like Wolfe’s point could well be that some things never change…
For completeness’ sake I should probably note that as I publish this on my blog, the virtual shrine for the celebration of all things me, that I do appreciate the irony. 😉