Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I Am Charlotte Simmons

by Tom Wolfe

I started talking about this book the other day. I've just been asked what I thought of it and my snapshot comment was that while it had some moments that truly spoke to me, it was ultimately a very annoying, a very masculine book.

Charlotte is a mountain prodigy who, thanks to getting 100% on her SAT's, gets to go to a very prestigious university - DuPont. There she encounters a hugely stratified society in which there are three primary social groups within her reach. There are others - there's a lot of commentary on the attempts by the University to recognise the diversity of the student body and make everyone feel they belong but, on the evidence given in the book, it is not working at all. There's one social group, called the Trolls that even on her worst days, Charlotte is far too special to treat with anything approaching humanity.

So, for her, there are the jocks; represented by Jojo Johanssen, one of two white men on the basketball team; the nerdy brainy type, represented by Adam and the Millennial Mutants; and the privileged frat boys, represented by Hoyt Thorpe. Although, it must be said, there is one interesting thing about him in that he's not privileged at all, but simply passes as one, living off the money his mother scrapes together as a blue collar office worker. Quite how this magic trick is done is never revealed. Apart from that, there is nothing remotely interesting about this fellow - he does no work, drinks by the gallon, hangs around with his mates playing video games. But he's apparently well off and has an oft-mentioned cleft chin and a wonderful thatch of light brown hair, which positions him between Cary Grant and Hugh Grant. Plus, he beat up the body guard of the Governor of California - this is an important plot point.

Women are certainly present, but either as complete nobodies or as hangers on. I'm not even sure that Wolfe intends it, but he manages to get in a couple of really beautiful side swipes at Charlotte's vacuous room-mate. In full on didactic mode, his narrator is explaining the use of the three levels of sarcastic response to someone wearing a cerise top (so last year, don't you know) - Beverley and her mates are devotees of these three modes of sarcasm. Then, about 200 pages later, Beverley herself is revealed to be wearing a cerise top. But this might well be pure forgetfulness on our author's part. The one woman with any sort of credibility is Camille - but she only has credibility by having nothing recognisably feminine about her and meeting the men head on on their agenda. We see this when Hoyt and his pals try to destroy a rally for gay rights.

There were some great elements in this book. I loved the way that Jojo defied the conventions associated with jocks and walked away from the papers set up to give student athletes an easy pass, opting for papers in Philosophy and French Literature. And I could fully get the intense loneliness that that led to for him: his Coach missed no opportunity to deride him, his team members had no idea what he was on about and the groupies just wanted to score a star. So Charlotte, who had been the catalyst for this sea change in the first place, when she was contemptuous of him knowing the right answer but acting dumb to keep in with his mates, is his only hope.

I also really liked attending vicariously the lectures given by the Nobel Prize winning neuro-scientist, Dr Starling. My knowledge of that area is not going to cover a postage stamp, so Wolfe may have been feeding us a heap of rubbish, but it sounded good, as if Starling knew what he was talking about (which means that Wolfe must have).

And, of course, there was the scene when the mountain prodigy went home for Christmas - her parents and the teacher who had always supported her and her best friend from school were all there, all very keen to find out how things had been going for Charlotte. It all struck me as being very real.

But the central ideas in the book left a bad taste in my mouth. Wolfe opted for a train wreck style of novel - there is a collision with a huge fallout and, as soon as we meet the characters, we know immediately how they're going to behave as if they are on rails, particularly Hoyt and Adam. These two are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a strong focus on Hoyt's masculinity and Adam's femininity - he's even said to be mothering Charlotte at one point.

So, as soon as Hoyt enters Charlotte's life and shows an interest in her (somewhat inexplicably - they don't even speak the same language) it is game on between them. She is offered some pretty incredible opportunities, opportunities we'd think that she'd leap at - such as to do some work with Dr Starling - but they're no match for Hoyt. He is simply the coolest guy ever. She seems to have forgotten that in one of the never ending intellectual discussions the Millennial Mutants had, they analysed the meaning of cool: Hoyt met not a single one of the criteria.

When he, she and two other couples go off for a frat house formal, we have the train wreck. She's totally out of the loop all the way as they drive to Washington, has no idea how to talk at the level the others are (because it is endlessly foul and inane). But, once there, she recovers her position not by anything clever she might have to say, but because she has bigger breasts and better legs than the other women and has this eye-popping dress to show it all off.

And despite this, it comes as no little surprise to her that Hoyt wants to have sex with her and that, contrary to her expectations, she doesn't actually have much control over the situation. Now Hoyt has always been one of those guys, his entire frat house is comprised of them, who as soon as he's had sex, he's had all he wants from a woman and loses interest. We know this from his attitude as soon as we meet him. So its straight down the line here: he "knocks the dust off her" so she bleeds, then he's getting dressed, saying there's no way in hell that he'll be paying the laundry bill and letting his mates into the room.

Of course, Charlotte is devastated - instead of being the "mountain prodigy", she's the "depressed girl", one who is no longer able to function, and there are lots of insights given as to how depressed girls view the world and what they need to come right. Medical science may as well pack up its bags and quit - the cure for a depressed girl is an authoritative male voice, giving the depressed girl step by step instructions as to how to go about her day. Pulease! So - poor Adam: he nurtures her for days and days, just holding her in his arms every night, that tantalising girl, the one he's so in love with, the one he wonders he should chance a quick grope with. Then the minute he exercises some authority, she's all better and out of his life, all worried about what people like Hoyt and his crew's hanger-on girls will think of her if they see her with Adam. Then when he needs her, she's able to give for maybe half a day before she's bored. This is all pretty nasty and unbelievable.

Of course, Charlotte can't go long without a boyfriend - what woman can? Hoyt is out of the picture - rather spectacularly and all because of his beating up of the Governor's bodyguard. Adam and his ilk are not good enough, so that leaves Jojo: the novel ends on the rather sour note that our heroine is no longer Charlotte Simmons at all, but Jojo's girlfriend. He's a nice enough fellow, but why does she have to finish as an adjunct?

And if I ever hear the phrase mons pubis or the word bango! again, I'll scream.


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