Wednesday, April 20, 2005

So tired, what with the World Cinema festival winding to a close (of a planned 20 odd movies, I may have got to little over half) and not one, not two, but three publishing deadlines crowding my calendar at the moment. One down, one nearly complete and, luckily the third is a re-hash of the first and can wait until after the weekend's festival devoted to oysters.

But is it Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons I wish to write about at present. This is a book which has garnered a lot of commentary, some of it flattering (including from President Bush) and some of it not. The general sentiment expressed in one of my book groups is that they adored the title character but the book itself is deplorable. I'm only about a quarter of the way in, but want to pause and collect my thoughts together at this stage. On the whole, I think he's doing a lot that I personally like in this book, but there is one particular tic I really hate. Here are two examples, from the same paragraph on page 112, where the narrator is telling us about one of the characters, Hoyt:
He was fourteen when he first scored, as the expression went.
[His manner of dressing] only made him hotter in the eyes of girls at Greenwich High - "hot" being the comparative degree of "cool" in teenage grammar.
The explanation of the terms is plain strange. For whom are they included? Did Wolfe learn that "hot" means "cool" as he was writing this book? That would be pretty tragic and add fuel to the claims that he is not well qualified to write a book about a freshman student at a swanky University. [Plus, he's really talking about teenage vocab rather than grammar anyway.]

The book is cluttered with these little explanatory side notes, but only in parts, which creates a very strange feeling.

That aside, I am actually quite excited by this book. The general idea is that Charlotte is a brilliant young woman, who managed to get a perfect SAT score despite growing up and being educated in some hick high school in North Carolina. Her parents are very straight; she is too, but there are hints that she has some aspiration to loosen up. She has already been able to get some perspective on her parents, as uneducated and not exactly broad minded.

Her University, Dupont, is mentioned in the same breath as Harvard. Wolfe does tend to lay his characterisation on a bit thick, so that the people we're meeting are implausible as being insufficiently nuanced - the jock element on campus (basket-ballers in particular - we've already had a fairly detailed account of black-white relations between team members), the privileged white kids with their sense of entitlement, the girls (who are all pretty much "slutted up" to use Charlotte's expression) and the poor but smart young jew. But there are a couple of characters with a bit more going for them - Hoyt passes for a privileged white boy from Boston, but the reality is that his dad is a white-collar crook who was found out and left, leaving Hoyt to be supported by his mother who works as some sort of accounts clerk. Then there is JoJo - a big-noting basket-ball player who only has to point to get whatever chick he wants. But his secret is that rather than getting through his classes on athletic merit, he is actually doing some of the work - such as reading Madame Bovary and answering questions (until his peer group shut him down and he plays the fool).

So, when he meets Charlotte, she's totally cold to him, because she's seen through him, knows what he is capable of but won't do because its not cool. In fact, this is quite a theme Wolfe has developed, about how uncool it is to actually want to succeed academically at one of the country's leading academic institutions. So, poor Charlotte, who has only come to Dupont for that reason, is at a loss. At her High School graduation, she had looked over her former class mates and recollected how she had been shut out of the cool crowd because "she not only gets perfect grades but cares about it" and because she wouldn't engage in their foolishness - drinking, pot, sex, drag racing. "Why should she be an outcast for not doing stupid, aimless, self-destructive things?" But then at Dupont, she thought, she'd find " people like herself, people who actually have a life of the mind, people whose concept of the future is actually something beyond Saturday night".

At the stage I have reached, its not going so well, as the people here seem to be much like the people back home, but with less discipline and more money. She's had to pull out of her second year French literature class because she's "over-qualified" by virtue of her ability to read in French.

So - it is pretty broad brush stuff, quite a lot like Steinbeck, but I'm enjoying it so far, although I really dislike many of the people I'm meeting.

Edit: I have now finished and there's more here.


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