Wednesday, December 01, 2004
This is the second part of my review of I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Here is a link to the first part: I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, part I.
Is Charlotte unbelievably naďve?
One of the frequent complaints about this novel is that Charlotte is unbelievably naďve, and this ruins the whole book. How can someone with a 1600 SAT, it is reasoned, not realize that there’s sex going on at college? Doesn’t she have a TV set that picks up the same programs that everyone else in the United States watches?
I found Charlotte’s naďveté perfectly believable, and the fact that some people just don’t get it indicates how big of a cultural divide we really have in America, and shows that there are smart educated people who are completely unable to understand how people from backgrounds different than themselves think.
First of all, yes Charlotte had a perfect 1600 on the SAT, but we all know that there are people who are very book smart yet somehow are completely lacking in what they call street smarts. The Adam Gellin “nerd” character in the book is one such example, and it’s interesting to note that although everyone has been criticizing Tom Wolfe’s depiction of Charlotte, I have not yet read a single review where someone said that Adam Gellin was not a believable character.
And yes, Charlotte has a television, but she wouldn’t have cable television because her parents are too poor. Now think about what shows exist on regular broadcast TV that would prepare anyone for what Tom Wolfe wrote about in his book, and what real college students at elite universities say is an accurate depiction. I can’t think of any!
Broadcast TV is actually the very embodiment of those conventional middle class values that I wrote about in part I of the review. Just about everyone on broadcast TV believes in God, consumes alcohol only moderately if at all, has sex only in a very committed relationship, and of course no one on TV has ever, ever, ever had an abortion.
On the TV show Beverly Hills 90210, the classic show about young people, the Tori Spelling character didn’t lose her virginity until many many seasons had passed, and it was with her high school sweetheart who had been her boyfriend for eons.
Furthermore, who even knows if Beverly Hills 90210 was the kind of show that Charlotte’s mother let her watch? Charlotte’s mother, being the strict heavily religious type, probably censored her children’s TV viewing. I’m sure that she never permitted her kids to see any R rated movies. Although they probably never went out to the movies anyway because they were so poor.
Most kids learn about what other kids are really doing not from television, but from other kids! And Tom Wolfe explained in the book how Charlotte had no friends in high school except Laurie who was also a religious type. Because she was so smart in a small town where everyone else was dumb, she obviously had nothing in common with the other kids, which adequately explains her lack of friends and her inexperience with boys.
We also have to realize that Charlotte had no contact with anyone from the upper middle class or the upper class, and these were the classes to which the vast majority of students at the fictional Dupont belonged. In Charlotte’s small town, she saw only two classes: the middle class (based on values, not family wealth) and the lower class. Because the middle class has so much better manners than the lower class, she extrapolated and assumed that the manners of the upper classes would be that much better! Charlotte didn’t realize that the middle class is actually the most boring of all classes.
It is true that Tom Wolfe uses a naďve main character as a device that allows him to express his own shock at what he saw going on at college. Tom Wolfe may be an old guy of 73, but he’s a whole lot more sophisticated than Charlotte. He’s seen all the R rated movies like Animal House that Charlotte didn’t, and he has even hung out with Black Panthers. If Tom Wolfe is shocked at the outrageousness of college behavior, then someone from Charlotte’s background would be even more so.
I now offer the following passage from an article in the Stanford school newspaper:
[F]reshman Lindsay Reinsmith thought the central storyline — depicting Charlotte’s struggle to adapt to life outside a small town — was a plausible one. Reinsmith hails from The Woodlands, Tx., a small Houston suburb, which she described as “predominantly Christian conservative and very sheltered.”
Reinsmith said many of her high school classmates rarely ventured outside city limits, and she, like Charlotte, was shocked by college life.
“After a lot of my friends left The Woodlands, they were startled by the open way other people dealt with social issues, especially sex, at college,” she said. “They didn’t really know how to approach the issue because they were never taught how.”
Once again, an actual student at an actual elite university agreeing with the accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s characters.
Richard Leiby, my favorite Washington Post reporter (or is he a gossip columnist?) writes about a Tom Wolfe sighting in his Reliable Source column:
In his trademark white suit and spats, Tom Wolfe regaled a breakfast audience yesterday at the Aspen Institute, the venerable values and issues outfit, with candid descriptions of the campus mating rituals that underpin his new novel, "I Am Charlotte Simmons." The author outlined these stages of sexual activity in an era when partners scarcely know one another:
First base is groping and kissing (students call it "tonsil hockey," according to the 73-year-old Wolfe). Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way.
And home plate? That's the actual act of "being introduced," Wolfe said to laughter. Quipped Jack Valenti, the legendary movie lobbyist: "This is the first time I've ever been sensually aroused at any Aspen Institute meeting that I've attended."
The article also includes an unflattering photo of Tom Wolfe looking very much the old man.
For some reason, the thought of Tom Wolfe hanging around frat parties in order to research this book is almost as fascinating as the book itself.
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that was so good that I didn’t want to do anything else but read it until I was finished with it. But along came I am Charlotte Simmons which I started reading aboard an Amtrak train on Thanksgiving morning, and 676 pages later I finally finished it on Monday evening.
Tom Wolfe’s third novel is at least as good, if not better, than his first, Bonfire of the Vanities, and is head and shoulders above A Man In Full. Anyone who has read the first two novels will recognize the framework of Charlotte Simmons. Once again, Tom Wolfe tells the story of several individuals whose lives become intertwined. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of his main characters, but always Tom Wolfe’s point of view is also there.
Even though there are similarities, Tom Wolfe took a big stretch with this book. In his previous novels, he wrote about the hidden worlds of real estate development, investment banking, and the Bronx DA’s office. (I remember serving an internship at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, and everyone said how accurately Tom Wolfe captured what it’s like to be a DA in one of New York City’s outer boroughs.) In his previous novels, his main characters were men, but this time, the main character in his book is an eighteen year old girl attending fictional Dupont University (think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Duke). What a stretch for a man of 73 to put himself into the mind of an eighteen year old girl. I can’t help but imagine that life in the college dorms was more alien to Tom Wolfe than any other place he ever visited.
But because so many more people are familiar with college, or at least think they are, Tom Wolfe has opened himself up to a lot more criticism. And the criticism has come in droves. It seem like every professional reviewer has been determined to completely trash this book, and even the amateur reviewers at Amazon.com have been highly critical.
The first notable bad review, written by Michiko Kakutani, was published in The New York Times two weeks before the book was even released to the public. How eager the critics were to trash this book before anyone even had a chance to read it.
Michiko wrote, “This time, instead of boldly going where few writers have gone before, he gives us some tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life at a fictional school . . .” The implication is that books like this are being written every day, but I can’t think of any book similar to Charlotte Simmons, and certainly Michiko doesn’t name any in her review. Maybe she’s just jealous of Tom Wolfe’s mastery of the English language, his gift for turning ordinary scenes into the fantastic, and his ability glue his readers to the pages of books where nothing much really seems to happen.
Michiko also wrote, “. . . in the course of a very long 676 pages [, Tom Wolfe] serves up the revelation -- yikes! -- that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes and use four-letter words.” Yes, this is a common complaint from many of the critics. Everyone knows that college is about sex and beer, what’s new here? But does everyone really believe that life at an elite school (think Ivy League) is really like it’s depicted in Charlotte Simmons?
Yes, we’ve all seen the movie Animal House. (At least we adults who read blogs have seen it. Charlotte Simmons obviously didn’t see it. We imagine that her religious mother didn’t let her watch R rated movies.) But Animal House is a parody, it’s not real. The scenes in Charlotte Simmons are a lot more powerful than Animal House because they are real scenes.
But some people don’t think this is real. In one of the ironies of the negative reviews, while some like Ms Kakutani say “duh! of course that’s what’s happening at colleges,” other reviews criticize the book for being unrealistic. In another review in the New York Times, Jacob Weisberg says that this is a “comic book version of college” and not the real thing.
And I really love this quote from a reviewer at Amazon.com:
If you're a parent getting ready to send a child off to college don't panic. "NOT ALL STUDENTS ARE LIKE THOSE REPERSENTED IN THIS BOOK." I am a mechanic that has made many service calls to several colleges. Most of my calls to colleges have been to Marquette University in Milwaukee Wisconsin. While I am aware that some of the students at this school could be those represented in this book, my experience is that most students are not like those represented in this book. Most of the students I have dealt at Marquette appear to take their chance at a college education as a serious privilege.
This guy thinks he has the expertise to say that Tom Wolfe has gotten college life at elite Ivy League schools wrong because he’s a mechanic who has visited a second rate Catholic school in Wisconsin.
In fact, Marquette University may very well be like the Dupont that Charlotte Simmons’ mother imagined, except with the students not being quite so bright. Marquette University would be the last place that privileged students from elite boarding schools would wind up attending. The students at Marquette are probably from middle class families who bring their conventional middle class values with them to college.
I’ve written about these conventional middle class values before in my essay Jessica Cutler and the values of Washington. This is an excerpt:
[T]here is a huge gap between how voters think people on Capitol Hill are behaving, and the way they really behave.
Why should there be such a gap? Didn’t people hear about Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy, and a variety of other Washington sex scandals? Shouldn’t they know by now that a large percentage of important and semi-important men in Washington are having sex with women in their twenties? Don’t they know by now that a large percentage of female interns and other low paid female workers in resume building jobs are the opposite of pure and virginal?
No, people don’t know this because it’s not what they want to believe. They want to believe that Washington is full of people who behave consistently with conventional middle class values. These values dictate that you should work hard, be honest, believe in God, be moderate in the consumption of alcohol, remain a virgin until you get married, and thereafter remain faithful to your spouse.
Tom Wolfe, being nearly as brilliant a sociologist as myself (and admittedly a ten times more brilliant writer), has written a book about the exact same conflict of values between the elite and the middle class that I previously wrote about in my blog.
I found a comment left at the blog Critical Mass that offers an excellent observation:
I think Wolfe is a lot more on the mark than older people would like to admit. Let's call it willful ignorance, but, having recently graduated college, I don't think people realize how morally, ethically and intellectually depraved a large swath of college students (and, coincidentally, the faculty) really are. Wolfe may be focusing just on one part of the population, but that population may be a plurality on most campuses (even the most respected ones). I knew plenty of people who never went to class, didn't do any work, drank had sex and did drugs in excess.....everything that runs counter to the "noble academic institution" most people believe college is and should be.
And here’s an excerpt from another review left at Amazon.com, which offers the best commentary that I have yet seen:
I am a huge Tom Wolfe fan who happens to be a girl from a small town who went to/ is still at the University of Pennsylvania. Let me tell you, his descriptions of college life are very accurate. I had thought, going to an Ivy League , I would be with the best and the brightest...I was not expecting to be stuck in a crazy puke-filled dorm where people act like animals, and are loud, drunk, and totally inconsiderate of those around them. To go from a town where people actually ACT like human beings to a college dorm like this is a sad, disappointing journey- one that is not always expected. At least it's not expected if you don't live around people who couldn't live without alcohol. It's NOT unrealistic for Wolfe to make Charlotte so innocent because that's how SOME decent college students are before they are exposed to vulgar, barbarian frat boys at college who do things MUCH worse than anything described in this book. To me, and to Charlotte, it is TRAGIC to go to a good school and see people who are such total drunk immature wastes, people who drag others down without thinking twice about it.
Unlike most reviews, here is one written by an actual college student at an actual elite institution who has come from a small town just like Charlotte Simmons did. And she says the book is dead on accurate.
The conclusion of Part I of my review of I am Charlotte Simmons is that the negative reviewers are wrong about the book’s take on campus life. It’s not a comic book look at college, but the real thing. And the hedonism of college life is absolutely not common knowledge among the middle class of America.
Read the second part of the review: I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, part II.