Monday, 20 November 2006

I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe, 2004

I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Cape, 2004, 676 pages, hardback, NZ$59.95. ISBN 0-224-07486-5
[Random House: NZ agents]

Does Tom Wolfe still have it? Generations have been raised on his jewelled prose. Since the 1960s, students have read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby as an exemplar of style. The Right Stuff carried non-fiction into the realms of fiction, while The Bonfire of the Vanities showed he could write novels too.

About the novels, there has always been the suspicion that Wolfe’s emphasis on style conceals a certain lack of enthusiasm for character and plot. His people are certainly profiles rather than portraits. His stories are snapshots rather than movies. The details are telling but shouldn’t a novel should be more than a gallery of glittering observations?

In I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe definitely shows that he can still select and compress an amazing range of facts about one person. Whether that person is symbolic of a generation is another question. In fact Charlotte Simmons seems a social anthropology case-study rather than a person.

Wolfe’s genius is in capturing a defining moment and making it symbolic, like the pilots doing carrier landings in The Right Stuff. Although the action of I am Charlotte Simmons is mainly set at Dupont University in Pennsylvania, the defining moment is established as Charlotte gives the valedictory address at her high school graduation in isolated Allegheny County, North Carolina. Charlotte is the school’s first student to win a full scholarship to Dupont and Wolfe uses her flow of thought, as she delivers her speech, to sketch in her family, her classmates and the entire past, present and future of Allegheny County.

She sees that the oafish Channing, for example, will end up as a worker in the vast Christmas tree plantations, chewing and spitting Red Man tobacco. Charlotte realises “the simple truth”: she is intelligent and exists on a plane far above those around her. At Dupont she will meet people who have a life of the mind. In her heart she knows “Only one of us is coming down from the mountain destined to do great things. The rest of you can, and will, stay up here and get trashed and watch the Christmas trees grow.”

From there it is all downhill, both for Charlotte and the novel. At Dupont she finds massive peer-pressure for the life of the body. Her freshman culture-shock is symbolised by four fellow-students. Her roommate, Beverly, a snob from Groton, owns more clothes than Charlotte has ever seen. Hoyt believes his fraternity membership means he is ‘locked and loaded’ for success on Wall Street. Adam is a despised intellectual, whose dream of writing a student newspaper story which will change the world comes true – at least for his world. Jojo is a basketball player, whose athletic prowess means that Dupont employs several interesting methods to counter his low academic ability.

There is a lovely moment when Charlotte compares Jojo’s ignorance of the liberal arts to that of a Roman slave, forbidden access to the arts of persuasion. Jojo grasps the point, “We’re like slaves. They don’t even want us to think. All that thinking might distract us from what we were hired for.”

Wolfe thanks his own ‘two collegians’, presumably the Wolfe cubs, for being able to ‘point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular.’ And that’s what’s wrong. This isn’t a novel. A good novel about the Ivy-League ants-nest would make us feel sympathy for, or at least interest in, the ants. This is just a popularised research report.

Not that Wolfe’s findings offer any surprises. United States readers will not reel back in amazement at the news that their university students are engaging in sex, alcohol, social snobbery, swearing, sport and loud music. I suspect they already know that, even in Allegheny County. Even more likely, they remember it from their own youth. What they will, however, value is Wolfe’s careful pinpointing of the language, clothing and customs of an elite group at the dawn of a new century.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, December 4th 2004.

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