First of all, it wasn’t until I was halfway through I am Charlotte Simmons when it dawned on me that I am forever confusing Tom Wolfe and Tobias Wolff. A. particularly doesn’t like Tom Wolfe and when she mentions this I’ve always sort of thought “Yes, well, I am tired of This Boy’s Life, myself. Can’t say I blame you.” Even when she shut the cover The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and declared herself really and truly done this time with Wolfe I thought she was talking about Wolff. For some reason I always thought The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and This Boy’s Life were written by the same man, despite the fact I studied Wolff several times in school. Anyway, to clear up any confusion: They are not the same author, not at all. Now, I need to finally sort out the difference between Tom Robbins and Tim O’Brien, both of whom I’ve read and admire but can’t keep straight.
Onto I am Charlotte Simmons. I honestly don’t know what to make of this book. The plot carried me along and I was extremely interested in what happened to the title heroine. I thought Wolfe did a remarkable job of creating his characters and his eye for developing the Dupont campus is perfect. There are multiple scenes that took me back to my days as an undergraduate, and none more so than Charlotte’s first night at Dupont, where she can’t fall asleep for all the noise in the hallway and her own inner loneliness:
An hour or more must have gone by. The ruckus finally began to subside. Where on earth was Beverly? Charlotte stared at the ceiling, she stared at the windows, she lay on this side, she lay on that side…how much time passed, she didn’t know, because she fell asleep at last, thinking of Channing Reeve’s strong, even features.
I was lucky enough, as a freshman at Michigan State, to be assigned to a floor of young men and women who I felt quite at home with, but I do remember desperately trying to sleep while it seemed like everyone else stayed up, and how lonely and disorienting that feeling was. Many times throughout the novel Wolfe impressed me with his ability to capture Charlotte’s emotions, but just as often I found myself irritated with Charlotte and not believing her responses to situations. There is just so much Wolfe gets right in this novel, from Fuck Patois to the way fraternity brothers dress to Charlotte’s genuine longing for friends and acceptance that he simply took my breath away. But as I neared the end of the book yesterday, I realized the one thing Wolfe didn’t include, and that was love.
This book is meant to be “an extensive observation of campuses across the country to immortalize college life in the ’00s.” The inside flap calls Wolfe American’s master social novelist, a “spot-on” chronicler of the way we live now, but if this is the case I am extremely thankful I don’t live in the world Wolfe observes.
I feel it’s important to note that I recognize that only a certain elite get to experience college the way I did. While I had scholarships and financial aid, I only attended college the way I did because I come from a middle-class family, a middle-class family with just enough lust for life that I was actively encouraged to go to football and basketball games, to go to parties and have fun. My parents looked at college as a relatively safe place for me to spend for years growing up,and if some measure of academic achievement occurred that was just fine, but also I should learn to date and wear fun clothes and go to parties and enjoy myself. And I did all of that. It so happened that I met some professors who changed my life and encouraged me to write, write, write and so I did and here we all are today. When I took too many classes my parents worried about me wearing myself out, and when my grades were too good they worried I wasn’t having any fun. These are just the parents I happen to have. They tend to be more impressed with good stories and good fun than good grades.
Because I led a college existence similar to those reviled in Wolfe’s novels, I have some experience with the scenes and relationships he creates, and while his technical accuracy is astounding I think he misses out on the single most important aspect of college, and that is the ability for young men and women to take the first steps in creating families of their own. Part of this is because his heroine must be so isolated and unable to make connections that there isn’t much room for this to occur, but I think Wolfe is so distanced from the college experience that for this novel he lost his heart. However complex the gambit of my emotions were in undergrad, I felt true love for many of the people I spent my time with there. From staying up late with A. on nights we both felt homesick to sharing my first, bad cappuccinos with J. before biology class, to meeting D., a boy I adored for three years, to studying with Professor Hill and Professor Banks, to hayrides in apple orchards and warm autumn afternoons spent at Spartan stadium, I met people who remain in my life today and jump-started my ability to create a life for myself outside of Alpena. Wolfe manages to recreate all of the angst and none of the joy that is being young at an institute of higher learning, and in fact nothing but loathing seethes from his “observations.”
I don’t know. Even as a T.A. I tended towards compassion with my young students. Certainly they deserve compassion less than most of the suffering throughout the world, but at the same time most of them have had college forced on them throughout their lives to the point where every step they took led to the university doors. With all the pressure to succeed academically, most of them for the first time are having sex, falling in love, drinking, trying to make friends and attempting to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. When I was eighteen, everything felt like the end of the world. And everything felt like the beginning of it, too. I’m certainly familiar with contempt rigorous academics hold for students who are at college for the experience rather than the education -my father-in-law is one of them, but at the same time, I mean, damn. Shouldn’t some of life just be fun? Shouldn’t we cheer ourselves crazy at football games and drink one too many beers and kiss inappropriately while we can?
Despite all of that, college was the first place I learned to love people outside of the realm my parents lorded over, and I think that is more representative of the college experience than Wolfe’s creation.
Charlotte’s world is a cold one, and I could write a whole different post about the conclusion of the book, which leaves the reader feeling Charlotte has learned nothing throughout her experiences and is little more than a shallow, self-centered ungrateful girl, but I won’t. After this and A Man in Full no Wolfe fan is going to convince me that Wolfe doesn’t hate women. Yesterday I sat down, determined to get through Charlotte’s world once and for all, so ready was I for something bright and light to fill my reading hours. Like A., I am ready to shut the book on Wolfe permanently, but not before I read Old School.
Edited to add: I just went through litlove’s archives because I remembered she reviewed this book. Her discussion on it does much more justice to the ideas and subject matter than I did. I think, actually, that I took this book quite personally. Ah well, what are you going to do? If you are interested in more on this book you can search her archives by typing in the title of the book – I tried to link but something with wordpress is funky right now.