June 29, 2005

Hublet's Book Review Corner

Hublet has recently finished reading Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, and since he is on a school break and his free time is plentiful, he has composed a brief review. Sort of. So without further ado, here's Hublet's take on Charlotte.

Since (a) I have time on my hands on this rainy day, (b) BAW’s blog is (ostensibly – wink, wink) about the academic world, and (c) I just finished I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe, which is set on university grounds, I thought I would offer up a 10-point assessment for thought. If you haven’t read it, I don’t think I give away much, but the main themes, I should point out, are identity, sexual predation, the death of “the life of the mind” on campus, biological predetermination vs. free will, pc gone wild, and the curious (and corrupt) college sports “industry”:

1) I do have some criticisms (see below), but I cannot figure how the novel was so often panned, unless there were hidden critical motivations. It consumed me for two weeks (I’m slow), it made me laugh out loud, it made me a nervous wreck at one point, the writing is fluid, and it is lavishly detailed; none of these necessarily make it an all-time classic, but certainly these are signs of a good novel.

2) Much of the criticism seems to run along these lines: “No one who is so smart (Charlotte Simmons) could be so naďve,” and “Big deal. Tom Wolfe has discovered what everyone already knew about university life.” I think this is bunk; it is perfectly plausible for a girl from rural NC to be overwhelmed by the reality of such a life. I experienced it in small doses myself, and I’m not even from a very rural part of NC. And while many of the rural kids I teach are already too familiar with vice, there are pockets of them who are very much like Charlotte, and who I could see having a very hard time with the atmosphere Wolfe depicts. When rumor turns to reality, there can often be a much bigger shock than imagination prepares you for. Charlotte has some vague notions of these things, but really seeing them changes everything. Hey, I spent many a year on campus, and even with my own experiences in tow I felt overwhelmed by the book.

Now, a lot of kids like Charlotte are already (by necessity) independent-minded enough to not let themselves be taken in by sexual predatorship, drug use, etc., but they will still be shocked. Having already been toughened a little by ostracism in high school, maybe Charlotte should have a thicker skin, so Wolfe walks a fine line. But even among kids like her (and she is attractive, we are told), it is certainly plausible (if not probable) that some will not be able to hold the peer pressure off. The thought deeply saddens me, and also makes me want to thrash the next frat boy I see (yeah, that’s a little unfair).

3) I wish Tom Wolfe would speak more on what he actually thinks about the new neuroscience and neurobiology (maybe he has?), especially the paradigm many in these fields are guiding themselves by: we are not in control of anything, consciousness and free will are illusions, our genes predetermine everything. The novel is very ambiguous, which was an artistic choice. But I still want to know what the man himself thinks. In public, he seems to just want to define what the paradigm is.

4) The long seduction sequence, about 2/3 through the novel, was PAINFUL. I never skip or skim when I read, but I admit to doing so this time, and not b/c the writing was bad. I just couldn’t take it; I was literally groaning and grimacing, and my heart was working overtime, even though I knew what was coming. I had to call the lovely BAW at work and vent after this section. And the first couple of aftermath chapters were almost as bad. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so emotionally wrenched during an act of reading.

5) Having said that, I don’t think the pain had to go on so long, and one of my criticisms is that parts of the novel get bogged when they should move more swiftly. Both this section, and Charlotte’s visit home would have been better if compressed. Sometimes the detail accumulation is too much. I think the novel on the whole would have been just as good if it had come in 50-70 pages under (still would have left 600 pages! – and yes, I should have probably compressed this post, too).

6) It would be hard to find less sexy sex-scenes than Wolfe depicts, and that was purposeful, and well done. Sex pervades almost every page of the book, and yet nothing could turn you off more.

7) I would love to know what a word count on the “f-word” would turn up. Maybe 2,000-3,000? More?

8) No to wade too far into the Wolfe vs. Updike/Irving War, but why aren’t there more novels like this, that immerse us in sections of American life? Shouldn’t there be?

9) I’ve always been a huge college basketball/football fan, but I have to admit that my enthusiasms are dampened. If even a portion of the athletic shenanigans that go on in the novel are true, it is very hard to defend being a fan, much less a real booster. Again, there is the whole “rumor vs. seeing reality” shock thing – you know this stuff happens, but when it’s in your face the impact is greater. My favorite character, though, is the b-ball player JoJo.

10) I love the way he handles university/pc issues. He does not deliver a polemic, he humanizes everyone (while still making them hilariously outrageous), but he lets hypocrisy speak for itself.

I put BAW in a cobra-deathlock hold until she promised to read the novel after her precious Harry Potter, so I’m sure she will soon have her own thoughts to share.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at June 29, 2005 12:07 PM

Not as good as "A Man in Full," IMNSHO, but still definitely worth reading. One thing I wonder about: given that Charlotte was an outsider during her high school years, does it make sense for her to become so concerned about social acceptance when she goes to college?

Posted by: David Foster at June 30, 2005 06:58 PM

David, that bothered me too, b/c generally such kids are already toughened up a bit to ostracism, and used to being loners, focused on their own goals. He probably needed to focus more on her background, making it clear she was at least a little desperate for acceptance all along.

Posted by: Husband of BAW at July 1, 2005 10:03 AM