January 7, 2005

Wolfe pleases himself - just not readers - with collegiate sex-crazed opus

Where fun comes to die. Our school's kitschy moniker describes an interesting destination, but what exactly is college supposed to be? Maybe it's a place where sex flows as freely as beer at the fraternity houses? Or where the athletic teams consistently vie for national championships? Or where a student must hide an interest in academics at all costs?

In the mind's eye of Tom Wolfe, college is precisely these things. In I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe's new novel, Dupont University is presented to mirror an elite college campus and follows the title character's first semester. As Charlotte warms up to the sexual advances of horny college boys—er, I mean, as her rigid value system falters under peer pressure—Dupont University is shown to be a place where insecurity and status trumps all, and where social interactions are lubricated with sex, drugs, and backstabbing.

A presidential scholar and academic phenom, Charlotte is from the boondocks of North Carolina. She arrives at Dupont University in Pennsylvania naïve—almost a little too conveniently for Wolfe—to anything approximating most college freshmen's idea of a good night out. Contrasting Charlotte is the roommate from hell, whose slovenliness and bad manners amplify her condescension for Charlotte.

With the school year underway, three subplots develop. Frat boy extraordinaire Hoyt Thorpe hits hard on Charlotte, pursuing her while drunkenly instigating brawls on campus. Prancing around campus barrel-chested after beating up the California governor's bodyguard, Hoyt's womanizing mesmerizes Charlotte. After all, who can resist a frat boy?

Next is Jojo Johanssen, the Great White Dream, whose starting position on the defending national championship basketball team is threatened by a hot shot freshman. Struggling on the court, Johanssen comes to the—breathtaking!—revelation that student athletes can be not only athletes, but also students. Wolfe can't stop himself from dabbling in race relations, and includes several passages discussing the difficulties Jojo has relating to his black teammates. Jojo, a campus celebrity, notices Charlotte because she's "different" from all other girls on campus. As he pursues Charlotte, his conscience gets the best of him, and he stops cheating, slacking, and screwing groupies. It's good that he matures. (Shrug.) I guess.

Finally, there's Adam Gellin, the resident nerd who represents all things academic; he's the muckraking journalist, the academic tutor, the minority activist, and the pizza delivery boy. But more than anything else, he's a big turd of a loser. Charlotte likes him because…actually, she doesn't like Adam, but she doesn't have enough friends to ditch him until the closing pages.

Besides the fact that all three characters have the hots for Charlotte, they have something else in common: their development sucks. Wolfe's development is lazy and the characters stereotypical. In turn, the male suitors and the elements of college life they come to represent are insulting to members of these college communities.

Charlotte Simmons' character isn't much better. Her reaction to the vices of Dupont University—being sexiled by her roommate, poop jokes in the co-ed bathroom, peer pressure to drink alcohol, and finally, the decision to allow Thorpe to have sex with her—is so flaccid that it feels as if Wolfe's on autopilot, allowing the hyperbole of characters to write themselves.

Wolfe has written himself into this pre dicament: By making Dupont University, rather, the vices of Dupont University, the real subject of his novel, the characters are only vehicles to show the emptiness of college life.

For all the book's faults, Wolfe's typified account of college life is instructively entertaining for a University of Chicago student, since some passages strike close to home. One example is the shushing of whisperers in the library, whose gossiping after returning from a "candy run" draws the ire of those studying. Another situation Wolfe captures brilliantly is the gym, where weightlifters exercise in absolute self-consciousness.

While Wolfe nails a few scenes, it's too little to make up for his terrible oversimplification of college life laced with soft-core porn (in December, the book won the British Literary Review prize for bad sex in fiction). And it's much too long.

For me, as a student, the most enjoyable aspect of I Am Charlotte Simmons was seeing Wolfe limp through almost 700 pages of college life, savoring what he'd gotten right (the little bit of it) and chuckling at what he'd gotten wrong (most of it). While laughing at what Wolfe botched, I couldn't help but wonder if, possibly, Dupont University reflects other college campuses more closely than the University of Chicago. And if that's the case, just what kind of fun are we missing out on?