Click here to read reviewer Steven Rosen's take on I Am Charlotte Simmons.
Tom Wolfe chooses Charlotte Simmons, a freshman at Dupont University, to represent a generation in his latest endeavor, an expose of campus life that contains the seeds of the future: youth obsessed with partying, drinking and generally avoiding responsibility.
Out of step the moment she walks on campus, this North Carolina high school graduate is thrust into the gaping maw of a decadent generation, education obscured by drunken revels and a veritable dictionary of social commentary - frats and sororities, bars, parties, music, jocks, current “patois” - altogether another universe from the real world, life on the elite Dupont University campus.
Applauded for scholastic achievements in her hometown, Charlotte is barely able to process the changes, tumbling into one eye-opening experience after another, receiving an education that is vastly different from what she expected. It strains believability that this young woman is so utterly adrift in the social strata of her peers, as though she has been raised by wolves instead of North Carolina.
Wolfe writes in uneven, sometimes jarring prose of the college pranks, the frat parties, the gossip, college politics, a jock culture, the intellectuals and teachers at odds over an incipient scandal, alternating chapters of a tell-all tale of campus antics that makes the sixties look like a church social. On this campus the world-at-large doesn’t exist; the drunkenness, lack of values, live-for-today mentality in contrast to Charlotte’s constant whining “ohmigod” as she charges from one disaster to another.
Although Wolfe peers at his subjects “through a glass, darkly,” he fails to inhabit the mind of a young female out of her depth in her first foray into campus society, let alone the world at large. Her inner conflicts turn into a burlesque as her belief system breaks down, the need for acceptance outweighing personal values: “She had sacrificed everything- virginity, dignity, reputation, plus her ambitions, her mission... to everyone who had stood by her.”
The author’s observations are often astute but too riddled with minutiae, his protagonists’ every thought exposed ad nauseum. These characters hold nothing back, obsessed with the moment, from Charlotte’s emotional purging to the professor’s didactic lectures, the idiomatic chatter of the students is mixed with the occasional literary aside or gratuitous phrase, lest we forget who has written this novel.
This issue is whether Wolfe has made his case: whether this petulant, self-important character can speak for her generation, albeit symbolically. Each new work Wolfe produces is undoubtedly compared to his seminal masterpiece, The Bonfire of the Vanities; still, he is asking a lot from his readers with this one. Wolfe’s determined lack of discipline may have rendered his novel too precious and self-conscious to graduate with honors.