Thursday, October 19, 2006
I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe
I was a bit put off by the title, but it was written by Tom Wolfe, so I bit.
The forward tells about a research project in which cats are a part of some neurological experiment that turns them into sex crazed beasts that will copulate with anything in sight. There is a control group of cats that has not been altered, and it is discovered that they behave the same way after merely sharing the same laboritory where they could watch the others in action. I thought this was an ominous way to begin a novel about a studious girl from a small mountain community going to a top flight University on full academic scholarship.
Charlotte Simmons is not just smart. She is square, old-fashioned, and economically challenged in a sea of affluent, spoiled party animals. She is endlessly disappointed in the revelation that people who needed a 1400 SAT to get in cast off all semblance of intelligence after coming to college. And the college lets her down by failing to tag her French Lit class as one for athletes only. The players on the Dupont University NCAA Championship basketball team meet their language requirement by taking a class in which no French is actually spoken. Before she drops the class she meets one of the players, JoJo Johanson, who really wants to be an actual student instead of a "student athlete". Her offhand assessment of the players goads him into taking a harder class, which puts him at odds with his coach.
Other sub-plots include a Frat-boy with no real future, living entierely for his college years, trying to parlay his knowledge of a politician's on-campus indiscretion into a meal ticket; and a senior nerd-journalist who has written a paper for an athlete, and is not trying to save his academic future after its discovery. These are all related, and even resolved by the end, although not to everyone's satisfaction.
The language is raw and real. The sex is rather pedestrian except for the seduction scene of a virgin that is downright instructive. If you already have an intact, mature worldview, you will find this a disgusting expose of campus life. There wasn't near as much sex on campus when I was in school, and girls almost never used the F-word. But I know they do now, so the sex is probably just as ramped up.
Tom Wolfe is interviewed on the 25th disc of this set, and he went to many campuses around the country, including our own dear UF. Ours is the only town he mentions by name in the interview.
This story was entertaining, alarming, funny, erotic, but ultimately deflating. Charlotte ends up finding her significance in rather shallow satisfactions. I think JoJo was the most elevated character in the book, and I found myself pulling for him early. Maybe it's because I still pine away for the way I wasted my own short time in college on trivial things.
Parents who read this may think twice about sending their kids away to college.