The groves of Sodom and Gomorrah U.
A brilliant but naive young woman discovers college life is decadent
Halfway through Tom Wolfe's enormous new novel about contemporary college life, I finally devised a question to keep my interest piqued: "Is it humanly possible," I wondered, "to write another 100 pages - another 200 pages, another 300 pages - without describing a single surprising event?"Skip to next paragraph
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With "I Am Charlotte Simmons," Wolfe has ventured onto the university campus and sent back reams of hyperventilating testimony: College students are slovenly and crude. They drink way too much. They listen to obscene music. They engage in casual and exploitative sex. They put their feet on the furniture - even leather sofas and fine woodwork.
But wait, there's more: College students would rather socialize than study. It's all right here, spelled out in tones of amazement, like George H.W. Bush telling us about those new scanners at the grocery store.
If you haven't seen "Animal House" or anything on the WB, you'll be surprised to learn that collegiate society is divided between "jocks" and "nerds." The jocks are very athletic, but not very smart, whereas the nerds are very smart, but not very athletic.
Am I going too fast?
To write this novel, Wolfe claims that he "had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country," a technique that may explain the book's superficiality. This isn't the anthropology of the Ordinary - a potentially revelatory approach; it's just a dramatization of clichés.
Even the style lacks Wolfe's usual verve. He's particularly interested in the way modern Americans talk, but in his Rip Van Winkle voice, we get endless explanations and reenactments of what he calls the "undergraduate vocabulary," a discovery he highlights in a brief dedication to his children. Most of the dialogue is written in a profane patois that Wolfe spells out as though he's recording the grunts and clicks of a lost dialect from Inner Mongolia. But he has nothing to add to Norman Mailer's far more daring analysis of American profanity some 40 years ago in "Armies of the Night."
Even more tedious than the affected slips of Southern and African-American dialects are his needless parenthetical translations: I can't (cain't) stand them('em). And when characters yell at each other, their words are written in caps so that we know THEY'RE SPEAKING VERY LOUDLY.
The story follows the rise and fall of Charlotte Simmons, a brilliant country bumpkin from Sparta, N.C., (pop. 900), who wins a scholarship to Dupont University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Charlotte's parents are simple folk, devout Christians, who have instilled in their daughter a deep sense of morality. They don't drink, swear, put on airs, or take no stock in your highfalutin citified ways. Along with a devoted teacher at school, they have instilled in Charlotte a sense of her exceptionalism that inspires the novel's title, which is also a sort of inspirational mantra for the heroine.