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?"
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.
Charlotte heads off to Dupont University expecting to enter the august halls of academe, but she quickly finds that it's a brothel, seething with vain, vicious girls and crude, drunken boys. Her snobby roommate won't have anything to do with her. The coed bathrooms are an abomination. Athletes on the basketball team don't take their classes seriously. And hunky frat boys pretend to be interested in your mind, but they're interested in only one thing. (I won't spoil it for you.)
Poor Charlotte is consumed with loneliness and confusion. Everyone mocks her clothes, her naiveté, her virginity, her tee-totaling. Professors recognize her brilliance, but brilliance doesn't matter in this marketplace of drunken flesh. So, how can she resist when the hottest boy on campus asks her to the Spring Formal? (Wolfe Note: The term "hottest" is not a reference to the temperature of his body, but to the developed musculature of his body, which, along with a number of male bodies in this book, is described with slobbering attention.)
Meanwhile, one of the nerds who works for the school paper (where else?) is pursuing a scandal that could rock American politics, but don't worry about that potentially interesting thread; it never leads off campus - or toward anything.
The only issue that develops some traction in this novel is race. Wolfe explored that more profoundly in "The Bonfire of Vanities" and "A Man in Full," but his portrayal here of the racial tensions on the college basketball court is engaging. He shows a sport played largely by black men for the entertainment of white fans in an academic setting that contorts its principles to keep the whole industry going.
The cynical coach reaps millions; the pasty professor growls about academic standards; the expedient college president maintains an uneasy truce. All these characters play to type, but at the center of this subplot is a white basketball star who feels threatened by the talent and aggression of black players all around him. Why, he wonders, do they have access to a whole range of words and stances that are forbidden to him? What's more, he's starting to feel attracted to a life of the mind that he can just barely imagine. But this minor development is buried in a variety of borrowed plot lines, including a climactic bit of satire about political correctness that might have been sharp 20 years ago.
The problem isn't really the inclusion of so many cliché characters; sadly, there are plenty of real students who fall into these categories. What's galling about this novel is its persistent lack of nuance, its reduction of the whole spectrum of people on a college campus to these garish primary colors.
Wolfe wrote a much discussed essay for Harper's in 1989, "A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel." Instead of the cerebral games that now pass for fiction, he argued, American novelists should "head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property." This is good advice. When he took it, he hog-stomped out two baroque novels, first about New York and then about Atlanta. But cooped up on campus with "Charlotte Simmons" he's too predictable and too late to reclaim anything of interest.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, Ron Charles.