I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
Find it on: Amazon
What it is:
Tom Wolfe takes on an American model of toxic masculinity as it shows itself in Ivy League colleges. Through the story of Charlotte Simmons, a prodigy from a small mountain town with a scholarship to Dupont, a fictional college, Wolfe examines the superficiality of college culture and its lack of moral grounding. He also makes a few jabs at college sports through a story of Jojo, a basketball star, and at fraternities through sociopathic Hoyt.
How I found it:
I probably liked the blurb because college stories are second best to high school stories in my world.
It didn’t bore me but didn’t particularly enrich my life either.
Best things about it:
It reads really well. I stayed curious as to what was going to happen and all the dramatic turns made me read greedily.
Also, with the quasi-scientific introduction and the first two chapters you think you know where the story is going and at first it feels like waiting for a train-wreck which really shouldn’t need so many pages. But that train-wreck never exactly happens and Wolfe manages to draw something more from the premise.
Worst things about it:
It’s true I am reading this book at a specific moment when toxic masculinity is very much a part of everyday’s discourse and that makes me focus entirely on this aspect of the novel. But with this laser-sharp focus I also notice that while Wolfe tells us that the vision of masculinity that his characters cherish doesn’t work, he doesn’t really give us any alternative or positive role models.
That ties in with the fact that you can’t root for any of the characters. In fact, the sociopathic frat boy, Hoyt, at least doesn’t vie for the reader’s sympathy at all and you feel good disliking him, while Charlotte and Adam, who should be more nuanced, seem maybe even more repelling in their superficiality and egotism.
✤ Jojo is the only character I actually sort of liked but his progress remains somewhat mechanical and his storyline marginal to the main narrative.
✤ The campus seems like a real (albeit gloomy) place.
✤ Millenial Mutants works as a term.
✤ I learned a few new words from this book because it insists on choosing very sophisticated vocabulary.
✤ However, the big words are used in all situations, without much differentiation and while they work fine in Charlotte’s or Adam’s stories, in other cases they sometimes sound false.
✤ I am so done with anti-heroes. I wish Charlotte had one good quality. One. (Other than the virginal status written apparently on her forehead so that everyone immediately saw it and fell in love.)
✤ I find it hard to believe that no students in top colleges show interest in anything other than clothes and sex. Call me an idealist.
How it enriched my life:
It introduced me to a new author and gave me a vision of college very different from either the one I know or the one I read about in other campus novels.
One of the words I didn’t know was “cenacle.”
I’m sort of interested in Wolfe’s biggest novel, The Bonfire of Vanities, but with reservations because 1980s novels often put me off.
People who want to tell themselves that it’s good they didn’t get into the Ivy League. Anyone who hates students and wants arguments why. People who want to read a soapy drama with a veneer of a serious book.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Next time: The Good Place