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Monday, August 13, 2007

I am Charlotte Simmons

I've been wanting to post this for a while, but hadn't gotten it done because of my busy schedule here (beach, pool, going out, doing nothing, you know busy vacation schedule...). I read Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons in pretty much one sitting while flying to Miami (I literally got out of my seat like twice and only stopped shortly during meals). As a seven-hour read like that implies it is well-written book and an enjoyable read. Yet, I was not all that excited about it in the end, especially the denouement really was a drag and disappointment.

Tom Wolfe, whom I really don't know much about it, is apparently one of the American reporter/writer legends - like Norman Mailer for example. He is old, about 80 if I remember this correctly from one of the reviews of the book I read and for this novel he tried to totally immerse himself in modern American college culture. I will soon be able to pass better judgment on this, but I felt as if his portrayal of this binge-drinking culture centered around sex was greatly exaggerated, excessive and limited in its scope. For some reason Wolfe seemed incapable of developing well-rounded characters, they all stayed on a stock character level. The frat boy with bad grades and only sex and alcohol on his mind. The nerd. The athlete, who actually is the only one that at least limited breaks out of his role type by developing an interest in Socrates.

The main character, Charlotte Simmons, is completely overdrawn as a country girl that comes to the big, bad college world and is corrupted by the appeal of the frat boy upon which her world crumbles around her. All this is fine and dandy but not only is the naivety of Charlotte of a level seemingly impossible after the advent of television, Internet or even radio. Furthermore, the destruction of her world is not understandable. She has sex with the frat boy who does not care about her after having gotten some booty and this turns her world upside down. Now, I understand that a country girl with a religious mom (even if her own beliefs are never discussed, another weak point) might have problem with having gotten drunk for the first time and then wasted her virginity on an undeserving guy with no further interest in her. Yet, her reaction in the end is too strong, she gets relatively bad grades for her first semester because of the depression she gets in after that event, but it is completely inconceivable to describe how she basically stops talking to everyone and keeps on having crying attacks months after her first time took place.

Additionally, it is not clear what she wants or is depressed about. Is the problem that she lost her virginity, lied to her parents and received bad grades? Or is the problem that no 'cool' sorority will now take her because she got laid by some frat boy? Wolfe just does not a good job of describing the problem, of explaining Charlotte.

Lastly, the ridiculous obsession with sex and bodies that dominates the novel was too much for me. Wolfe describes every guy's muscles specifically, uses medical terms for each one most of which I had never even heard (nor bothered to look up I have to admit). Finally, sex. Every one in the book is to some extent obsessed with it. It never becomes quite clear why. Maybe this is an American thing, but I honestly believe that Wolfe in his old age dwelled on that which he misses most of his youth, sex and an athletic body. Thus, I feel like the book is more about what an old man sees in young people than about actual youngsters.

PS: This also will be an age thing but it annoyed me a lot. Wolfe's third-person narrator has super traditional or conservative view of men and women:
"the power that woman can hold over that creature who is as monomaniacally hormonocentric as the beasts of the field, Man" is just one example for this.

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