Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Review: I Am Charlotte Simmons

I know I don't do many book reviews. The simple reason is it takes me a lot longer to get through a 700 page book than a two and a half hour movie.

So here goes...

I Am Charlotte Simmons
by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe’s latest tome, “I Am Charlotte Simmons” Is the story of college life like you’ve never seen it… unless you’ve been there.

As suggested by the title the story revolves around Charlotte Simmons, an extremely bright young lady from the mountains of North Carolina. She is fluent in French, having the ability to start her college career in 300 level neuroscience classes and an intellectual curiosity that is at the heart the purest of intentions of higher education. Despite these qualities she is quite naïve as to the social habits of college students. And that is the central focus of the conflict of the story.

Charlotte enters the fictitious Dupont University. A school with an academic reputation rivaling those schools in the Ivy League, Stanford or Notre Dame, but also with a national championship basketball program and a football tailgating atmosphere that you’d find a most Big Ten schools. A collage of college experiences if you will.

Charlotte has much difficulty in accepting these college experiences. From her first night in the dorm she is appalled by the rampant drinking, and is scared to death of sex. Those fears later justified as her life begins a downward spiral when she loses her virginity in a less than desirable way.

Complementing the overall theme of the book is a sub plot about the struggle between academics and athletics. A star (white) athlete who is about to loose his starting position on the championship basketball team to a (black) freshman struggles with the fact that this may be all he ever is. Inspired by Charlotte’s academic purity of heart he peruses academics somewhat seriously, instead of taking fluff classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible in the eyes of the NCAA. Her inspiration comes just a moment too late as a history professor accuses the basketball star of plagiarism and an investigation ensues.

As Wolfe takes us to college through the pure eyes of Charlotte Simmons we see the university life contrasts itself with the way it should be. Wolfe goes into great detail explaining the language of these so called aspiring intellectuals. Their liberal use of F-bombs, the rampant sarcasm (quantitatively broken down into three levels defined as SARC-1, 2 or 3), and a series of euphemisms and metaphors that, despite their crudeness, in execution are quite creative.

The honesty of the novel continues with the description of its characters. The style-over-substance frat boy; the militant feminist who has nothing in practice to be militant about; the jock in an institution for learning yet knows nothing; and the academic elites who’s academic honesty stops at their political ideology; and the geek who’s academic interest is equaled only to his jealousy of those who traded learning for popularity.

Charlotte however is a metaphor. She represents intelligence, the fundamental mission of college. It is those around her that represent the flaws of academia and those in it’s ranks.

  • Hoyt Thorpe, the popular partying fraternity guy. For all he has to offer Charlotte, the school and what they have to offer him in turn, he turns down for the next beer kegger.
  • Beverly, Gloria and a host of other boarding-school educated sorority girls who seem more interested in boys than books (insert “Mrs. Degree” joke here).
  • Benitta and Mimi, the so-called friends of Charlotte, they are definitely looking for the “Mrs. Degree” and they need to climb the social ladder of the college in order to do that. Even if it means gossiping and backstabbing each other to do it.
  • Adam Gellen, the nerd. He loves Charlotte; he really truly does, but is angry at the world and all those who have kept him in such a humble position in life. His love in the purest sense is put on hold when revenge presets itself.
  • Jojo Johanson is the athlete who is rather unaware of the academic institution, save the co-eds most of whom are on their backs at the mere mention of his name. However it is his introduction to Charlotte, and the rest of the intellectual environment that reforms him.

The flaws of each of the characters are expressed by the way they use Charlotte and abuse her good nature and also the way they abuse the academic opportunity in front of them. By the end of the novel it is easy to see how much better off they would be if the focus of college life was not the parties, the football games, the fraternity formals and the opportunity for sex at every turn. Charlotte experiences these things, and once she overcomes them, she is stronger for it. Everyone else finds themselves in the same place they started. Only those with Charlotte’s fortitude move toward real success.


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