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Monday, January 10, 2005

Book Review: I am Charlotte Simmons

Behold the groves of academe at the fictional Dupont College, setting for Tom Wolfe's new novel, I am Charlotte Simmons. Think Duke or Stanford. Wolfe is up to his old tricks, hanging around college campuses "new journalism" style and crafting a novel teeming with social criticism. The story: inject a wide-eyed innocent expecting to breath the rarefied air of intellectural discourse at one of our nation's top-shelf instituions of higher learning. What happens? All she finds is the fetid, beery funk of disaffected intercourse.

There are few writers of " literary fiction" who write from a non-liberal perspective in American letters today. While I would put Tom Wolfe squarely in the center-right of the political spectrum, the establishment belles lettrists of course believe he is a fanatical, raving, fascist lunatic foaming at the mouth. Ironically for a non-liberal, Tom Wolfe pioneered and now embodies this rather post-modern school of writing, the "new" journalism. This is Wolfe's third novel in the Zolaesque style he now champions. From his 1989 manifesto Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: "I argued that the American novel had deteriorated into a 'weak, pale, tabescent' condition so grave, its very survival depended on somehow sending 'a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas ... out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours to reclaim it as a literary property."

Needless to say, Wolfe's new offering I am Charlotte Simmons was poorly reviewed by the critical elite. They saw his take on the American college experience in the 21st Century as both oddly detached and luridly voyeuristic. Let's face it, Wolfe is far from bildung to be writing the definitive bildungsroman, and I am Charlotte Simmons is not Bonfire of the Vanities, perhaps the defining novel of the 1980's. But Wolfe wryly depicts the hedonistic mores of college students, the binge drinking, and the campus culture wars. He acurately skewers big money college athletics, hypocritical liberal professors, and hapless administrators. His plotting is clever but the characters are really just interchangeable archetypes: the jock, the nerd, the virgin, the frat guy. And in today's hyper-sophisticated world the eponymous heroine is really a bit too naive to be credible.

Nevertheless, I think the critics missed Wolfe's point. Oh and those oft maligned sex scenes, they are grossly anatomical for a reason, he's describing sex as gross anatomy. Get it?

All the sex qua sex talk builds on Wolfe's cognitive neuroscience theme, and here is a lot of biology going on here. So where is Wolfe going with all this? Is he aiming for an updated naturalism based on the cognitive sciences, a bionovel? The neuroscience thread is perhaps the most intriguing theme in IACS.

Is this Zola? No. It's not even BOTV or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I recommend it.


At Monday, January 10, 2005 at 10:46:00 AM EST, Blogger Kid Various said...

Oh, if only I could find the fetid, beery funk of disaffected intercourse!

At Monday, January 10, 2005 at 12:18:00 PM EST, Blogger Mr. Scriblerus said...

But you don't drink beer.


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