wombat_socho (wombat_socho) wrote,

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The wombat reads a NYT best-seller

I don't really know what to think about I Am Charlotte Simmons, the new novel from Tom Wolfe about a hill-country genius from a poor North Carolina family who winds up with a full-ride Presidential Scholarship to elite Dupont University. I bought it earlier this week after getting an e-mail from Borders advising me that they'd have a limited number of copies available for half-price, and I guess it was worth the ~$15. My first reaction is that Tom Wolfe writes better non-fiction than he does fiction. Neither this novel nor Bonfire of the Vanities, which I read a couple years after all the hooraw had died down, were all that great imao. They certainly didn't impress me in the way that, say, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game or any of C. J. Cherryh's Alliance/Union novels did, and being products of their times I don't think Wolfe's novels are going to have much to say to people who might read them fifty years from now.

Part of the problem is that none of the characters in the book are very likable. Charlotte and her family come from a straitlaced Southern strain of Protestantism that makes Baptists seem licentious by comparison, and the contrast between Charlotte's attitudes and the other girls in the freshman class at Dupont is like night and day. I think Wolfe wanted to draw some analogies between the cats he mentions in the pre-prologue and the freshmen at Dupont, but Charlotte's a poor example of that. She doesn't really ever fall into the social swim at Dupont the way her roommate does for the simple reason that she doesn't really know how to - unlike her disgusting roomie Beverly, she doesn't have the "advantage" of wealthy parents who could send her to a private prep school so that she could learn how to act like a dissolute slut. So Charlotte doesn't; in fact, she has a lot of difficulty understanding why her dormmates act the way they do, and her RA is no help at all. Eventually she muddles through and finds a place for herself at Dupont, but it appears to be more a result of dumb luck and random chance rather than through any particular effort on Charlotte's part.

Of the other main characters in the book, the only remotely sympathetic character is Jojo Johanssen, a basketball player who comes to realize (thanks to Charlotte) that there's more to college than the orange ball that got him to Dupont. Jojo starts out as just another dumbass jock, but he eventually turns into a true scholar-athlete and manages to hold onto Charlotte, which none of the other two main characters manage to do.

You could say that Hoyt Thorpe was never really interested in Charlotte except as a trophy, and you would be right; you could also say that his destruction at the hands of Adam Gellin is no more than a classical requirement laid down by the Muse, who demands that those exhibiting the sin of pride be appropriately struck down. All of this would be correct, and Wolfe spares us no detail in showing just how loathsome this hedonistic young frat boy and his fellows are. There is a background character from Charlotte's high school, Channing Reeves, who shows up very briefly at her graduation party before being given the bum's rush by her father and some large male cousins, and perhaps one thing to remark on is how similar Channing is to Hoyt - except that Hoyt has some advantages Channing doesn't, and Channing has some shred of class that the fratboy does not...just enough to make Channing a better man.

And what of Adam Gellin, who pulls Charlotte back from the brink of her post-Christmas depression and in turn is delivered by her from his own? I suspect that like Thorpe, Gellin is not so much a fully-developed character but an archetype: the intellectual so wrapped up in the life of the mind that he can barely recognize other people through the fog of ideas. One suspects that he falls in love with the idea of being in love with Charlotte more than he does with Charlotte herself. Even so, he does her a couple of good turns, which is more than you can say about any of the other characters in the book, who by and large are not very sympathetic or likeable either.

I'll be taking another gander at the book when I can sit down and read it straight through sometime, since I read it through the first time in bits and pieces here and there. I don't think my opinion of the book is going to change, but I'll probably find a few things I missed on the first trip through.
Tags: books, culture w/o politics
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