Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe


When the Duke Lacrosse case (2006) rocked the world, and most certainly North Carolina, many people remarked at the similarities between what was revealed as life on Duke and the life at the fictional Dupont University in Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons (2004). For those who argued that Wolfe had sensationalized a culture of white privilege, sexual degradation and racism, the true story of the Duke Lacrosse team and the accusations that flew their way was an eye-opener. Wolfe maintains that Duke wasn’t the sole model for Dupont, but the similarities between the campuses (prestige, power, basketball, beautiful campus, gothic elements, etc.) are enough to say “hey, Tom. It’s okay. Let it be Duke.” In all honesty, Dupont is a combination of several prestigious private universities and some of the public ivys, such as UNC.


I found myself very interested in the Duke Lacrosse case and the allegations surrounding the affluent team members. When I heard the parallels with themes from Wolfe’s novel, I picked the hefty work up – the publicity was enough to tickle my fancy, especially after I’d already formed a decent relationship with Wolfe after reading A Man in Full. I couldn’t have been more surprised; this novel astounded me in unexpected ways. I’m apt to declare that ALL incoming college freshmen should be required to read it. I realize the novel makes college sound positively horrid, but bare with me - through his over-the-top portrayals, Wolfe manages to reveal a truth that is universal; we all just want to belong and sometimes belonging means losing yourself.


The novel focuses on Charlotte Simmons, a na├»ve yet insanely smart good ole southern gal from Sparta, North Carolina. When we first see Charlotte, she is delivering her valedictorian’s speech and swelling with pride and accomplishment as all eyes turn her way. “I am Charlotte Simmons,” she repeats to herself triumphantly in a “the world is my oyster” kind of way as she basks in the adoration of the adults – the students, her classmates, are below her and not really worth impressing. The reader gets a little insight into Charlotte at this point – her need to belong, to connect with her classmates juxtaposed against the alienation of her intelligence and the better life that awaits her. Charlotte’s genius had earned her a full-scholarship to Dupont University, a fictional institution in Pennsylvania, and while the adults worshipped her for it, her classmates envied her. Wolfe doesn’t hesitate to present Charlotte’s flaws and inner conflicts to the reader; he doesn’t want her to be viewed as some virginal concept of innocence, though that is how she appears to many of the people she encounters. Wolfe doesn’t want you to be fooled; Charlotte is no different from you.


When Charlotte’s parents move her into Dupont, the reader is embarrassed for her. Her mother’s hideous outfit and her father’s horrible mermaid tattoo combined with their awww shucks, salt-of-the-earth, good-country-people presentation is enough to make you cringe when her filthy rich, white as white can be, boarding school educated, nothing but the best for daddy’s little girl roommate and her family stroll into the room. You know right away that Charlotte will not be connecting with Beverly. Beverly is another stereotype for Wolfe and he plays her well.


Other stereotypes include Jojo Johanssen, a white basketball player on the verge of losing his starting position to a black freshman; Vernon Congers, the black freshman on the verge of greatness who is about as dumb as a bag of bricks; Hoyt Thorpe, a fratastic pretty-boy who thinks the world is “fucking” his and it doesn’t matter who or what he destroys; Adam Gellin, the virgin-senior resident dork, working two jobs just to survive at Dupont, including tutoring the athletes and resenting the white & athletic privilege of the “cool” with every fiber of his being; Camille, the insanely smart but militantly angry feminist; Randy, the fresh out of the closet, overly-sensitive gay guy; Bettina, the overly “plump” girl who tries too hard to fit in and fails miserably; and a large cast of characters including your average sorostitutes, drunken homophobic frat boys, violent lacrosse players, sluts, playas, dorks, jocks, nerds – it’s like the Breakfast Club on a cocaine and Aristocrat cocktail.


The stereotypes are well carried out; the basketball stars are treated like gods – the athletic department “surprises” them with fantastic SUVs to draw even more attention to themselves on campus, the athletic tutors are required to take any step necessary to ensure the student-athletes don’t fall behind (this includes actually doing the assignments for them), there is a list of classes that are “jock-approved” and taught by “athlete-friendly” professors, the females are constantly throwing their panties at them and the players get a lot of action on AND off the court, the stars are not intelligent and are well below the average for getting into the school but the white players (called swimmies) on the team are there to ensure the team’s combined GPA meets the requirements, the starters who ARE smart hide their intelligence under a mask of “cool,” etc. The frat boys are overgrown, sex-craved, alcoholic druggies who just like to get “fucked” - in more ways than one – and ooze white privilege. The nerds are so desperate to belong and be cool but smart enough to resist and fight the definition of “cool.”


The language Wolfe seems to overuse may be crass and crude, but if you’ve ever stepped foot in a university dining hall, a quad, a brickyard, a pit, etc., you’ll know he’s not really exaggerating. Below is a quote that explains the native language of college kids:


“Without even realizing what it was, Jojo spoke in this year’s prevailing college creole: Fuck Patois. In Fuck Patois, the word fuck was used as an interjection (“What the fuck” or plain “Fuck,” with or without the exclamation point) expressing unhappy surprise; as a participial adjective (“fucking gay,” “fucking tree,” “fucking elbows”) expressing disparagement or discontent; as an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective (“pretty fucking obvious”) or a verb (“I’m going to fucking kick his ass”); as a noun (“That stupid fuck,” “don’t give a good fuck”); as a verb meaning Go away (“Fuck off”), beat – physically, financially, or politically (“really fucked him over”) or beaten (“I’m fucked”), botch (“really fucked that up”), drunk (You are so fucked up”); as an imperative expressing contempt (“Fuck you,” “Fuck that”). Rarely – the usage had become somewhat archaic – but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse (“He fucked on the carpet in front of the TV”).”


When Charlotte falls from grace, as she must, the reader is there with her. When Hoyt gets her drunk and takes her virginity, the reader sees it coming and longs to step into the pages and say “honey… no,” but we can’t stop her and her desire to be wanted results in her letting him go too far. And like the typical self-absorbed frat boy, Hoyt ruins her. As a reader, I became beyond annoyed with how soundly she lets him break her; he destroys her and she rolls over and lets it happen. Not only does she wallow in self-pity, she blames her self. She turns to Adam, oh knight in shining virgin armor, to stand in and rescue her. (He really just wants to get laid.) He picks her up, brushes her off, and eventually helps her get back on track. One of my favorite lines is when she’s having a breakdown. “Adam, essentially a literary intellectual, didn’t realize he was listening to the typical depressed girl who has made the appalling discovery that she is worthless.” Truly, what girl/woman HASN’T been there before? Of course, even as Adam is doing everything in his power to win her love, she’s embarrassed to be seen with him, to be connected to him. (Oh Charlotte – are you really much better than dear Beverly?)


One of the other story lines involves Hoyt and the governor from California. The novel opens with Hoyt and another brother drunkenly stumbling across the governor, in town to speak at commencement, getting head from an underclassman. The governor’s bodyguard approaches the boys; the boys swell up with drunken bravado and actually win the fight. The incident becomes known as the “Night of the Skull Fuck.” Hoyt uses this incident to deify himself on campus; he is so proud of himself, so assured in his right to fucking own the world. Word spreads and Adam hears about the story and wants to cover it for the paper. The brother who’d been with Hoyt that night is afraid of what actions the governor might take; Hoyt, however, is invincible. As Hoyt nears graduation, and Adam’s editor continues to be too afraid to publish the story, he begins to wonder about his future – his grades are god-awful. A surprise comes when Hoyt gets a job offer based on the governor’s recommendation. The job would be the gift for his silence. Adam, bent on destroying the powerful and the man who broke his innocent Charlotte, gets his story published. The job offer is pulled, the governor and his run for presidency is destroy, and Hoyt is screwed. It’s a sweet revenge, but it doesn’t win Charlotte. Of course, at this point, Adam doesn’t care; he thought he needed Charlotte but becoming a local celebratory, a name on everyone’s lips, erased the need for her and she happily moved on.


What does she move on to? Jojo. What else? Charlotte Simmons only wants to belong and being Jojo’s “girl” brings her more attention and stardom than she could have ever imagined. That’s the irony of the title and Charlotte’s oft expressed thought: I am Charlotte Simmons. The reader is left with the realization that Charlotte didn’t find herself and the question: WHO is Charlotte Simmons? The answer, Jojo’s girl, is not satisfying but it’s realistic.


I thought that Duke and the lacrosse case would be constantly on my mind while I was reading the novel, but those thoughts faded away when I realized that MY college experience mirrored that of Charlotte Simmons; I could have been a student at Dupont. I Am Charlotte Simmons furrowed my brow, made me bite my lip, had me chuckling, brought tears to my eyes, and resulted in the gritting of teeth. It’s harsh, violent and revealing; three things a journalist like Wolfe has more than mastered. I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. I couldn’t sleep AFTER I finished it. The book was under my skin and in my head; I think there may be a little bit of Charlotte in all us fresh-faced freshmen.

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