52 in 52 / Longs. / Word.

Book Review – Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons

Sometimes, when kids go to college, they binge drink and have lots of sex. If you didn’t know that, and prefer to get your information through 700+ page novels, then this is your jam:

The cover of I am Charlotte Simmons (2004) indicates exactly what is wrong with the book (i.e. it’s terrible and can’t stand on its own merit). Imagine a bookstore browser’s internal monologue: Who wrote this thing? TOM WOLFE!!! What is it? TOM WOLFE!!! Seriously, what’s the title of this thing? TOM WOLFE!!! Is that the guy who wrote Electric Kool-Aid Ac– TOM WOLFE!!!

Well let’s get into it a bit. This novel follows Charlotte Simmons, a fantastically naive prude from small-town North Carolina as she heads off to college at Dupont University. We’re also introduced to Adam, a nerd; Hoyt, a prep; Beverly, the popular girl; and Jojo, a jock. If this is starting to sound like Breakfast Club, it shouldn’t. Breakfast Club was entertaining.

The characters in I am Charlotte Simmons don’t do much outside of what we expect of them. The nerd gets fiesty and angsty. The popular girl bangs a whole bunch of randoms. The jock scores some baskets. The prude walks around being shocked at everything for awhile (Alcohol?! In the dorms?!?!) but does get to eventually have sex (hooray?). It’s a hilariously awful scene that won the infamous Literary Review Bad Sex award (an annual prize awarded to the worst description of sex in a contemporary novel). Wolfe was pissed when he “won” and told everyone that the scene wasn’t bad writing but that it was good irony. Here. You decide:

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns…

No.

Just no.

In spite of this, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Tom Wolfe can write the pants off of a story (no pun intended). The prose here (with a few slithering exceptions) moves quickly and easily. But Wolf is 81 years old – 70-something when he wrote Charlotte. And it’s impossible to escape the failings of the narrative voice here – a voice that sounds like a 70-year-old man talking about “kids these days” to a bunch of other old farts. Here’s a prime example:

Mike had a new PlayStation 3 set, and it was awesome.

Dear God. I should stop there, but I won’t.

The images had depth and fluid motion; the sounds rose and fell just the way they should, and they had a wraparound effect, and you felt like you really were competing – football, baseball, basketball, boxing, judo, whatever – before cheering fans in some huge stadium. It was all eerily realistic. How the hell did they come up with these things?

The only way this could sound more like an old dude was if he started talking about Pong. It gets worse.

So Jojo and Mike sat down and picked up the handsets for their current favorite, which was called Stunt Biker. You were on a bicycle on a huge half-pipe, doing double, triple flips in the air and full gainers and everything else, while thousands cheered. What they both liked best about Stunt Biker were the wipeouts. If you miscalculated on your flips and crashed you usually landed on your neck. In real life, although not on PlayStation 3, you’d be dead.

I think this section speaks for itself. Charlotte is a novel with few if any redeeming characteristics. Wolfe could have saved this by turning it into satire (it’s not, by the way, satire is supposed to be funny) or into nonfiction. Or I could have quit reading after the first hundred pages. Nobody’s perfect.

I give this book zero otorhinolaryngological caverns.

[As a side note, I’m hoping to not have to go back as far as 2004 for the 52 in 52 series again.]

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One thought on “Book Review – Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons

  1. that book sucked; his new one “Back To Blood” isn’t much better–he tries to hide how scared shitless he is of minorities by having them get into fights with stuffy white wimpy liberal stereotypes

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