As you may recall, I had been greatly enjoying Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons when I put it down earlier this year to take up other reading. And so when I picked it up again after finishing A History of the Middle East it was with great expectation and excitement.
But I can't recommend this book—which, considering that I actually recommended A History of Post-Colonial Lusophone Africa, should come as something of a surprise. Tom Wolfe has been—and I suppose still remains—one of my favorite writers, certainly one of my favorite novelists (along with T.C. Boyle and Richard Russo). Thus, unfortunately, when I don’t like one of his books it’s rather like the betrayal of a lover, instead of just a lousy read.
I won’t go back on what I said earlier. The beginning of this book is almost scary good. Wolfe got so much right it should make any writer feel like a hack for even trying. But then it starts to get… to get… to get…
Well, actually, once the introductions are all complete the book starts to get really interesting. What Wolfe is great at is taking a group of characters who have no earthly business being in the same story, and throwing them all together. He's given us an interesting cast in this story, and by the middle of the book you're getting jumpy, eager to see how he's going to weave them all together and what miracles he will show you along the way.
But by this time, a few things have really started to irritate you. Wolfe has selected two particular aspects of college life and harped on them so mercilessly they become a cliché before the story itself is even half over:
1. College students fuck a lot.
Wow. I mean, great, great insight, that. Truly deserving of a place in the pantheon of profundity. How much research did he have to do to uncover that little gem? A casual glance at MySpace? In fact, he bases the entire thesis of this book (yes, Wolfe's novels do indeed theses, and I only wish I was good enough that mine did, too) on a study that indicates that even rational non-sexaholics placed in a highly sexually charged atmosphere will turn into raging hornytoads. Too bad he made up said study.
I disagree with this entire thesis. I'm extremely smart. I went to college. A lot of the students at the college I went to fucked around a lot. I didn't turn into a drooling lust-crazed poonchaser within one semester of my arrival there. Nor, surprisingly, did any of my friends—at least, not that they're letting on. I can warrant that people less self-assured or intellectual than myself might have, but young Charlotte Simmons is if anything far more self-assured and intellectual. That she would be so swept away rang a bit hollow for me.
And, of course, I cannot fail to point out Wolfe's continual repetition of the theme: college students fuck a lot. (Sorry for the profanity, but it's Wolfe's choice of word, and, frankly, all of our other euphemisms for the act—even the word "sex" itself—are too soft-edged to be accurate descriptors.) On virtually every page is some reference to the theme. Even on pages that consist of conversations between three adults, there will be some reference to the quantity of rumpus the students engage in. And of course, there's Wolfe's favorite phrase: "rutrutrutrutrut." It was comical the first time, amusing the second, and mildly interesting the third. By the fourth it was simply repetitive. By the time Christmas break finally rolled around, two-thirds of the way through the book, I was sick of it, wanted to cross it out with a Sharpie every time it was written. Find a new fucking metaphor, Tom!
2. Boys in college work out.
This actually rates higher than the previous insight, though that isn't saying much. In fact at first I was quite impressed with some of the comments Wolfe makes—muscles are just like any other thing you put on your body as a fashion statement. How true. How insightful. How many times will I have to read it in the course of this novel? Let's try to keep it under a hundred, if possible.
It's a fair point to make, certainly—when I went to college a mere (dare I admit it?) certain number of years ago, this trend had not yet fully developed, but is certainly the case now. Muscles are in (though only for men, thankfully). Abs are probably the highest altar of this particular religion, at least at the moment, but muscle in general is now fashionable. Hey, good for Madison Avenue! They've given us a trend that isn't unhealthy! How long do you think it'll be before women get one? Never? Probably.
Of course, the reason muscles are in now—and this is my insight, not Tom Wolfe's—is because most fashion designers are homosexual, and most gay men like muscles. I mean, if you gotta have models around, might as well be models you find attractive, right? (I maintain this is why so many female supermodels are so creepy; gay men don't really know what straight men want. The same is true in reverse, of course, but in reverse it doesn't result in mass anorexia, or in even very attractive women claiming they need to go on diets. Give me curves, dammit!)
Apart from the endless repetition of this theme—and I do mean endless, I hadn't even reached the halfway point when I wanted to phone Tom up and yell at him for saying the same thing on every one of the first 300 pages—there is the problem of grotesque exaggeration. I may not be immersed in a college campus at present, but there is one just three blocks away, and I drive by the gym there on my commute home from work twice a week when I take the toll road. The guys walking into and out of said gym are of decidedly average physique, and good for them. We ought all to be satisfied with as much.
I also visit another campus upon (too rare an) occasion. The last time I was up at Clemson I actually paid a great deal of attention to this while walking around the campus (Lord knows it was hard, because there were also women around, and it was spring, and they were in bikinis on the lawn, and… well anyway, Tom never managed to mention the glory of Spring). I can report that at my alma mater at least the guys are not as Tom Wolfe describes them. Every time he describes a guy it is with greater superlatives than the last time. By the time he gets to talking about the lacrosse players, the descriptions read like Lou Ferrigno at his peak. I know lacrosse players. They don't look like that.
Across the bay in St. Petersburg there's a modeling outfit called "All-American Guys." The guys they use are the "epitome of sculpted muscularity" without being hideous steroidal freaks (though I doubt they require urine tests). There was an article about the company in one of the competing tabloid-style papers here last week. Not a one of the guys pictured was even remotely as big as Tom Wolfe wants us to think virtually every guy on the DuPont campus is. The truth is, if even 1% of guys on college campuses looked like the All-American Guys, you wouldn't be able to swing a genuine Dungeons & Dragons quarterstaff around on campus without damaging a promising young model's career. In fact, if you hadn't noticed, the obesity epidemic has not bypassed college campuses.
Ultimately, with this topic the exaggeration might not have been as irritating without the constant repetition—then again, it might have been. Certainly the repetition wore quite thin.
Lest you think me shallow, I don't base my opinion of this book on these two minor, if highly irritating, problems. Repetition unto itself, however, does bog the book down in numerous other ways. Adam Gellin lusts for Charlotte Simmons. Good for him! She's pretty and smart. She's exactly the kind of girl I'd lust after if I couldn't be brought up on charges for doing so. But how many times do we need to cut away to Adam thinking about how he lusts after Charlotte before we get the idea? Two, three dozen? I don't know, it seems a bit much.
And then… and then there's Charlotte's depression. For well over a hundred pages, Wolfe gives us Charlotte Simmons, the depressed freshman (which would make her a "depreshman," a word I just made up that I rather like). Charlotte depressed lying in her dorm room. Charlotte depressed and hiding from the world in the library. Charlotte depressed riding back to campus after the formal. Charlotte depressed trying to avoid talking to her friends. Charlotte depressed at home for the Christmas holiday. Charlotte depressed and wailing for Adam to comfort her.
Hey, guess what? Charlotte's depressed! I assume at some point Wolfe has suffered from it himself, he described it so accurately: How you just want to be alone. How much you really, really hate talking to people. How answering questions is the most miserable thing you can imagine, except for all the other things you'll imagine in a minute if everyone would just let you be. God, I knew exactly what he was writing. I could have written it myself. It was so very familiar. And so… tedious. My God man, I wanted to throw the book in the trash before she even got home for the pain of Christmas break. I knew exactly what was going to happen, what everyone was going to say, how Charlotte would respond… I wanted to scream! I wanted to cry out, "enough already, Tom!! I freaking get it! Let's move on!" Was there anything else to this story? Did I even care any more? Charlotte kept hoping an angel would come steal her away, and frankly, I wouldn't have minded one bit. The other characters were all—every last one of them, even the ones you're supposed to hate—more intriguing by this point, and what's more if Charlotte really had caught the last train for the coast it would have made the rest of the book that much more interesting.
I skimmed about fifty pages. I don't skim, in novels, it's just not right. If it's bad enough to make me skim, I'm about one minute from donating it to the library unfinished. I put down Martin Dressler because it was so tedious I was skimming. I did the same with Scorched Earth. And dadgumit I very nearly did the same with this book—this book by a writer I idolize, this first book he's published in half a decade and which I've been looking forward to for so long—I almost put the damn thing down and started reading something else.
I decided not to. I got up, washed the dishes, fed the cat, and went to bed. I picked it up this afternoon and slogged it out, and it did get better. Once the various characters and their plot threads all began to race together toward their tidy conclusion, the book started to move. But by this point there were fewer than a hundred pages left—less than a seventh of the novel—and all the brilliant insights and interesting moments that had occurred in the first 500 pages—and there were many, like the definition of cool, or the nature of male humiliation—had been forgotten. By this point I was reading simply to finish the thing.
And I did.
And it ended… it ended well, in many ways, and not as well in others. The villain ends up broken, as all villains must. The exact nature of his brokenness is, of course, left to the imagination, as it should be, as Wolfe always does. (There is a reason I so enjoy his work.) Charlotte ends up with the right person, not with either of the wrong people. The right person ends up like Colossus astride the harbor, as he should. The little man ends up making his own way in the world, as he should. It all ends so terribly well.
But how did he get there? I overuse the phrase deus ex machina, but… I want to use it again. The timing, the nature of it all. The setup, such as it is, comes a whopping four pages before the actual climax, in the same narrative stream. Four pages. In a book over 700 pages long, the setup to the climax is first introduced four pages prior. There is a weak element of foreshadowing some hundred pages prior, but after rereading I still don't find it an adequate setup for the animosity that solves the climax.
Lord knows I've written myself into corners before from which there seemed little escape. That sometimes happens when you let your characters take over your story (as you should) and they end up not doing what you wanted them to, the sotty little ingrates. Still, I'm not Tom Wolfe. I can get away with that on first draft, but I try to correct it.
I suppose it can be viewed as a "surprise," an element that should amuse the reader, and perhaps had I been holding a more charitable view of the novel prior to the climax that might have happened. But no. I had just slogged through 700 pages of the exact same witty observations repeated ad nauseum til long after after all the wit had been wrung therefrom.
Yes, Wolfe tackled a big world here. Yes, he got a lot of it right. If you wish, read the first two or three hundred pages and savor the wit and insight. Then put it down and move on to something more interesting. If you bother finishing this book, you'll only end up disappointed.