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I Am Charlotte Simmons: A Brief Review, 12-Years Late

June 6, 2016

The cover of the version I read.

Yesterday I finished Tom Wolfe’s *I Am Charlotte Simmons* (2004). I had wanted to read it upon publication, but it appeared in the midst of dissertation research and writing. Then I forgot about it. A few months ago, however, it came up in conversation with a workmate. She had a copy and let me borrow it.

The book conveys four story lines of interest at the fictional Dupont University in Pennsylvania. The story lines occur in the form of four characters: Charlotte, Hoyt, JoJo, and Adam.

None of the four characters are particularly likeable, but one might find one or more interesting by way of a student type, circa the 2000-2004 period, each represents. At the center is Charlotte Simmons. She is a first generation, wide-eyed college girl—poor by way of means, but exceptional for her self-awareness, good looks, and raw intelligence. Hoyt is the hot, preening frat boy, always read to sell-out a situation to get laid. JoJo is a frustrated but generally well-meaning athlete—a star basketball player at Dupont U. The average-looking Adam is a desperate wannabe intellectual and student journalist. His insecurities, anger, and ambition are always on the verge of undercutting his larger more admirable traits.

My thoughts?

The novel is way too long. This is most likely a feature and not a bug for Wolfe fans. At 738 pages, it was inevitable that the story would plod along at points. Wolfe’s ear for dialogue helps one persevere when the story is just average. The incessant adolescence on display, from all four characters, made the story tedious for this reader. Perhaps this too is a feature that speaks to Wolfe’s genius—his ability to inhabit a mindset. That tediousness is underscored by the seeming improbability of the occasional high intellectual engagements of its precocious actors, especially Charlotte (as a freshman) and Adam (who I think is a junior). But perhaps I should’ve judge the potential for highs based on my own slow unfolding as a thinker at college.

Through these characters-as-types, Wolfe, I think, attempts to analyze the following issues in higher education: first-generation students, gender, Greek life, athletics, student journalism, and campus politics.

Wolfe has some successes in each area, particularly in relation to big money, high-profile athletics. The coach of the basketball team, Buster Roth, is a memorable character. Wolfe successfully narrates the corrupting influence of money in relation to both the sport itself and its relationship to university life. All but Hoyt’s character become enmeshed in the problems of big money athletics, right down to the improbable ending involving Charlotte.

But I think Wolfe is most successful in exploring the problems of gender on campus: from hyper-femininity to hyper-masculinity, and everything in-between. Some of the most explosive parts of the book involve sexual tension and expression, especially in relation to Charlotte.

My recommendation? With regrets to Mr. Wolfe, and despite my love for long books, don’t read this unless your a junkie for books about campus life, or super interested in narratives of gender and sexual expression in the context of prolonged adolescence. Otherwise it’s too long and tedious.

Your thoughts? Am I off-base? – TL

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  1. I didn’t love the book — but it does anticipate a conversation about sexual assault on campus that will happen in the next decade. Really the turning point in Hoyt raping Charlotte. It’s the moment when she shifts from believing anything is possiblel, to realizing that gender and class will define her university experience. At the end, what is significant is that she has tied her fate to another damaged, exploited person — who will protect her physically and socially, in exchange for her being the ballast that keeps him eligible for the team and psychically grounded on a racist campus. In the end, both Jojo and Charlotte are, in a sense, working for the university.


    • You’re right that Wolfe’s attempt to narrate “consent” is, well, exemplary of the problems that surround that topic, assault, and rape. Charlotte is clearly saying no and yes and the beginning of that scene, with no being the clear ultimate answer—while Hoyt rapes under the structured and manipulated haze of alcohol and hormones. I think you’re right about the ending. Both are “working” for the university, with both being damaged and exploited.

      Given your comment, I probably should’ve added “power” as a deep current in the book—how it is learned, obtained, and kept on campus. This topic should be obvious, as the “I am Charlotte Simmons” mantra is about empowerment, both real and desired. – TL


  2. Another criticism: Race is treated superfluously, in almost racist terms. I’m not saying necessarily that Wolfe himself has no understanding of these topics (race on campus, race in college athletics). But if his characters in any way reflect his own subject position, then the treatment is radically inadequate at best. – TL


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