By Tom WolfePicador
In one of many deft set pieces in Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a group of student journalists at the fictional Dupont University hold a meeting in the "lumpen-bohemian clutter" of their campus newsroom. The editor wants a firm story list for the next issue's fast-approaching deadline, but the discussion bogs down over an item that might just be important breaking news—they're not sure.
It seems that the campus custodial staff cleaned from the quad sidewalks crude chalk depictions of homosexual acts. Camille Deng, a feisty arch-feminist and civil libertarian, is outraged by such heedless destruction of gay art. "Do you think it's just a coincidence that Parents Weekend is coming up?" she argues.
You think they might just possibly not want the parents to see descriptions of how Dupont guys make love written in chalk all over the sidewalks? "We're Queer and We're Here"—you think Dupont Hall wants to let that big cat out of the bag? Because they are here.
Then another staffer, who is gay, turns on Deng's use of the word "they." "You sure you don't have an issue yourself?" he accuses her. "Like maybe a little covert pariah-ism? Like maybe a little self-loathing lesbianism?"
Their argument forms a perfect ouroboros, illustrating that the game of impugning motives (even subconscious ones) forms a self-destructive loop. It's a neat insight, and I Am Charlotte Simmons is full of such little gems, stabs at the rich variety of pseudo- intellectualism that flourishes on a college campus. It is above all a novel of ideas, a point perhaps obscured by the entertainment value of Wolfe's prose. In addition to being one of the most original stylists to ever write in the English language, Wolfe has long been America's most skillful satirist. In his first two novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, Wolfe lampooned the excesses of the nouveau riche, racial politics, the criminal-justice system, and other generally urban white-collar targets, all of which were widely considered fair game. In Charlotte Simmons, he takes aim at youth culture—at the children!
Many young critics resented being made fun of by a septuagenarian in a fusty suit, and some dismissed Wolfe as a scold. Reviewers with children or students (or both) the same age as those in the novel reacted defensively. They stuck up for the modern student and the quality of thought at modern universities, and found Wolfe's take on campus life to be shallow, prudish, inaccurate, and unfair. "In the course of a very long 676 pages [Wolfe] serves up the revelation—yikes!—that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes, and use four-letter words," wrote Michiko Kakutani, whose reviews in The New York Times are routinely parroted by critics throughout the land. Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books faulted Wolfe for losing his cool, for letting the fine contempt that fuels satire degrade into mere outrage that, the critic wrote, is "flaccid as social satire."
The assault this time out, I suspect, owes something to the contemptuous treatment Wolfe received a few years ago from several of his esteemed contemporaries—notably John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving. Their attacks are best summed up in one deliciously bitchy sentence from Updike's otherwise flattering New Yorker review of A Man in Full, in which the celebrated author and critic assessed Wolfe as a writer of "entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form." Thus did a high priest of the novel brand Wolfe a pretender, and grant dispensation to the herd to have at him.
Charlotte Simmons is a fat gray-and-green paperback now, and despite the assertion by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who wrote in The New York Times that Wolfe is fun but that no one ever rereads him, I recommend a second look. The book is brilliant, wicked, true, and, like everything Wolfe writes, thematically coherent, cunningly well plotted, and delightfully told.
Certainly one factor that elevates fiction from mere "entertainment" to even "modest aspirant" literature is substance. Is the book about something important? Does it reward study? Is the author saying anything new? Is the work carefully crafted around a theme?
Wolfe opens the book by describing the experiment that earned Dupont psychologist Victor Starling a Nobel Prize: when a critical portion of a cat's brain was removed in the lab, the cat entered a "hypermanic" state of sexual arousal, which was then imitated by "control" cats that had not undergone the operation. "Starling," writes Wolfe, "had discovered that a strong social or 'cultural' atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of perfectly normal, healthy animals."