The experiment is, of course, an analogy for Wolfe's Dupont University, where the school's national champion basketball team is revered, and its players, all genetic freaks with, in effect, the thinking portion of their brains removed (they are discouraged from taking real courses), enjoy a "hypermanic" sex life with the eager coeds who line their paths. They are the equivalent of Starling's surgically altered lab cats. Normal students—who observe the players on the court, on ESPN, and on campus, and imitate them—are the control group. Dupont, which Wolfe depicts as the nation's premier seat of higher learning, is in the thrall of jock values—sex, booze, drugs, and pursuit of the big post-college payday. One of Wolfe's early triumphs, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, ridiculed the pretensions of the hippie movement, and here, nearly two generations later, is the legacy of the Summer of Love: not an egalitarian free-love utopia but a repellent pit of sexual predation, where status is conferred by fucking.
Into this rampant promiscuity wanders beautiful, innocent, idealistic, painfully traditional Charlotte Simmons, a Candide-like scholarship student from the deep-backwoods town of Sparta, North Carolina, in search of the "life of the mind." Some of the novel's critics have complained that a naif such as Charlotte in this day and age is implausible, but Charlotte is a construction, a device, one in a long and celebrated series of satirical vehicles in English literature, all the way back to Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. On the surface she is fragile, but underneath she is a warrior, a "Spartan." Charlotte is, by degrees, sucked into the campus culture. She is lured into the self-abnegating realm of Starling's neuro- science lab, which is guided by an extreme behaviorism that denies consciousness itself, and with it free will and morality. She is ravished and discarded by the novel's chief predator, and plunged into profound depression and confusion, only to rally and establish herself, mind and body. The novel's title, echoing Descartes, announces her triumph over Starling's behaviorism and the tawdry reality of Dupont. Mendelsohn completely misses the point when he describes Charlotte as having been, at the end of the book, "reduced by her own craving for 'acceptance' to being arm-candy for a famous college jock." Far from it: she has beaten back the hedonistic tide of peer pressure, escaped the soul-deadening pull of Starling's lab, and reasserted her selfhood and her moral bearings. She is said jock's girlfriend, a fact that marks her ascension to the top rung of social status on campus—always a prime Wolfean preoccupation—and she holds that distinction strictly on her own terms; she has restored the missing piece of her boyfriend's brain (turned him into a real student), and is, as Wolfe makes abundantly clear, the dominant partner in the relationship. In the distorted context of campus life, she rules. All this in her freshman year, no less.
Elaine Showalter in The Chronicle of Higher Education, along with Mendelsohn and a few others, made the mistake of taking Wolfe's description of Dupont University too literally, and so felt the need to argue that real-life elite schools are better than that. But the novel's university, like Charlotte, is an exaggeration. Despite all his bluster about Zola and the importance of social realism, Wolfe is not, at heart, a realist. The New York of Sherman McCoy, the Atlanta of Charlie Croker, and the Dupont University of Charlotte Simmons are caricatures, not faithful portraits. With Dupont U., he projects the nightmarish—take his "rutrutrutrutrut," for instance—moral consequences of a philosophy that won't admit the existence of self, much less soul, and imagines one pure, intellectually honest character thrust into that dystopia. Poorly executed, a work of extended allegory like this comes off as stiff and excessively contrived; I Am Charlotte Simmons is so intricately imagined and carefully reported that it's no wonder the book is mistaken for social realism. It is indeed scary how close this story comes to the real world.
There are so many delicious moments: the socially ambitious nerd Adam tripping over his own cleverness trying to impress Charlotte with a long riff about "Bad-Ass Rhodies"; Jojo, the jock boyfriend, struggling to explain to a scornful history professor why there are words in his paper (written by Adam) that he cannot define; Wolfe's precise delineation of the subtle gradations of sarcasm and the now-universal Shit and Fuck patois; the uneasy alliance between black and white players on the basketball team, and the role of "Swimmies," marginally talented players with good grades who help maintain the team's all-important academic standing. The supposed villain of this imagined world is Buster Roth, the basketball coach, who turns out to be the university's only admirable grown-up.