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."
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.
Of all the writers in the world, Tom Wolfe is the last to need defending. Beneath that pale, skinny, dandified exterior is a two-fisted brawler and committed self-promoter. In his long career, he has rhetorically stuck his thumb in the eye of The New Yorker (a history that lends Updike's appraisal a tincture of tit for tat), the New Left, hippies, Black Panthers, astronauts, architects, and artists, among many others, but his longest-running battle has been with the fashionable notion of the "serious" literary novel.
His first broadside against it was his famous 1973 "New Journalism" essay, in which he lamented the "otherworldly preciousness" of most modern novels. More and more, he wrote, they seemed to be written not for a general reading public but for other writers. The authors of such books, in their pre- occupation with characters' internal lives, had turned their backs on the real story of their times, Wolfe argued, abandoning the kind of reporting and observation that had distinguished the great novels of the past and effectively ceding the turf to journalists like … him! He didn't actually place the crown on his own head; the essay was an introduction to the collected works of other "literary" journalists. But Wolfe was already (as he well knew) the bright eminence of that pack, whose work, he proclaimed, had become the "main event" in the literary arts. Then, having planted his own flag on literature's peak, he abandoned the very form he had championed and started writing novels himself. In a celebrated 1989 essay, he anointed himself point man for "a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas," who would sally forth, notebooks and tape recorders in hand, to rescue fiction from its cul-de-sac of self-obsession and restore it to its central role in American life, chronicling the "lurid carnival" of modern existence.
It matters a great deal to someone, I suppose, what kind of fiction commands the peak of Mount Literature. History teaches us that such preferences change only slightly more slowly than hemlines, and many an author celebrated in his lifetime is barely remembered a decade after his last book. Much critical prestige today is accorded writers of "experimental," or "postmodern," fiction, who play clever games with language and traditional storytelling forms, and whose works are dazzlingly hard to follow. (If simple readability matters, these authors—even giants like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis—are the most likely candidates for obscurity.) A recent essay in Harper's Magazine in defense of experimental fiction, by the novelist Ben Marcus, set out to describe the ideal reader of such works:
[His or her] Wernicke's area [the portion of the brain presumed to process language] is staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-size space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord, each strand tuned to different tensions.
It goes on. Marcus lost me at "code-breakers," though I was struck by his momentary indecision—the "maybe"—over whether to embellish this bizarre metaphor with his "synthetic coil." He concludes the long paragraph thusly:
My ideal reader would cough up a thimble of fine gray powder at the end of the reading session, and she could use this mineral-rich substance to compost her garden.
This is just silly. There will always be readers who enjoy "code-breaking," but I suspect great fiction is, and will always be, about language, story, characters, seriousness of purpose, and a coherent theme.
Wolfe scores for me in every category, most notably language. My own Wernicke's area has long thrilled to the surprising and inventive turns of his narration. It is a voice so distinctive that it has launched a thousand bad imitations, and it is the vibrant core of everything Wolfe writes. His exuberant experiments in punctuation are easy to ridicule, but they are not just pointless display; they are an effort to harness on the page the velocity of his rhetoric, which runs full-throttle in a continual state of intellectual astonishment.
Wolfe began his career as a social scientist, and he has remained, first and foremost, a man the opposite of dumbstruck by the hilarious pageant of American life, whether he's revealing the vapid maunderings that pass for serious thought on a bus full of tripping hippies or demonstrating how the U.S. space program faithfully re-enacted—in modern times, on a massive scale—the ancient tribal ritual of single combat. One cannot imagine a Wolfe story without that voice, any more than one can convey the humor in Tom Jones without the voice of Fielding, or Tristram Shandy without that of Laurence Sterne.
So what makes fiction great? What is the standard? In his put-down of Wolfe, Updike didn't explain the difference between "entertainment" and "literature," other than to suggest that the dapper former journalist's writing was not "exquisite." According to Webster's, the word means "carefully selected" … "marked by nice discrimination, deep sensitivity, or subtle understanding"… "pleasing through beauty, fitness, or perfection." The put-down invites a comparison between Wolfe's writing and Updike's own. I admire Updike's books, although I have read only a small portion of his prodigious output. Couples, Villages, and the Rabbit series in particular are intensely realistic, and capture better than anything the texture of American suburban life and the subtle transactions of emotional and sexual need in modern relationships. But his books run together in my mind. They all have a similar feel, and as engrossing and exquisitely written as they are, I find I have a hard time remembering them afterward. In the long run, fiction that endures is by definition memorable.
By that standard, my money is on Wolfe.