| Nobody wanted to like Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, more than I, and no one put less stock in the largely negative reviews the book generated. There’s a reason for that.
In 1993 I found myself on Good Morning America with a young writer named Scott Smith after stirring up a minor critical tempest by defending Smith’s extraordinary first novel, A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi directed the film version). The cause of the furor was a savagely negative review from The New York Times’ critical diva-in-residence, Michiko Kakutani. I didn’t dispute Ms. Kakutani’s right to dislike the book; any critic can dislike anything he or she wants. Hell, it’s what makes America great. What I didn’t like was the ignorance of American popular fiction displayed in her essay. What made me absolutely crazy was the condescending, who-cares-anyway tone. The final message of too many self-anointed critical smarties, whether stated or implied, seems to be, We don’t really need to read this stuff to know it’s junk, do we?
To her credit, Kakutani has gotten better with age, although she still rates only a low C in your Uncle Stevie’s grade book, and most of her counterparts in the Intellectual Smarty Corps would plain-long flunk, as Charlotte Simmons might say. Just so we all understand, I’m talking about the kind of people who feel the thrill of slumming dangerously if they take an Elmore Leonard novel to the beach. It’s not surprising that when such people look at serious popular fiction (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing), they don’t know what they’re looking at; and when most of them ganged up on Charlotte Simmons, my first thought was “Whoa, shut up! I have got to read this sucker!”
By the time I actually got around to turning the first of its 676 pages, the Literary Review (a bunch of critical smarties in Great Britain) had given Charlotte Simmons its annual Bad Sex award. That didn’t stop me either. I mean, this is a book about college life! Be honest: How many people do you know who had good sex in college? College is to sex what a learner’s permit is to driving, only with sex, neither person knows what they’re doing. Plus, much of it is drunk sex, sex in hallways, sex in the backseats of Volvos, sex in the front seats of MGs (always with the gearshift lever digging into some unprotected soft spot), sex on apartment floors that haven’t been washed in roughly 16 years, sex in closets at parties (with the host’s Oreck falling on one partner’s butt at the critical moment), sex in the bushes, sex that ends with someone clapping sarcastically or yelling “Annnd now…take two!” So… yeah. Bad sex. Plenty of it here. What’s your point, Literary Review?
Several of the critical smarties suggested that Charlotte is far too innocent for the 21st century, country girl from the backwoods hollers of North Carolina or not. I thought—once again before getting into the book—that this was likely a simple lack of imagination on the part of urban reviewers who had no idea of the cataclysmic shocks a kid from Sticksville faces when he or she goes to college. I made that jump, faced those shocks, and I was willing to believe. What I found impossible to swallow were the little things: Charlotte’s oh-my-lands surprise at the cover price of Cosmopolitan or her Dogpatch amazement upon beholding a hotel atrium for the first time. Had this girl, I wondered, never seen the outside world even on cable TV? And I admit to being put off (and a little disgusted) by the stereotypical Reader’s Digest purity of Charlotte’s family—her mama in particular, who is a kind of literary version of those velvet Christs you sometimes see in fundamentalist Christian homes.
I think Michiko Kakutani and her smarty counterparts are dead wrong to say that the subject of college life in the 21st century is a comedown for Wolfe after the financial and sociological fireworks that lit up The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. The thesis that our best schools have become little more than vestigial monkey brains serving multimillion-dollar sports complexes is a great subject, but I Am Charlotte Simmons ends up being thin on fireworks.
That’s a shame, because Tom Wolfe was right when he exhorted novelists 15 years ago to reclaim American fiction from self-centered postmodernists who seem to actively scorn anything resembling an actual plot. It’s those writers—not to mention critics who’d be ashamed to be seen in public with a Tony Hillerman mystery—who are strangling the novel and ceding a rich and fertile country of the imagination to the overt imagists who make the movies and television shows. There’s nothing wrong with movies and TV, but there’s also nothing wrong with the sort of books Tom Wolfe hoped would describe “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours…”
I wanted this to be one of those wild hog-stomping books; for a variety of reasons, not restricted to those mentioned above, it isn’t. Even Wolfe’s usually raucous language grows tiresome and eventually begins to grate—by page 600 or so, I felt a little as if I were listening to the longest Donna Summer disco tune ever recorded. Yet this immense (and immensely troubling) novel is driven by two things most American novels lack: ideas and ambition. Some of the ideas on view in Charlotte Simmons may provoke discussions deep into the night (the book seems to be a very hot item on many college campuses). Good—that’s what social fiction’s for. I only wish this novel’s high ambition had not been so undone by its wooden characters, who move and speak but never really seem to breathe.