November 5th 2009 I Am Reading I Am Charlotte Simmons

I’ve been reading Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons for the past month or so. At first, I didn’t like the novel that much. I felt that Tom Wolfe’s dialogue was too forced, and his characters’ interactions didn’t feel authentic to me. I also felt that he used too many ellipses in his prose. This may be an attempt to ironically mimic the communication patterns of young adults, but like his attempt at “contemporary” dialogue, I found his style to be annoying. (Perversely, it made me want to read more Tom Wolfe, to see if this is his usual style.) I also found his prose to be boring. His stock descriptions and clichés did nothing to enhance the descriptions of his settings, characters, and interactions. I felt that a writer as mature as Wolfe should be able to paint a better picture with his words. It seemed like he was putting too much effort into his writing, and yet, at the same time, not quite enough. But mostly I didn’t like his characters. The ones that weren’t stock and one-dimensional were either conniving, abhorrent human beings, or pathetic weaklings. Charlotte was the only character I came close to liking, despite her whininess, but instead of liking her, I just pitied her for her naïveté.

I’m only on Chapter 12 (yes, I’m a slow reader), but my opinion has softened, and I’m really getting absorbed into the book. I realized that it’s a somewhat non-traditional novel, and the prose is intended to read more like a journalistic piece, less like a story. Wolfe interviewed a lot of college students for this book, and even “embedded” himself at a frat party for “research purposes” (I wonder if anyone noticed the old guy with the white suit and pastel silk handkerchief?). His characters are intentional stereotypes; in that sense, they're really caricatures, lenses through which we can examine various subcultures of American university students. But what I like most is Wolfe’s focus on relationships, and his critique of the hook-up culture of American colleges.

I enjoyed the chapter featuring Charlotte’s first experience at a frat party. I actually liked how she was all too quick to compromise her principles, just to get attention from a boy at a party. I loved the next section even more, when Charlotte’s opinion of hooking up changed once she saw the attention she got from other girls merely by being with a popular boy. These scenes provide a new perspective on the stereotypical depictions of relationships in mass media. Human relationships fascinate me, but the media depictions of them are usually one-dimensional, inaccurate portrayals of reality.

During college, a lot of pressure is placed on guys to hook up with as many (different) girls as possible; if you’re not having a lot of casual sex, your machismo suffers. For guys who aren’t interested simply in hooking up, there’s a lot of psychological stress to conform to the media’s depiction of the classic college male anyway. Wolfe hasn’t explicitly depicted this aspect of college romance in Charlotte Simmons yet, but I hope he’s getting there. (He does talk a lot about the connection between masculinity and athletics, which is interesting as well.)

I’m interested in seeing where Wolfe goes with these situations. I’m hoping he addresses the issue of fidelity in relationships. I can’t stand the depiction of sexual faithfulness in most books, movies, and TV shows. It’s stereotypical to depict men as the ones who generally cheat on their partners, but women cheat, too, even though that’s rarely shown in the mass media.

Now that I’ve gotten farther into the novel, I am indeed enjoying Charlotte Simmons. It gives an honest, fair, and enlightening look at the nature of relationships in college, and is especially engaging for a recent college graduate like myself.