I Am a Rock
I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe
I am Charlotte Simmons
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
(676 pages, $28.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
She was Charlotte Simmons. Could she ever have that conversation with herself, the way Momma told her to? Mr. Starling put ‘soul’ in quotes, which as much as said it was only a superstitious belief in the first place, an earlier, yet more primitive name for the ghost in the machine.”
This passage, which occurs in the last chapter of Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, states the thematic core of the book. Does every person really have a self, an I, or is each person a “Conscious Little Rock” thrown into the air by his genetic code and evolution? Wolfe proposes that we are more rock than we would like to think. And on that idea his novel founders, although all is not lost, not by any means.
Charlotte Simmons, the heroine of the novel, is valedictorian of her high-school class in the mountainous, isolated town of Sparta, North Carolina, and she wins a scholarship to prestigious (fictional) Dupont University in Pennsylvania. Her English teacher had pushed her to excel and taught her to see Dupont as a Shangri-La of learning, a hallowed place where she will blossom into the woman she was meant to be.
But Charlotte finds that Dupont University, as a whole, is not dedicated to learning but to pleasure, through drinking, sex, basketball, and the worship of athletes. She does at first excel in academics nevertheless, because Victor Starling, Nobel Prize winner in neuroscience, inspires her. She impresses him in class with an answer to a question that shows she has actually read The Origin of Species and also astounds him with a paper on evolution.
He then invites her to work in his lab, the cutting edge of neuroscience research. Charlotte, however, driven by loneliness and a desire to be considered “special,” turns away from academic success and seeks instead to excel in a corrupt and wretched campus society.
Through her beauty, intelligence, and beguiling innocence, she becomes involved with a basketball player (with whom she ends up becoming an item, hence her excelling at what matters most at Dupont University, basketball), the most popular fraternity boy (to whom she loses her virginity), and a college newspaper reporter (whom she helps to break a big story and who comforts her when she falls into a deep depression after her loss of innocence).
The setting of this story is an academically prestigious campus where the f-word dominates student conversation, male and female; young women with SAT scores of 1400 dress and live like prostitutes, except that they don’t get paid; students en masse dress like elementary school children; and supposedly incorrupt professors of the old liberal school kowtow to the athletic department when there is a political point to be scored (hypocritical conservatives come off just as badly).
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.
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