SHELF LIFE- Wolfe's clothing: White-suiter drapes novel with satire

I Am Charlotte Simmons
By Tom Wolfe
676 pages, $28.95
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Author and journalist Tom Wolfe is scheduled to be UVA's valedictory speaker on Saturday, May 20, and what he may say could have Thomas Jefferson rolling in his grave.

His portrayal of undergraduate life in America in his most recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is as unforgiving as it is unflattering. Recent developments at Duke University have all but confirmed the grim details: even ostensibly bright and cultivated young students, if left to their own devices, can behave badly.

Current events since the release in paperback last summer have sustained the controversy over the white-suited author’s characterization of undergraduate life, and have prompted some alums to wonder whether UVA is immune.

In 1989, Wolfe wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine entitled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," in which he calls to aspiring writers to reclaim the "lurid carnival" of American life as literary territory. Realism, he claims, is the most powerful and provocative literary tool, and the American cultural scene furnishes a writer with all the raw material necessary to craft intriguing realistic fiction.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is indeed intriguing. But realistic? Yes and no.

As a pioneer of the "new journalism," Wolfe has been praised as much for his factual accuracy as for his capacity for satire. But when– after exposing Manhattan high society in The Bonfire of the Vanities and the corruption of corporate America in A Man in Full– Wolfe finally turns his eye to the American university, his vision seems somewhat dimmed (or cockeyed). The narrative falls heavily on the side of satire.

And university students, beware: Wolfe's satire is scathing. The target is fictional Dupont University (recalling Duke, but based on research Wolfe conducted at Stanford and at the Universities of Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida).

Miss Simmons, a paragon of academic precocity and moral rectitude, has arrived on campus for her first year, fresh from the mountains of rural Appalachia, and is eager to establish herself at Dupont by cultivating the life of the mind.

But obstructing her way to intellectual fulfillment and self-actualization are the attractions and distractions of the college carnival: the allure of socially powerful but abusive frat boys, the machinations of skinny girls and scheming intellectuals, the antics of opportunistic athletes, and the beguiling economics of the meat market.

The narrative is gripping, the message is clear, and the Wolfean linguistic pyrotechnics abundant. The various dialects (of frat boys, nerds, jocks, ditzes) are rendered in accurate detail. Wolfe has done his homework with Charlotte: her purity is an apt vehicle to explore the dynamic between competing social circles on campus, and her work ethic is an excellent foil for exposing the difference between the university in theory and the veritable Sodom she encounters.

But Wolfe often falls into the predictable and tiresome rut of hyperbole-– even with Charlotte. It's unlikely that Charlotte, for example, having scored a perfect 1600 on her SATs, could be so naïve about popular culture as to be totally unaware of slacker academics, or of sexual politics, on campus.

The moral and academic degenerate is the standard against which she has defined her sense of self. When and how she ultimately capitulates to the herd mentality makes it clear that the author's intention is to shock. The result is that Wolfe makes a point at the expense of making it believable.

Of course, satire is Wolfe's forte, and maybe hyperbole is the point. Perhaps no one would doubt that university students, after their long moral and spiritual holiday in the ivory tower, might need a slight jolt.

But the problem Wolfe encounters is that, although many of his readers have no first-hand experience on Wall Street or in real estate, many do have four years of experience on campus. And while social Darwinism, sexual promiscuity, and recreational drug abuse are regular fixtures of any college experience, even today they are not the governing ethos, trumping the ambitions of serious students to accomplish and achieve.

And while many students at the University undoubtedly have a capacity for self-indulgence, our Academical Village is no Babylon.#