I blew through Tom Wolfe’s most recent doorstop in record time, thanks in large part to a scintillating stay in the Carmel (Indiana) Hampton Inn. First, the bottom line advice: read this book. You will not suffer. I was sure I was going to suffer. I didn’t. You won’t either.
First, the good. Wolfe weaves several plot lines together throughout the entire work, which keeps what could otherwise be a fairly mundane story churning. The stories of some of the side characters (especially that of Jojo Johanssen) are actually somewhat more interesting than that of the central character. The Charlotte Simmons story line is severely backwardated, resulting in an “okaaaaaay” ending, but that actually ties in nicely with my main complaint about the book (below).
In terms of setting, all the scuttlebutt has been that Wolfe nailed the college campus life and “scene.” I believe he did, but only to a point. Wolfe tends to wild hyperbole, which gives his vivid and detailed descriptions of campus life at the fictional Dupont University almost a cartoonish character. You know reality is tucked in there somewhere, but its sometimes hard to fish out.
Which actually brings us to the bad. I’m going to need some help here. When I finished, I spent a day thinking about what bothered me so much about this work. Then it occurred to me that, although the title character of this book is a girl (she really can’t be called a woman), there is not one single female character in this 700 page book, Charlotte Simmons included, who has even a shred of a redeeming quality (the only possible exception is Charlotte’s high school friend, Laurie, but she is so far from the central plot it’s really impossible to tell). As may be expected, most if not all characters in the book are archetypes, but none of the female characters represents anything even remotely positive. You have roommate Beverly and her ilk (Spoiled Boarding School Rich Kids), Bettina and her ilk (Jaded Boarding School Rich Kids), Camile (Foul Mouthed Socio-Intellectual Bully), the Chrissy/Nicole/Gloria Axis (Frat Sluts), Mother (Overprotective and Manipulative) and some generally unnamed professors and TAs (Idiots). In terms of side characters, that’s it, but it’s Charlotte who takes home the prize. I spent about half the book thinking we were driving toward some kind of Dagny Taggert-type female catharsis where Charlotte takes her knocks but, by drawing on her internal strength and maintaining her integrity, achieves her own victories Her Way. But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? Instead, Charlotte turns out to be, in my opinion, her own archetype: The Abject Failure. Charlotte apparently (it’s hard to tell because the end literally drives right off the cliff with almost no explanation) tosses away all her intellectual gifts and drive so that she can fit in and be noticed.
Now, contrast all this to the male archetypes in the book, which cover the waterfront. We have, among others, the Rich Successful Frat Boy (Vance), the Rich Blew It Frat Boy (Hoyt), the Geek Who Becomes a Man (Adam), the Redeemed (Jojo). All these dudes have serious flaws but all, except Hoyt, who Gets What He Deserves, have redeeming qualities.
So, what my little brain takes from all of this is the the Guy In The White Suit is either a) a serious misogynist or b) believes that all women want is to fit in and be loved and will do whatever it takes to get there (maybe a) and b) are 2 sides of the same coin). Or maybe I just think to much about fiction.
Anyway, this is bugging me. Can someone smarter me read this thing and set me straight?