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I don’t believe Charlotte

Tom Wolfe’s novel “I am Charlotte Simmons” at least provoked me to recant my undergraduate years.

I read my first Tom Wolfe book this winter break. Wolfe, the famed academic-turned-novelist, is much quoted for his self-proclaimed ability to capture the “irresistibly lurid carnival of American life.”

I can’t speak to his “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but Wolfe seems to have yelped much ado about nothing in his newest creation, “I am Charlotte Simmons.”

The tedious 676 pages revolves around Charlotte, the naive, sheltered, brilliant girl from the mountains who scores a 1600 on the SATs, which lands her a much-coveted spot in fictional Dupont University. Dupont, according to Wolfe, is a blend of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and Duke, a place where sex and sports override academic life.

Poor little Charlotte finds herself entrapped in the bacchanal world of college life as she is ostracized by her snooty roommate Beverly, wooed by sweet nerd Adam, seduced by brutish fraternity boy Hoyt and lured toward the brain-dead basketball star Jojo. Stripping off her modest past, Charlotte embarks upon a whirlwind of beer, sex, and finally, triumph. But before that, she gets date raped.

Reviewers have been vicious in attacking the superficiality of the novel ” that it doesn’t reveal anything new about college life. I can tolerate the ranting, but more than anything, Charlotte herself lacks truth. She’s not believable. Her character is flat, artless and insincere. She induces a yawn. Worse, the very creation of Charlotte is condescending.

Sure, beer, sex and sports dominate a large part of the “average” college experience, but how does a genius girl who was raised Catholic turn into a party animal overnight merely from peer pressure?

In her high school back in the mountains, Charlotte already learned to endure a lot of pressure from her classmates, so what could possibly induce her to change so suddenly in college?

Wolfe, a man older than 70, dips his oars too far when he crafts a first-person narrative of a young Charlotte.

The result is a mousy, vulnerable female whose only boost of self-confidence derives from reciting, “I am Charlotte Simmons.” Maybe Wolfe himself needed to be convinced of the identity of this dimensionless ditz named Char.

The result of such disastrous tome is a racy hyperbole of American college life. One thing is for certain ” no matter how much research Wolfe did, it’s been a few decades since he last lived as a student.

Nevertheless, if there is anything salvageable about this novel, it’s provoked me to recant my undergraduate years. As a final-term senior, I catch myself speaking as a person who has weathered storms. I dedicate the final portion of this column to my fellow seniors as well as to those who have just begun their journey. Call it advice, words of wisdom, superfluous prose, whatever.

1. Balanced ambition motivates, but blind ambition kills. As a frequent visitor to Wilson Library and resource

centers my freshman year, I threw myself into in carving out a path of “success.” But when these efforts became so colossal they outweighed the relational aspects of life, they became futile.

2. Know your own style. I used to marvel (and still do) at my fellow classmates who seem to be juggling 20 credits, working two jobs, and on

top of that, manage drink their weekends away. How could one body possibly take on so much? That was an enigma. But as the ancients say, “know thyself.” Not everyone is born a multitasker.

3. I don’t have a number three. Why do points always have to come in triples? College is probably the only time where one can ponder such thoughts and be lauded as “philosophical.”

Charlotte or not, I can thank Mr. Wolfe for a frivolous novel that makes me appreciate the depth that I see in the people around me.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected].

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