Aug 12, 2011

I Am Not Charlotte Simmons: an open letter to Tom Wolfe

Dear Tom Wolfe,

From one American college girl to another, I can tell Charlotte Simmons that she is out of it. Seriously, profoundly, Dorothy-in-Oz out of it. But I felt like I had to meet her. I had to read this monstrously large novel because, Tom, I worship you a little bit; bear with me, don't let that put you off just yet. As someone once said, you do paint with the broadest strokes possible. Your characters are all instantly recognizable as types -- and because these are types that I live with and are part of my generation, I felt that I would be a fair tester of their accuracy. In short, you passed; despite the hyperbolic pageant of characters in this novel (I know you modeled it after Thackeray's Vanity Fair, don't even try to bluster out of it), you have got the precise atmosphere of a big-time prestigious American college pinned down. 

There are a few types that you neglected to mention in this portrait, however. Most notable among these are the hipsters, an epidemic of attitude in the 21st century that almost equals the volume of '60s hippies. I go to a college completely unlike Dupont, a tiny exclusivist college almost entirely composed of geek, stoner, & hipster culture; as a result, I am much more acquainted with the Andrew character type. He's not quite a hipster, but he's close; if he exerted a little more effort in this physical appearance and contrivance, he could be. I can tell you that he, as a type, is... perfect. Pathetic & yearning & intellectually egotistical, completely pretentious, disdainful of those stronger mammals than him who cannot analyze with such dexterity but who have no trouble getting a girl into bed. He is the type that feels like he wants to save quiet bookish girls from their sheltered innocence, tries to dazzle them with random knowledge and powers of discourse... he's so sexually frustrated and repulsive, deserves to be pitied, but also deserves to be educated about these girls he wants to save. I've been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior; it's sweet at first, but also incredibly condescending.

I love your moments of bygone-age wonder, such as the realization that using the explicative "Jesus Christ" announces one as possessing an particularly antiquated burnish of cool, & that "fucking" is now universally recognized as the go-to adjective for familiarity, not only used for instant emphasis but for putting the other person at ease (we're all fucking friends here, right?). But thank God your language is still intact -- you and your "rude animal health", your "starved to near perfection", your medical terminology sparkling on the edge of sex. All these literary techniques still work in the hyped-up arena of 21st-century college life. Human nature is truly timeless, & it takes an excellent reporter to live by that knowledge and make his art out of it.

I followed Charlotte's wavering journey through her freshman year to the end with unflagging interst and attention. One thing, though: is the ending tragic? The inevitable doom of conformity? Has Charlotte been lost in the morass of crude popular culture, or has she been redeemed from her stifled starched small-town sarcophagus? To your eternal credit, you paint with the broadest strokes imaginable but still manage to capture the tint and musk of an atmosphere perfectly -- both the small-town high-school and the big-college microcosm. I am not Charlotte Simmons, being a real college student with complex anxieties and much more culture-savvy (did they really not have any Internet in that little Kansas town? did she really never see any movies? how could she have been so perfectly innocent?)... but somehow, I got to like the girl by the end. I also recognized some uncomfortable truths about people I know and people that comprise my personality from some of the other characters in the novel, proving that hyperbole channels reality more directly than it seems it should. Reading an account of this particular microcosmic world from the perspective of this innocent college-girl prodigy type (and a writer of another generation with an entirely separate perspective) was exhilarating & undeniably fascinating. Resounding thanks.


Sincerely yours,

S. Clelia Sweeney

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