The social value of the novel is in its unique ability to present human choices in all their variety and complexity. Plays and films also can show such choices, of course, but the novel has the advantage of easily allowing us to enter a situation from a particular character's point of view, or even to hear and consider their thoughts. All of this allows us to identify with the character within the situation and judge how we would act if placed in a similar dilemma. There can, however, be too much of a good thing, and that is what happens in Tom Wolfe's new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.
In his third book-length fiction, the celebrated journalist closely considers another aspect of American society, as he did in his first two novels, Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. In this case, the ostensible subject matter is the American system of higher education, but as in his first two books he is actually after bigger game. Wolfe intends nothing less than to analyze the basic motives behind all human behavior.
The story begins as Charlotte Simmons, the valedictorian of her high school class in rural western North Carolina, wins a full academic scholarship to prestigious Dupont University, a fictitious Ivy League institution. Charlotte quickly finds that her conservative, evangelical Christian, small-town ways have left her entirely unprepared for this elite realmnot academically, for she's a brilliant student, but socially. Charlotte is scandalized by the coed dorms, where even the bathrooms are shared by individuals of both sexes, and by the general atmosphere of sex and drugs and rock and roll that seems to make up contemporary college life.
Charlotte's simplicity, intelligence, and unadorned natural beauty attract attention from three very differentbut all highly ambitiousyoung men. A successful basketball player who has coasted all his life admires her academic and intellectual achievements; a reporter for the school newspaper, who sees himself as a future world leader, is attracted to her intellectually, physically, and emotionally; and a Big Man on Campus fraternity leader, who can and does easily "hook up" with any girl he wants, amazes everyone by befriending her in a shockingly chaste manner.
Her relationship with this latter individual brings Charlotte a certain amount of attention on campus, as the largely wealthy and jaded denizens of the campus wonder what the great Hoyt Thorpe sees in this poorly dressed and coiffed little academic geek from Nowheresville, USA.
The reader is likewise given ample opportunity to puzzle over this riddle, as Hoyt completely foregoes in her case the easy-sex, hooking-up way prevalent on the campus. Although he still seems to be hooking up with other girls, his pursuit of Charlotte is both ardent and gentle, and sexually he doesn't press her any farther than she is willing to go. Why, except for the wenching, he is almost a gentleman!
Here and elsewhere in the book, Wolfe introduces several allusions and references to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, with Charlotte in the position of Flaubert's bright but naïve country doctor, Charles. Deeper and more organic, however, are the book's similarities to several excellent 18th-century English novels, especially those of two superficially very different writers, Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe. Both of those authors were masters of the realistic depiction of female-virginity-in-peril scenarios, with Richardson the great architect of virtue rewarded and Defoe equally brilliant at depicting fallen women.
An even closer model, however, is Henry Fielding's moving and utterly wonderful final novel, Amelia, in which the lovely, decent, truly Christian title character is brought to the brink of ruin by her profligate husband, Captain Booth.
Wolfe's story, while rather charming in its final irony (which I shall not reveal here) and sharp observations of contemporary American life, is more cynical and less hopeful than any of these, and the reason lies in Wolfe's very different ideas about what drives human behavior and indeed whether people can really be said to make free choices in any meaningful way.
To consider this theme explicitly, Wolfe introduces the concept of sociobiology and a discussion of the chemistry of the human brain, through Charlotte's attendance in a high-level neuroscience class taught by a Nobel Prize-winning research professor.
Here Charlotte and her creator explore the latest advances in neuroscience and sociobiology, which provides a scientific basis for a notion that Wolfe has long purveyed: that the fundamental motive behind most human behavior (after all of our direct survival endeavors) is the pursuit of social status. This mission is wired into our very brains, Wolfe has suggested, because of the evolutionary advantage it brings. (Social hierarchies, one might surmise, encourage people to be both orderly and ambitious.) A classroom lecture on the neuroscientist José Delgado allows Wolfe to present the following argument:
[N]ot only emotions but also purpose and intentions are physical matters. [Delgado's] position was that the human mind, as we conceive itand I think all of us dobears very little resemblance to reality. We think of the mindwe can't help but think of the mindas something from a command center in the brain, which we call the 'self,' and that this self has free will. Delgado called that a 'useful illusion.' He said there was a whole series of neural circuits that work in parallel to create the illusion of a self'me,' an 'individual' with free will and a soul. He called the self nothing more than a 'transient composite of materials from the environment.' It's not a command center but a village marketplace, an arcade, or a lobby, like a hotel lobby, and other people and their ideas and their mental atmosphere and the Zeitgeistthe spirit of the age, to use Hegel's term from two hundred years agocan come walking right on in, and you can't lock the doors, because they become you, because they are you. After Delgado, neuroscientists began to put the words self and mind and, of course, soul in quotation marks.
Hence the book's title: is there really an I in our Charlotte Simmons after all, or is she just believing a pretty lie when she says it? As it happens, Charlotte is transported by this vision of great truth, and all the lessons of her past life are obliterated by this well-meaning, Nobel Prize-winning professor. This scene occurs a little after the book's halfway point, and Wolfe spends the rest of the story exploring its insights, especially in the agonizing way Charlotte's story plays out.
Through his masterly creation of moral dilemmas and exposition of characters' internal conflicts (involving numerous highly explicit descriptions of sex, violence, bodily functions, and vulgarity), Wolfe suggests that nearly everyone at Dupont University, from administrators to professors to students, is there solely because of the social status it provides. He is probably largely correct in that surmise and in the implication that the same is true of America's other high-status universities. If a girl so obviously intelligent and gifted, with such a strong background of religion and morals, can fall into this trap, what hope do the rest of us have? Social status must be a powerful motivator indeed.
None of this, however, in any way proves a materialist conception of the human soul, or "soul," as Delgado would have it, nor does it establish a case for even the sociobiologists' more limited notion that all human behavior is ultimately traceable to the biological urge to preserve one's gene lines, nor does it even prove the still more limited idea that social status is the fundamental human urge.
No, there is a much simpler explanation for all of this, and it is right there in the events of the book. What is really happening in the story is something that theists have always known: that we choose to think the things we think, and that what we think will largely determine what we do.
That is precisely what happens to Charlotte and to all the other characters in the book. After all, it is only when Charlotte finally changes her simple, down-home, Christian way of thinking about what a human being is, and what choice means, that she descends into the personal miasma that is the inevitable consequence of the bad choices she makes. These latter, in turn, are the direct result of the bad ideas she chooses to hold. If she had kept to her old assumptions, her behavior would have been completely different. Of that, there can no doubt whatever.
Despite Wolfe's extremely skillful and detailed efforts to show exactly how relentlessly events push Charlotte toward doing the things she does, he cannot conclusively establish that she could not have acted otherwise. Such a thing would be utterly impossible to prove, of course. One can only accept or reject it inductively. And that leaves freedom of choice as a possibility, and indeed the more likely explanation for her actionsthe one that in fact best fits the facts of the story.
This leads to a very interesting and important sociological observation that one can draw from the book: that a society's leaders, and in particular its intellectual elite, its philosophers, bear a heavy responsibility for what goes on in it.
After all, a central element behind all the events in Wolfe's novel is Dupont University's refusal of the traditional in loco parentis responsibility, which is indeed true of the most prestigious of American institutions of higher education today and is representative of the greater failure of contemporary American society's (and Western civilization's) leaders to serve the same function for society as a whole.
Leaders are here to set standards and then enforce them for the greater good of society, first by example and second by establishing general agreement on a set of moral norms and administering and enforcing them on society's behalf. Most law, in this sense, is a matter of legislating morality. At Dupont, however, the leaders have shirked this responsibility, and the result is that the weak are perpetually at the mercy of the strong.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the philosophical conclusions Wolfe brings up, he is to be commended for considering such weighty matters in what is ultimately a fairly diverting story. Unfortunately, Wolfe's biggest disadvantage as a novelist is the flip side of his greatest advantage as a writer: his astute journalist's eye. He is a sharp observer of people, and his insights show a good deal of intelligence. However, Wolfe includes far too many of these observations, accumulating a vast store of unnecessary details unhappily reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe. The story frequently bogs down under the weight of its long descriptions of physical settings, considerations of the inner workings of college athletic programs, and the like.
Especially exhausting and superfluous are the lengthy descriptions of characters' thoughts. Wolfe tends here, as in his other books, to depict each scene from a particular character's point of view, and that is often a very good choice. His tendency to filter each scene through a character's point of view, however, puts the events at an additional remove from the reader and actually prevents us from seeing them as vividly as we would if the descriptions were briefer and seemed objective.
In addition, Wolfe's tendency to tell us what characters are thinking, rather than revealing most of it through actions and conversation, slows the pace of the book to an uncomfortable degree. (This also tends to be true of his other books, including the nonfiction ones.)
This approach is clearly a matter of an author trying to guide not only the reader's perceptions but also their conclusions. A writer must trust the reader to deduce the characters' motives correctly from their actions and draw the right conclusions from the choices the characters make. Too much explanation suggests a lack of confidence that the events will force the reader to the correct conclusions.
That, in the end, is perhaps the greatest of the many ironies in I Am Charlotte Simmons: no matter how hard the plotline and narration push us to accept a materialist understanding of Wolfe's story, we still remain free to choose to think whatever we want to about it.
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Books & Culture Corner appears every Tuesday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Unfashionably Good | A savory collections of essays by Alan Jacobs. (Dec. 07, 2004)
Communicating Communication | A roundup from the National Communication Association's annual convention. (Nov. 30, 2004)
"Summer's Ebullient Finale" | A richly varied anthology offers a "spiritual biography" of autumn. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Autumn Books | Some that stand out in this season's plenty. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Reaching the Light | A review of On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi. (Nov. 09, 2004)
The Prayers of a Self-Governing People | A psalm for Election Day. (Nov. 02, 2004)
In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) | Remembering a philosopher who never forgot about death. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Whose Independence? | All the Founding Fathers of America celebrated "independence," but what the word meant depended on who was speaking. (Oct. 12, 2004)
Darkness Visible | An unsparing new memoir by the author of Slackjaw. (Oct. 05, 2004)
After Worldview? | A lively conference offers a state-of-the-art assessment of the concept of "worldview," with both advocates and dissenters represented. (Sept. 28, 2004)
A Forgotten Founder's Fatherhood | Race, nature, and patriarchy meet in Rhys Isaac's biography of early American diarist Landon Carter. (Sept. 21, 2004)
The Great American Hustle | The first volume of an ambitious new history of America highlights the engine of "worldly ideals"and the role of evangelical religion in creating a distinctive American identity. (Sept. 14, 2004)
The Poet Who Remembered | Poland (mostly) honors Czeslaw Milosz upon his death. (Sept. 07, 2004)
Be Careful What You Pray For | The strange tale of the controversial Bishop Pike and his fatal quest for relevance. (Aug. 31, 2004)
Book 'Em! | The concluding installment of our three-part midyear book roundup (Aug. 24, 2004)