[Paleopsych] LRB: (Tom Wolfe) Theo Tait : Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut

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Theo Tait : Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut
London Review of Books, 5.1.6

    I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe [ [14]Buy from the London Review
    Bookshop ], Cape, 676 pp, £20.00

    Tom Wolfe is, in many ways, an outrageous figure - with his white suit
    and cane, his glib social analyses, and his delusions of grandeur. For
    three decades he has been saying that his minutely researched books
    herald `a revolution' in literature, which is bound to `sweep the arts
    in America, making many prestigious artists . . . appear effete and
    irrelevant'. Over the years, a lot of these effete and irrelevant
    artists - John Updike, Norman Mailer, Jonathan Franzen - have launched
    tirades against him. The most concise comes from John Irving,
    commenting red-faced and furious on live TV: `Wolfe's problem is, he
    can't bleeping write! He's not a writer! Just crack one of his
    bleeping books! Try reading one bleeping sentence! You'll gag before
    you can finish it! He doesn't even write literature - he writes . . .
    yak! He doesn't write novels - he writes journalistic hyperbole!'
    These comments, graciously reported by Wolfe himself, don't seem
    entirely fair to me. They do, however, perfectly describe his bloody
    awful new novel I am Charlotte Simmons.

    Wolfe can actually write. As far as he's concerned, prose is a just a
    sponge, a holding station for slang, buzzwords, sociological
    observations, lists and pungent dialogue. `Cramming' is the word he
    uses, and he is often exhilaratingly good at it - probably the best
    example is his hippie book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).
    Novels, for Wolfe, are `65 per cent material and 35 per cent the
    talent'; the really important thing is to incorporate as much as
    possible of `the lurid carnival of American life'. And his characters
    are deliberately stereotypical, since, by his lights, a typical
    character is more revealing than an individual. And his plots are just
    a way of making these ciphers collide, setting off some fireworks and
    a few spring-loaded ironies in the process.

    Perhaps the confusion arose because, since The Bonfire of the Vanities
    (1987), Wolfe has cheekily tried to sell himself as a `realistic'
    novelist (or `intensely realistic', in his own phrase). I suppose it
    depends what you mean by `realism'. Wolfe uses a wealth of convincing
    circumstantial detail in the way thriller writers do, to disguise the
    hackneyed and often deeply implausible aspects of his books. He is
    irredeemably, programmatically superficial. Yet The Bonfire of the
    Vanities is powerfully mimetic, not of how the world goes round, but
    of how we idly and crudely imagine it does. That must be how it is, we
    think, as Sherman McCoy reclines in the bucket seat of his $48,000
    Mercedes sports car, in his New & Lingwood loafers with the bevelled
    instep, his classy mistress by his side, congratulating himself all
    the while. Wolfe's superficiality is part of his charm, and it suits
    many of his subjects - lust, Las Vegas, customised cars. The dialogue,
    the information, the tags and coinages - `Radical Chic', `mau-mauing',
    `Masters of the Universe' - these are worth remembering. The
    characters and the sentences themselves are best forgotten. If it
    wasn't for his self-aggrandising tendencies (and his unpleasant,
    reductive stereotypes) he would probably just be accepted as a bracing
    broad-brush satirist, a set-piece artist with a terrific ear. Perhaps
    it's not literature, in the Tolstoy or Dickens sense, but it's not Tom
    Clancy or Dan Brown either. He's more like the Oliver Stone of
    American letters: crass, hectoring but passionately interested - and
    occasionally touched by genius.

    Charlotte Simmons resembles a very bad Oliver Stone film.
    Unfortunately, at 676 pages, it lasts considerably longer. In Sparta,
    North Carolina, high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, lives a young
    lady called Charlotte Simmons, an academic prodigy and a paragon of
    God-fearing, hard-working, down-home virtue besides. Much to the
    admiration of her family and her `gruff', `dear' mentor Miss
    Pennington, she wins a scholarship to Dupont University, an elite
    institution in Pennsylvania. Sadly, Dupont is not the high-minded and
    austere centre of learning that Charlotte imagines. The reader already
    knows this, from the first scene of the book, in which two obnoxious
    frat boys, `drunk on youth and beer' (a steal from The Simpsons, by
    the way), witness the governor of California (not Mr Schwarzenegger, I
    hasten to add) receiving a blow-job from a female student. So the
    hillbilly ingénue is lowered into this academic Sodom - and, following
    the general pattern of Wolfe's novels, is repeatedly and violently

    This starts early, with the scene in which Charlotte first meets her
    wealthy, bitchy, prep-school-educated roommate Beverly. Beverly's
    family, just off their private jet and `sleek as beavers', want to go
    to upscale Le Chef: Charlotte's horny-handed father insists that they
    go to the Sizzlin' Skillet to eat mountains of greasy junk food. Large
    helpings of social embarrassment ensue; and so Wolfe demonstrates his
    great, his constant theme: that `social status' is important to
    Americans. Initially, Charlotte's humiliations are only social, but it
    gets worse. She is a virgin - this is terribly important to the scheme
    of the book - and three suitors are homing in on her virtue: Hoyt
    Thorpe, one of the obnoxious frat boys; Jojo Johanssen, the only white
    boy on the college basketball team; and Adam Gellin, a poor,
    resentful, Jewish scholarship student. Hoyt gets there first, when,
    after several hundred pages of will-she-won't-she, she forgets her
    nobler ambitions, gets drunk for the first time ever, and is brutally
    deflowered in a hotel room. As far as plot goes, that's about it: this
    torrid, horribly drawn-out sequence, for which Wolfe deservedly won
    the Bad Sex Award, is the centrepiece of the novel. It is hard to
    think of any other work of fiction that fixates and slavers so
    obsessively on a heroine's virginity - since Clarissa, anyway. There
    are, though, two half-hearted subplots which give some vague sense of
    propulsion. In one, Jojo gets into trouble because a ball-breaking,
    resentful Jewish academic notices that someone else has written one of
    his term papers. In the other, Adam tries to run a newspaper splash on
    the blow-job story, now a campus legend charmingly known as `The Night
    of the Skull Fuck'.

    One of Wolfe's many annoying tics is what he calls `the drive known as
    information compulsion': the need to hit the reader with a Fascinating
    Fact or a Big Theory every few pages. He always knows where things are
    happening; he is always the First Person to spot this trend or
    articulate this precept; the intrepid traveller at the edge of the new
    continent. This is just about tolerable when what he's describing is
    interesting - which it usually has been in his previous books. With
    the best will in the world, one couldn't say that about Charlotte
    Simmons. One astounding discovery is that students are interested in
    sex: `Sex! Sex! It was in the air along with the nitrogen and the
    oxygen!' he writes, replicating a sentence from Bonfire almost word
    for word. `The whole campus was humid with it! tumid with it!
    lubricated with it! gorged with it! tingling with it! in a state of
    around-the-clock arousal with it! Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut.' Another
    is that young people use the word `fuck' a lot. They also use it in
    different ways: sometimes as a verb, sometimes as a participle,
    sometimes as a noun - `Fuck Patois'. His Big Theory about campus life
    is articulated by Hoyt, who tells us that just as in the early Middle
    Ages `there were only three classes of men in the world - warriors,
    clergy and slaves,' so on the modern campus there are only frat boys,
    dorks and jocks, represented by Hoyt, Adam and Jojo respectively. But
    underpinning all these observations is another, even Bigger Theory.
    That man - wait for it - is an animal. A `human beast', as Charlotte
    calls him, largely or entirely driven by his `genetic code', his baser
    urges. These observations, an `unfaltering distillation of the obvious
    and the obviously false' - as Martin Amis said of Desmond `the Naked
    Ape' Morris - are rammed home with the trademark Wolfe intensifiers:
    caps, italics, exclamation marks. All the while, the reader has the
    bullied sense that This Is How It Is, because Wolfe has done the
    research - he's been there with pad and ballpoint pen, for God's sake.

    But information compulsion is not the only thing Wolfe suffers from.
    Another is repetition compulsion. When in doubt, repeat words for
    emphasis. Hoyt's smile, for instance, is described as `so warm, warm,
    warm, loving, loving, loving, so warm and loving and commanding, all
    commanding' that Charlotte `couldn't move'. But later, when he deserts
    her, she gives way to `sobs sobs sobs sobs sobs sobs racking racking
    racking racking racking racking convulsive sobs sobs sobs sobs sobs'.
    A description of a basketball match begins: `Static:::::::::::
    Static::::::::::: Static::::::::::: Static::::::::::: [repeat 12
    further times] choked the Buster Bowl.' Large people are `giants',
    their muscles are `slabs', the exposed belly buttons of young women
    are forever `winking'. Over and over again. Then there is his
    long-running and mysterious insistence on naming muscles. All the old
    favourites are there: the pecs, the delts, the lats, the trapezius,
    the sternocleidomastoid. Perhaps because he has a female main
    character, for the first time, he's had to branch out into new
    anatomical areas: the pelvic saddle, the mons pubis, the groin joint,
    the `otorhinolaryngological caverns' and particularly the `ilial
    crest' - something to do with the pelvis which plays a surprisingly
    important role in the novel (a bit of biological sleuthing reveals
    that it ought to be `iliac crest' anyway - not, I suspect, the only
    bit of plain wrong information to have found its way through the
    famous research process).

    Behind all these things - status, virginity, animality, muscles - is
    the controlling Wolfe obsession: homomania. He is, as he says of one
    his characters, `crazed on the subject of manliness'. Wherever he
    looks, he sees the struggle for male dominance, the tournament, men
    butting like stags. It's not just that all human endeavour comes down
    to this: there is really nothing else, whether on the basketball field
    or in the classroom or at a family picnic. Women are either willing
    notches on the bedpost, or else aping the male thing in a confused
    way. We are all of us forever acting out our machismo, like rappers or
    wrestlers before the fight, narcissistically preoccupied with an
    almost abstract display of prowess. Even weedy Adam, in the gym,
    glances at his own muscles in the mirror (all Wolfe's male characters
    always do this): `He was enjoying that temporary high the male feels
    when his muscles, no matter what size they may be, are gorged with
    blood. He feels . . . more of a man.' This is it: the endless struggle
    for tumescence. Often, with Wolfe, the sheer butch outrageousness of
    the execution is a sort of pleasure in itself. In one of the few
    scenes from Charlotte Simmons that I enjoyed, Jojo, after being put
    through the paces by a nubile basketball groupie, asks her why she's
    so `nice and obliging' to a stranger like him. She replies, sweetly
    and sincerely: `Every girl wants to . . . fuck . . . a star.' More
    often you think a whole chapter could be boiled down to: `Sex! Sex!
    Muscles! Status::::::: Status::::::::: He feels . . . more of a man!'

    Given that Wolfe has cracked the meaning of life, it's not surprising
    that he has a pat term for every trend, a potted biography for every
    character. `The male sex was divided into two types,' we learn: Alpha
    and Beta, of course. We see `the eternal male, eternally mortified by
    the female Making a Scene'. We hear digressions about the typical
    `resentful petit bourgeois Jewish intellectual' and hear that another
    character `knew the type very well by now, being Jewish himself'. At
    one point, we discover that `Adam, essentially a literary
    intellectual, didn't realise he was listening to the typical depressed
    girl.' This is what happens in Wolfe novels: people come to terms with
    their typicality. Charlotte Simmons, 1950s-style high-school
    valedictorian, descends on the fleshpots of the modern university -
    where she learns, slightly reluctantly, that she too wants to . . .
    fuck . . . a star.

    [15]Theo Tait lives in London.


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