Friday, November 25, 2005

Tom Wolfe on today's campus

Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons" appears unreal until you remember how old Tom is and realize that he has redone, mutatis mutandis, Terry Southern's breakthrough 60's novel Candy, itself a succes de scandale rewrite of Voltaire's Candide. Candy was a virginal young girl from the Arcadia of Wisconsin searching sincerely for the meaning of life who runs into a series of sexual escapades that educate her socially. Ultimately turned into an awful movie with Brando and a long-forgotten Swedish girl-child, Candy was Southern's coming-of-moral-age novel. Southern also wrote the scripts for "Dr. Strangelove," "Easy Rider," and is credited with inventing the term "hippie." Southern's lavish use of profanity was another of his cutting-edge contributions that eventually became commonplace.

Both Candy and Charlotte [and Candide] are constructs rather than characters, mannequins for a maestro of the pen. Like Candy, Charlotte goes from an Eden to Sodom/Gomorrah in this novel written forty years later and updated from Candy only with new varieties of human furniture, a heroine with a genius IQ, and, of course, the Dupont/Duke [remember Wolfe`s southern ruts, as Charlotte would say] setting for the bacchanalia.

Very much of the novel just rings wrong. How she gets a tete-a-tete with a Nobel Prize winning lecturer [an oxymoron in itself, since T.A.s do all the lectures and you are lucky to ever get a meeting with a distinguished prize-winning professor if you are a SENIOR] strains the suspension-of-disbelief barrier. Indeed, the mechanics Wolfe inserts into this Boschian panorama his plot demands requires deleting much of the rich environment of a top university and amping up the frat/jock/geek/academicide enormities his Olive Oyl protaganist confronts.

The characters are portrayed as relentlessly insincere, with Adam's mental gymnastics exclusively devoted to how to keep Charlotte's attention during the Milennial Mutant sessions. I could go on with cavils.

However, Wolfe's cardinal moral in this morality play is that, like the cats who have been the "controls" of the sex-crazed amygdalectomized thirty felines of the neuroscientist's Nobel experiment[see first two pages], every player in this academic/athletic/social world gets reduced to the lowest common denominator of the environment, sucked netherward until each hits bottom, all unredeemed by any epiphanies or insights.

This novel does demonstrate, however, that Wolfe still remains one of the most ambitious and fearless commentators of our Age of Decline. I only wish that he had a Maxwell Perkins to shave a couple of hundred pages off his 700 page manuscript and resolve a few questions left hanging in the end. But Wolf might have resolved Charlotte's quandary more succinctly had he noted that, like the earlier North Carolina native "Thomas" Wolfe in the title of his posthumous novel, "you can't go home again."

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