Good Charlotte?

October 1st, 2007

If Charlotte Simmons were a real person, she’d be starting her senior year at Dupont University.

Based on the events in Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel, “I am Charlotte Simmons,” my guess is she’d probably be finishing a BS in microbiology and applying to graduate programs at other elite ivy schools.

To research the novel, Wolfe spent a couple years on campuses observing undergraduate life, from basketball culture to frat parties.

His findings? College kids like sex. College kids like beer.

Critics dismissed the novel as “painfully disappointing,” “bloated” and, my favorite, in the San Francisco Chronicle, that it “defies credibility, taste and the remotest semblance of subtlety.”

I hope Wolfe, a writer and reporter I admire, picked up last Sunday’s Outlook section in The Washington Post.

Let me sum up Christopher Beam and Nick Summers’s column “College Sex: Going Home Alone”: college students talk about sex way more than they actually have it.
Sounds about right.

They also write that it’s “Superbad,” not “I am Charlotte Simmons” that really nails it.

I’ll buy that too — I identified more with Jonah Hill’s character than the devious newspaper nerd, Adam Gellin. But, you really can’t discount Wolfe — who has contributed more to the American pop-lexicon in the past 40 years than most people (sorry, Mr. Apatow).

The point of Charlotte Simmons wasn’t that Charlotte, a naïve girl from North Carolina got to school and found a lifestyle of sex and booze (she had a bad freshman roommate and fell for the wrong guy… it happens… winding up with the basketball star, maybe not).

For all of the book’s faults, the real point was that young people go to college, straight out of high school, and four years later, they have no idea who they are or what they want to do.

Compare the American higher educational system to other places — in Quebec, for example, students generally apply directly to a major, after a two-year program called Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, which helps them decide what to study. There’s the option to change majors once in school, but students generally know what they want before they enroll. Sure, there are parties and sex, but college isn’t always the assumed post-high school step that it is here.

Not that our cousins to the North have any better idea of what they want — just a different system to help them figure it out.

“When we graduate and have no idea what we want, its cheaper to go back and try again,” says my friend Marissa, a native of Montreal, studying for her second BA in therapeutic recreation at Concordia.

(Tuition? $1,198.34 for four classes, in-province resident fee Marissa says.)

For Charlotte, a poor North Carolinian who earned a full ride to Dupont, it was a privilege.
But she ended her freshmen year as “Jojo Johanssen’s girlfriend”—not the girl with the strong sense of self we met in the opening chapters.

“I thought Charlotte’s loss of innocence went in the wrong direction and missed the point about both innocence and human beings,” says NVCC professor Robert Bausch, also a published novelist. “It is ‘loss of innocence’ that precisely brings about one’s awareness of self; it is what makes us adults. In my view, if she’s still Jojo’s girlfriend, she’s still innocent.”

“Most of the students I work with are determined, serious, and just beginning to figure out a self,” Bausch continues. “Some get there while studying with me, some get there when they leave. All are completely aware of the ‘seedy’ world that Wolfe portrays in his book — as though college is a foreign place where the world is completely warped. These kids have already been to frat parties while they were in high school. Sex is not shocking to them.”

So, what does shock the students?

“Thirty-two kids and teachers are slain on a college campus by a deranged madman bent on infamy if he couldn’t have fame, and this whole culture jumped on it and gave him precisely what he wanted,” says Bausch. “Not the college campus, but the world we live in. It’s much more shocking than Dupont University.”

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

3 comments to “Good Charlotte?”

  1. Whatever, you devious newspaper nerd.

  2. Read the book. Gellin was a prick.

  3. I love community college.