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 humiliated.
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.