Mark Bowden, The Atlantic, April 2006.
In one of many deft set pieces in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, a group of student journalists at the fictional Dupont University hold a meeting in the “lumpen-bohemian clutter” of their campus newsroom. The editor wants a firm story list for the next issue’s fast-approaching deadline, but the discussion bogs down over an item that might just be important breaking news—they’re not sure.
It seems that the campus custodial staff cleaned from the quad sidewalks crude chalk depictions of homosexual acts. Camille Deng, a feisty arch-feminist and civil libertarian, is outraged by such heedless destruction of gay art. “Do you think it’s just a coincidence that Parents Weekend is coming up?” she argues.
You think they might just possibly not want the parents to see descriptions of how Dupont guys make love written in chalk all over the sidewalks? “We’re Queer and We’re Here”—you think Dupont Hall wants to let that big cat out of the bag? Because they are here.
Then another staffer, who is gay, turns on Deng’s use of the word “they.” “You sure you don’t have an issue yourself?” he accuses her. “Like maybe a little covert pariah-ism? Like maybe a little self-loathing lesbianism?”
Their argument forms a perfect ouroboros, illustrating that the game of impugning motives (even subconscious ones) forms a self-destructive loop. It’s a neat insight, and I Am Charlotte Simmons is full of such little gems, stabs at the rich variety of pseudo- intellectualism that flourishes on a college campus. It is above all a novel of ideas, a point perhaps obscured by the entertainment value of Wolfe’s prose. In addition to being one of the most original stylists to ever write in the English language, Wolfe has long been America’s most skillful satirist. In his first two novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, Wolfe lampooned the excesses of the nouveau riche, racial politics, the criminal-justice system, and other generally urban white-collar targets, all of which were widely considered fair game. In Charlotte Simmons, he takes aim at youth culture—at the children!