Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

The Times of London recently ran a story about a book on 13 unsolved questions of science. For example, the fact that we can only account for four percent of the universe, or that the fundamental constants of physics may have been different in the distant past, judging by the way light travels around the cosmos. One mystery in particular is that of consciousness.

Neuroscientists, for example, say that the entire idea of free will is an illusion - a trick our brains play on us. We are really walking brain machines that obey chemicals and instinctual commands hardwired into us by our Darwinian forebears. Guts - grace under pressure - isn’t so much a sign of character as good body chemistry.

In light of that, it might be time to take another look at a recent novel that was savaged from several different fronts earlier in this decade - Tom Wolfe’sI Am Charlotte Simmons.” Among its dubious honors was taking the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award, recognizing distinction in the novel for awkwardly or poorly rendered erotic scenes.

I’m not going to tackle Wolfe’s prowess in this regard - his defense was that he was trying to deliberately make the scenes awkward and unappetizing. Judge for yourself. There was also plenty of criticism that Wolfe had either written an entirely unnecessary novel with the revelation - Gasp! - that college kids have wild, unprotected sex, or that the novel reads like a puritanical 70-year-old man trying to describe a world he neither belonged to nor understood.

Judge for yourself. There is a certain artistic hubris apparent in the novel, though you have to admire the guts of a man of Wolfe’s age encountering the milieu he describes. Instead, I think these criticisms ignored the real crux of the novel - free will. Mr. Starling, the professor says it plainly: “If man is an animal, to what extent does his genetic code, unbeknownst to him, control his life?”

Charlotte Simmons is Wolfe’s lab rat, an overly-innocent, sheltered high school graduate from a working class family who heads for Dupont University (a loose stand-in for Duke) with the hopes of her community and their unshakeable faith in her ability to hogtie success. Instead, Charlotte falls into the familiar traps of popularity and status, wanting to fit in and feeling left out. She stands ready to sacrifice herself, intellectually and sexually, in order to belong. At various points in the novel, Charlotte is contrasted with the laboratory experiments of the school’s doctors, which find that a culture can overwhelm the impulses of an individual.

One of the beauties of this perplexing book is that Wolfe, by setting the story in a university, is able to send up the progress of human civilization - that in the midst of all these great ideas are hormonal kids barely out of their teens, getting drunk and chasing after cheap sex, swearing all the way through. And life really doesn’t change all that much beyond the campus, even if the ideas remain. But what of the soul? Our concept of the soul has mutated along the way - the Judaic tradition borrowing from the Greek gives us a soul that is part of a community, while Christianity proclaimed God’s love for the individual. The Enlightenment then took the individual’s importance and replaced God with rationalism, meaning that we are worth something because we exist, even if there is no God. But neuroscience, like all science, promises knowledge that can be corrupted if it is used to turn mankind into masses of thoughtless automatons in the service of their nerve impulses.

This is why Wolfe is perfect for this particular story. Wolfe’s fiction is largely about status - about being and belonging. If someone does not belong, more often than not, it is a revelation that the character neither seeks nor fully understands, but the revelation is almost religious in nature. All truth becomes hypocritical because no one adheres to it. Whatever truth is revealed is usually at the expense of another, but in the end, all characters, fully-realized, are Darwinian ladder climbers who greedily pick each other off and gain their own revelations by inches. Somehow, they find a place where they belong.

When Charlotte sets off for school, she wants to create a life for herself, a “life of the mind.” In the end, Charlotte loses the person she was and becomes something else - a less uptight but more knowing individual, changed by her surroundings, but determined to be whoever it is that she now is. She is in control.

What I notice in this book, as I did in his earlier “A Man In Full,” is a phenomenon I would call “stealth Christianity.” Charlotte is so obviously a na├»ve, church girl, and yet this is only vaguely hinted at. There is little to bind her to her family other than their shared monetary status and the culture of good folks from the mountains. Yet this is the sort of sheltered saved girl who goes to college and discovers a world that either pays lip service to Christ or ignores Him completely. Charlie Croker, the hero of “A Man In Full,” becomes born again, only in the grip of Epictetus, the Roman philosopher instead of Jesus. In Wolfe’s fiction, which seems to catalogue virtually every aspect of modern life, faith is largely absent, hinted at, or sidestepped. The characters are more passionate about politics than God. One wonders if this is deliberate, and I would argue, it almost certainly is.

Wolfe, asked recently in an interview if he believed in God, said no. This surprised me. I had suspected that Wolfe, who revels in brandishing a conservative political worldview, was “hiding his light under a bushel.” But he also said the neuroscientist view, that there is no “ghost in the machine,” renders a life which is bereft of the mysticism that practically all of us would like to believe hides behind our tissue and bones.

The novel, and the neuroscientist view of our existence, also brings up an interesting point in a Christian discussion. Does it mean there is a biological explanation for the fallen human condition? Is the “sinful nature” something that can be found in the genome? Is the idea that we are “born into sin” something more than the simple poetry of the King James Bible? Is sin wound so tightly in the DNA that one cannot rip it apart from the human existence without destroying an essential part of us all? By novel’s end, Charlotte resolves that even if the soul is a myth, that myth is part of who she is. Discovering who she is will take the rest of her life, regardless of whether there is anything after.

Whether or not Wolfe’s novel is a success or failure, he does deserve some credit for tackling a question that science serves up for us all, whether we have the guts to face it or not. If this column reads like it wrote itself, then perhaps the neuroscientists aren’t far off after all.

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