Conscious Little Rocks?

Kakutani (NYT) panned it, but Begley at the New York Observer said it was "lots of fun."  I thought, heh, I like Wolfe and count Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full among my favorite novels, and so I gave I Am Charlotte Simmons a read.   Sadly, I wish I had waited until this 2 and a half-pound tome was on the remainder shelf.  Be warned, this review is a spoiler, if you’re planning on reading Wolfe’s book you might want to skip this entry. 

Charlotte Simmons, a precocious girl from the Allegeny mountains of North Carolina, goes to Dupont University, an amalgamation of universities that Wolfe built based on his visits to colleges across America.  Charlotte’s admitted to Dupont on full scholarship and oh so eager to engage the world of ideas. 

Her classmates at Dupont have other ideas for how to engage Charlotte.  Poor Charlotte, in addition to brains, her creator has endowed her with a great pair of legs.  She quickly gets noticed by one of the hottest guys at one of the coolest fraternities, Hoyt Thorpe.  She endears Jojo Johanssen, the only remaining white starter on Dupont’s basketball team in the French for jocks class. (She drops the class, but keeps Jojo in her orbit)  Oh, and of course Charlotte attracts the attention of Adam, tutor to the basketball gods, part time pizza delivery guy and oh yeah, aspiring member of the millennial mutants who are on the fast track to Rhodes scholarships and world domination.

Despite the mantra "I am Charlotte Simmons," conveniently given to Charlotte by mom, this novel is all about how she interacts with these guys and other unsavory students.  To save you the 676 pages, I’ll tell you that she gives it up for Hoyt, ditches the geek and lives happily ever after with Jojo–who under Charlotte’s spell–discovers a thing for academics. 

If this book had a silver lining for me, it’s in "sarc 3," swimmies and "the conscious little rock."  I’ll take each in turn.   Sarc is short for sarcasm–Wolfe, with the help of his college age kids, took the full course–here’s an excerpt:

"They chattered away.  Charlotte tried 
to tune out, but she heard Erica saying,
"That's not Sarc Three, Bev, that's only
Sarc Two.  I mean, it's almost as obvious
as Sarc One.  I can't believe they let
you out of Groton without passing Sarc.
Sarc One is when I look at you and say,
'Ohmygod, a cerise shirt.  Cerise is
such an in color this year.'  That's
just ordinary intentionally obvious
sarcasm, Okay?"

Swimmies?  The guys with high grade point averages who keep the basketball team afloat.   And last, but not least, is Wolfe’s interest in neuroscience.  He begins the novel with an experiment,  for which the scientist, Victor Starling, won a fictional prize.  Starling took the amygdalas out of cats, and the cats just couldn’t keep their paws off one another.  Readers are treated to a more highbrow explanation in Charlotte’s neuroscience class:

"’Let’s say you pick up a rock and throw it.  And in mid-flight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind.  That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.’  So later on we will get to the conscious little rock,’ and you will be able to decide for yourself: ‘Am I really merely . . . a conscious little rock?  The answer, incidentally, has implications of incalculable importance for the Homo sapiens’ conception of itself and for the history of the twenty-first century."

So while I can’t say I liked Charlotte, or any of the book’s characters very much, I took a short course in sarcasm, picked up a good metaphor (swimmies) and got an intro to neuroscience.  Not bad for a conscious little rock.  (I think that’s Sarc 3, in case you were wondering.)

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