Karnick on Wolfe and I Am Charlotte Simmons

Fascinating review of I Am Charlotte Simmons by S.T. Karnick at Books and Culture. In fact, it is almost a model of a good book review. It is interesting even if you haven’t read the book, it doesn’t spoil the book either, and it takes the work, and its author, seriously. While discussing ideas outside of the book, it doesn’t hijack the review to ride a hobby horse or get on a soap box (to use/mix two different metaphors/clichés).

The first paragraph sets out exactly how Karnick is going to approach the work:

The social value of the novel is in its unique ability to present human choices in all their variety and complexity. Plays and films also can show such choices, of course, but the novel has the advantage of easily allowing us to enter a situation from a particular character’s point of view, or even to hear and consider their thoughts. All of this allows us to identify with the character within the situation and judge how we would act if placed in a similar dilemma. There can, however, be too much of a good thing, and that is what happens in Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

Karnick discusses Wolfe’s style and structure in reference to novelists like Flaubert, Fielding, Defoe, and Richardson and uses this to get to what he sees as the philosophical heart of what Wolfe is up to:

Wolfe’s story, while rather charming in its final irony (which I shall not reveal here) and sharp observations of contemporary American life, is more cynical and less hopeful than any of these, and the reason lies in Wolfe’s very different ideas about what drives human behavior and indeed whether people can really be said to make free choices in any meaningful way.

Karnick’s explication of what Wolfe is up to seems convincing to me, but I have not read the book (although I did watch Wolfe discuss the work on C-Span at some length).

Karnick adds to this philosophical discussion some well tempered critiques of Wolfe:

Regardless of whether one agrees with the philosophical conclusions Wolfe brings up, he is to be commended for considering such weighty matters in what is ultimately a fairly diverting story. Unfortunately, Wolfe’s biggest disadvantage as a novelist is the flip side of his greatest advantage as a writer: his astute journalist’s eye. He is a sharp observer of people, and his insights show a good deal of intelligence. However, Wolfe includes far too many of these observations, accumulating a vast store of unnecessary details unhappily reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe. The story frequently bogs down under the weight of its long descriptions of physical settings, considerations of the inner workings of college athletic programs, and the like.

Especially exhausting and superfluous are the lengthy descriptions of characters’ thoughts. Wolfe tends here, as in his other books, to depict each scene from a particular character’s point of view, and that is often a very good choice. His tendency to filter each scene through a character’s point of view, however, puts the events at an additional remove from the reader and actually prevents us from seeing them as vividly as we would if the descriptions were briefer and seemed objective.

This is exactly what has kept me from enjoying Wolfe in the past and keeps me from picking up his latest. I don’t have the time or energy for massive books of this nature.

Anyway, I think Karnick’s review is a model of usefulness and intellect. If you have any interest in Wolfe, the novel, and or the issue of free will I encourage you to take a look.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).