Sunday, July 3, 2005

The Death of the American Editor

 "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is ripe full of amusing hits and misses. In a good segue to the 80s Bonfire of Vanities, Wolfe revisits the themes of shame, the dangers and pitfalls of the overconfident society. Yet as an expose of contemporary college life, the novel falls somewhat short, neither dipping into the real drama of well known problems (drugs, mental illness, nor painting a realistic picture of the class struggle behind the concept of College Academics. Aside from the basketball buffoons, there is for instance no credible portrait of minorities in the imaginary DuPont College, who according to research are the ones doing most of the study while the rich white kids use their college years as a platform of socialization into their future elite status. The device Wolfe employs, the tragically misplaced glamour of a famous academic institution from the point of view of a high school prodigy from the Blue Ridge Mountains, is in the end quite ineffective and leaves the reader with a sour aftertaste. The real struggle is elsewhere, this is the insignificant exception to the rules of class struggle. Wolfe also completely misses the mark making physical prowess rather than "cool" status the central male attainment goal. I have been living in a college community for 15 years, and seen fights at drunken parties, but it's hardly something anyone of the parties involved would be proud of or admired for after being bailed out of county jail the following morning. The imaginary wild west of DuPont is indeed a not too subtle flight of fancy possibly built for the Hollywood version of this sorry melodrama.

But what really leaves the reader appalled is the incredible amount of redundancy throughout the book. Whenever one anecdote would be sufficient to make a point, Wolfe uses two, sometimes one more later in the book where he is picking up the threads from a plot left unresolved. Repetition is the key, with cute inventions like "fuck patois" or "conversational nugget" (also a self-citation from the Bonfire) reintroduced and repeated over and over the interminable feuilleton.

Maybe the novel was intended for a public suffering from Alzheimer Disease? If so, while appreciate the noble intentions, I regret the lack of a warning label for the rest of us. Or possibly, this is a result of stinging together a bunch of over-researched episodes, without anyone really giving it more than a quick read-through. What happened to the concept of editing, or that "less is more" in literature? One has to regret Ellis' "Less Than Zero", which definitely got to the point so much more effectively and, above all, concisely. How many times can one remind the readers of an obvious point before forcing them to toss aside the massive and unwieldy hardcover? If all this was not enough the temporality or at least the succession of events is, to say the least, strained. Little childish "teasers" are inserted in chapters to remind the reader (i.e., that moron of a reader) of subplots evolving, desperately trying to get everything in sync for the predictable climax.

All this could have been easily fixed. So why wasn't it? Is this really the result of a team of researchers or at least creative writing students patching together a feuilleton? That's definitely how it feels like. With all its satire about the rising age of the idiot in our prestigious colleges, Mr. Wolfe has provided that very constituency with good, fun, and above all easy reading.

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