Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe is probably the most profound writer of popular fiction today, though not the most prolific one. In A Man in Full, and everything he's written since, he's concerned himself with identity. This isn't the usual academic, PC posturing, "What is the identity of the handicapped, Puerto-Rican lesbian in our poststructuralist society?" stuff. What he's talking about is a little deeper than that.

He's worried that at bottom, we have no souls, just empty personas. The idea that we determine our own destiny is just a sensory illusion our part. In reality, we are buffeted about by the social or scientific forces that are bigger than we are.

The odd thing is that even though he hints, in fiction and nonfiction, that the latest research in neuroscience is leading in this direction, he can't really bring himself to believe it. And the characters in his books, in strange and uncomfortable situations, can still muster the freedom to act and define themselves in their situation anyway.

Charlotte Simmons is a teenage child prodigy who graduates high school from nowhere in Appalachia, and earns a scholarship to Dupont College, a fictionalized Ivy campus, where she is caught unprepared in a vortex of all the pressures associated with the modern university; financial, social, academic, intellectual, etc. But in spite of all these things, things which are real and cannot be minimized or blandly waved away, Charlotte Simmons has a soul, not a "soul", and her difficulties do not change that fact.

"She envied them for being well-born, for having money and all the clothes they wanted, for their natural assumption of social superiority and their actual attainment and enjoyment of it. She admitted this to herself, and it seemed like little more than an observation. For reasons she couldn't have explained, if asked, she no longer felt cowed or intimidated by these people. They were what they were, and she was Charlotte Simmons. I am Charlotte Simmons."

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