Diana West

Taking a break from reading 676-page "I Am Charlotte Simmons" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), Tom Wolfe's primal scream of a public service announcement that depicts college as more Hefner mansion than ivory tower, I happened to scan an article about a new trend in architectural preservation. Rural shacks, sheds and ramshackle barns are no longer seen as demolition targets, The New York Times reports, but rather as favored facades for contemporary arts and leisure activities among professionals with second homes. Naturally, an old barn becomes an art studio, but a pigpen also becomes a poolside cabana, and a 19th-century chicken coop becomes a 21st-century space for a film production company and a business making "waterproof postsurgical booties for dogs."

How antiseptic life on these old farms has become. No muck, no sweat. No remnants of the herd life that once defined the landscape. It's an interior world now, of stretched canvas, computer disks, videotape, clean towels and tiny rubber boots. This may be a leap, but I can't help comparing this postmodern version of "clean" living to the destiny of Wolfe's brave new collegians. How will they ever sweep away the dirt of the sordid, subhuman life they lead at his novel's Dupont College?

This isn't to say that Wolfe's book about sex and the college kid is a shock, exactly. You would have to live somewhere over the rainbow, beyond the range of the satellite dish, not to be familiar with the pulsating, orgiastic media sac in which parents set their teens to gestate, where they suck up the noxious currents of scatologically idiotic Hollywood and sexually berserk MTV until society deems them fit for four years of "higher education." This is the point at which we meet them in the book. What follows -- the phenomenon of "hooking up" and related degradations described in this investigation of the decline of a freshman woman -- is not what's new. But in the Wolfeian accumulation of detail, much of it clinical, and the torrential rain of expletives, there is an unavoidable tsunami of revelation, all of it crashingly depressing. College as we know it becomes something to rethink, particularly at $40,000 per annum.

That's because "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is a cautionary tale, a sexually and emotionally frank work of polemical fiction that should shake the young even as it speaks to their parents. But will they listen? Explicit as the book is about unconstrained bodily functions (not all sexual), it's a definite rap on the 1960s revolution that sanctified promiscuities from "free love" to hooking up. Which seems to irritate reviewers peering into the book from the Left. They seem to resent the fact that this massive tome is no "Sex and the Dorm" or "Desperate Coeds," even if it shares certain themes in common with both "Sex and the City" and "Desperate Housewives." But where "Charlotte Simmons" is disturbing and dispiriting, "Sex" and "Housewives" are supposed to titillate and lead on.

And they do more than that. Like the crime show "CSI," their kin in coarseness, "Housewives" et. al. expand the boundaries of accepted, even expected, talk and behavior. A ratings squib on "CSI: Miami" noted that 22.26 million viewers is a lot of people to hear a character remark, "Where there's vomit, there's bile. Where there's bile, there's DNA." Television crimesolvers from Peter Wimsey to Columbo never thought to mention such goos, which probably says less about their reticence than about the contemporary pose of full-frontal exposure.

According to Newsweek, one "Housewives" script called for a character to shame her TV husband by publicly announcing he "cries after he --." (I omit the verb, if only to keep my byline Google-pure.) According to the magazine, the actress "blanched when she first read the scene. 'Honestly, I was, like, I can't say that line,' she says. But she did," the story continues, "and with the kind of glee (the character) reserves for a perfect souffle."

"But she did" is hardly the end of the story. In overriding instinctive modesty or even the irrelevant tug of good manners, this actress did more than force herself to imagine and project an image of sexual humiliation. She also passed it on to the rest of us. She pushed the envelope where we think and live. She ensured such yuck will come across the TV screen more easily next time -- and also in real life.

Vomit, bile and explicit ick. Frankly, it's a heap for poor Charlotte Simmons to have to muck out alone.


Diana West

Diana West is the author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character (St. Martin's Press, 2013), and The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (St. Martin's Press, 2007).