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I Am Charlotte Simmons
(Tom Wolfe)

To all those convinced that television is the new deity ruling the world, that the effectiveness of political campaigns is measured in t.v. spots, that the only reality is the one on the screen and that a single image is worth more than a thousand words, I invite you to conduct a comparative benchmarking exercise between the image and the word: take a look at an episode of the Mexican soap opera "Rebel", broadcast on Televisa at prime time, and then read a chapter of "I am Charlotte Simmons", the latest novel by Tom Wolfe. Is the comparison crazy? Yes, without a doubt. To put Televisa and Tom Wolfe on the same level amounts to sacrilege for the devotees of both. But in this particular case there is common ground: the shared topic is the life of a group of elite senior high school students, living separated from their parents for the first time and having to come to terms with, each in their own way, that universal inclination from isolation towards friendship, from solitude towards sexuality, from social rejection towards acceptance and following the crowd. Both are also commercial successes with large audiences: in the U.S., "I am Charlotte Simmons" has been a bestseller in bookstores equal to previous Tom Wolfe novels, and in Mexico the t.v. series "Rebelde" has created a youth cult reinforced by the launching of a musical group that is filling concert halls and radio airwaves. But the similarities end there. If you look tolerantly at the soap opera, what stands out is the superficiality of the plot and the low quality of the t.v. language; the show consists of a parade of artificial situations, forced dialogue, pretty young girls of dubious acting ability, love affairs that never get off the ground, and a lot of noise. In contrast, the Charlotte Simmons novel is an impressive display of the hypnotic power of literature: in an ordinary, everyday scene, narrating the meeting of the parents of two students who will share a room at Dupont University, the author focuses on details of the furnishings, describes the history of the room, offers a highly meticulous review of each item of clothing on each character, examines the mermaid tattoo that shines on the arm of poor Charlotte's father, draws attention to the disapproving looks of her future roommate's mother, modulates the different intonations of voice with his pen, calculates the weight of the words of each speaker, dives into the minds of the characters to reveal their most intimate worries, forages about in the labyrinth of their emotions, and at the end of a scene that might appear unremarkable to any spectator, Wolfe uncovers the inner longings of the characters and unravels the huge charge of racism, discrimination, arrogance, pride, guilt, jealousy, fear and shame that characterizes the social relations of the most powerful nation on Earth. The novel is a delight because it is populated with archetypal characters who surprise us on each page with their remarks. It's as if they were really alive. Charlotte is a young country girl brought up in the Evangelistic morality of 19th century farmers, who, to be able to undo her ideological corset, dives into the perilous world of alcohol and orgiastic parties. On her errant pilgrimage she meets a recalcitrant nerd, a small intellectual terrified of hurting himself on his first visit to a gym; she pursues a relationship with an eccentric basketball star who chooses to read Socrates; she resists the advance of a pretender who becomes the leader of the businessmen's sons who come to Dupont to learn how to multiply their fortunes; she creates a small club with a couple of vacant young girls whose greatest aspiration is to live off gossip, and meets a dashing and debonaire professor who is a man taken out of the real world and who in fiction leads the way to the most disturbing findings in neurobiology. In the turbulent awakening of her social life in the big world, Charlotte Simmons transforms herself, seeking the acceptance er peers at any price, and adapts with great effort to the cultural atmosphere around her. In the end, Wolfe proves Marx right: the individual is no more than the sum of the social relations that have shaped him over the course of his biography. Furthermore, thanks to advances in neurobiology, the author subscribes vehemently to the disturbing notion that free will in individuals is an illusion, and that the ego so exhalted by pyschologists and mystics is a mental construction as intangible as the soul in which Christians believe, in their hope to make it to heaven. It seems that these new concepts are gaining ground in the world of science, and if we accept them we will end up convinced that our most carefully contemplated decisions, though the most difficult, are nothing more than reflections of a plan mapped out in advance in the biological tapestry of our genes and neurons, and that individual freedom is simply the most elaborate dream of our ignorance. Come to think of it, that really would be the end of it all.

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- Charlotte?s Web

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