Powells.com & The Morning News Present


David Mitchell (Random House)

Cloud Atlas

vs. I Am Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe (FSG)

At 688 pages, I Am Charlotte Simmons may be the book trade’s greatest attack on the environment since the large-print edition of Gravity’s Rainbow. For his take on America’s campuses, Wolfe has received the sorts of attacks in print that would push most writers off bridges, especially if they didn’t have custom-made suits to worry about wrinkling. And the critics in many ways aren’t wrong: Charlotte Simmons is a big fat failure, so frequently ignorant of its own cast that it’s impossible to believe in the characters; no one in Charlotte Simmons thinks independently; the cast speaks and acts to give evidence for Wolfe’s theories, about status, the worship of men, and how female innocence has given way to giving head.

And though he failed to convince me with any of his gasping grand proclamations, the every-page howling stuttering THIS IS HOW IT IS NOW!, Wolfe’s smaller mistakes were somehow even more irritating. Many things he wants us to believe are vital to how college students behave simply don’t exist: students are not preoccupied with mocking people who part their hair; students do not obsess over diction; the phrase “fuck patois” only exists because Wolfe says it does. As a friend put it, “You have to understand, he’s not writing for us, he’s writing for people a hundred years from now. He really believes he’s doing this so future generations can understand what it was like.” Everyone—and I mean everyone—I’ve talked to under the age of 35 is stunned by how much he got wrong.

(When Wolfe writes on page 583, “Charlotte abruptly stopped crying and stared up at Adam with her mouth slightly open and her tearful eyes shining…with respect bordering oddly on pleasure, as women sometimes do when a man claims the high ground and rebukes them,” I vomited.)

But, but, but…I’m being intentionally cruel because Wolfe is so often cruel and manipulative with his characters and I, for all their implausibility, loved them. I loved Charlotte Simmons. During a cross-Atlantic flight I read 400 pages without breaking once to pee. There are dozens of pages so rich and well told it’s remarkable they live in the same story. Wolfe owns frat parties. He owns big-school basketball, particularly the play on the court. He wrote an extremely ambitious novel that’s so often wrong it’s amazing the copy editor didn’t personally demand back Wolfe’s advance (Elmore Leonard should have been brought in to fix dialogue), yet I loved it and the book stuck with me for days.

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas doesn’t seem to get anything wrong. He has written a book of many stories that seem tightly connected at first, but by the conclusion aren’t tied by much more than a couple of mentions about a birthmark. At that point, though, who cares? I enjoyed the storytelling so much, especially Mitchell’s relentless surprises, I immediately recommended it to my wife, and then lent it to a friend before she could read it. Cloud Atlas is extremely entertaining and frequently thought provoking. And if Mitchell succeeds more often with what his characters do than with why they do them—for all his faults, Wolfe has a richer cast—my excitement and curiosity never wavered.

Wolfe wrote a sloppy, obese, enormously awful, loud-mouthed essay-fiction-mutant-whore with moments of insight and honest-to-God wisdom. Mitchell wrote a wonderful novel. It was a very close call, but I knew my decision all along.


Judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

Judge: Rosecrans Baldwin
Age: 27
Types of books you tend to read frequently:
Novels, mystery and crime, history about New York
Types of books you rarely read:
Political non-fiction
Favorite book of all time:
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.