Friday, April 4, 2008

This Side of Paradise - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of all the artists, writers, thinkers and musicians to pass in and out through the doors of this precipitously-governed country over the past two hundred and fifty years, there are few closer to my heart than the one, the only, FSF. So fragile was his constitution that he had to succumb to a heart-attack at the unlikely age of just 44. So brilliant was his mind that he could stir a nation with a debut novel at age 24. So inimitable was his voice that he could pen what very well may be the greatest American novel of all time a few years later. So much did he spend during the Depression that he had to constantly write short stories just to make a living. So risky was his lifestyle that he could spend a decade in France, revising the follow-up to that masterpiece while in the throes of alcoholism, marital difficulties, depression, and madness, and emerge with an arguably even greater masterpiece. So epic was his life that it would end in Hollywood, uncelebrated, all but forgotten, but not before the composition of a novel that, were it to be finished, would easily stand alongside his most celebrated work. So winning was his personality that Ernest Hemingway would walk with him into the bathroom to inform him that he had nothing to worry about, that everything was in its proper proportion.

It might just so happen that This Side of Paradise then, published when FSF was 24 but written over the course of several years, may contain his raison d'etre. What a beautiful novel, opening up in description of the person of Amory Blaine, son of Beatrice and a fading father character, born in Minnesota, educated at St. Regis, and finally Princeton, where the majority of it unfolds. Amory is a Romantic Egotist, a personage, and 90% of an intellectual, though lacking the ascetic nature of his philosophical friends Tom D'Invilliers, Alec Connage and Burne Holiday. He writes for the student newspaper, edits the literary journal, takes weekend trips into New York City, and romances several girls. Notably Isabelle and Rosalind. He believes he sees the Devil in one scene. He goes to the Jersey Shore and protects a friend sleeping with a floozy when the cops come in to bust things up. He becomes disillusioned by romance, and goes out on several-day-benders. Amory is not a boring character.

Critics today are quick to point out that This Side of Paradise does not contain as elegant a structure as Gatsby or Tender is the Night and is therefore, merely a "very good" first novel. Of course I disagree with them. Having read this the year before I began my undergraduate education, probably for the 2nd time a couple years later, the third time two years after that, and for the fourth time two years after that, some six months ago, I can safely say that each reading has held a different experience, and that the prose is more deeply-layered and nuanced than I am able to have remembered discerning in my previous reading two years earlier. Never mind that I have only read Gatsby three or so times, and Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon and The Beautiful and Damned (highly underrated) only once all the way through, each. This Side of Paradise is the most user-friendly novel in his oeuvre, and the one most readily relatable to the youth of the 21st century. Gatsby may be even shorter, it seems, but those characters are a bit older. The characters in TSOP are little more than children, but they are given the freedom to live their life as impetuously as they see fit, and Fitzgerald is not dull in describing their activities.

And I still feel as if I have not properly communicated the greatness of the work. Should one point towards its "experimental" structure as being forward-thinking, or merely an anomaly in literature, a cut-and-paste job as some may have blithely referred to it? Or should one point towards the character of Monsignor D'Arcy as evidence that Fitzgerald was wiser than his years, or that he could not imagine a temperate person of substance in which to place his trust? Many details may be dashed off quickly, allowing the reader to make the assumption that in its published form there were still loose ends to be tied, inconsistencies or abnormalities yet to be revised, and there are even what appear to be typos when Fitzgerald breaks from his third-person-narration to command the reader, "Don't Misunderstand!" or to explain a significant detail like, "I see I am getting ahead of myself." A more strict academic reader might dismiss Fitzgerald's first creation as the work of a dilettante or dandy before he acquired the necessary skills to concoct as perfect a novel as Gatsby. But regardless of the lack of perfection, TSOP is as close to perfect as you can get while still being human, in my own meaningless opinion as a writer. The first-person lapses only enhance the novel for me, only give it more mysterious meaning that cannot yet be fully understood. The structure is wild and refuses to provide any easy asnwers to the reader. The ending is nearly the same level of poetry as that famous final page of Gatsby. Which is the more classic line? "Born ceaselessly into the past" or "But that is all?" Carraway's invocation of Gatsby's condition will move many hearts, but Blaine's assessment of his own lack of a grasp on life, society and the world, is one sentiment that cannot by refuted by claiming a lack of application in reality.

Often called the "voice of the Jazz age," Fitzgerald created characters drawn so closely from life that anyone who has known more than a few hundred people in their time will be amazed at a character's resemblance to some such person they met at a party, or in a dorm, or at a bar, or a club meeting. True, Fitzgerald is often described as having milked his real life for his fiction, but after all these years, the gesture is not an unkind one. Who would think that people in New York in 1919 would not be far off from people in New York in 2001? Sure, Amory Blaine might laugh if you were able to describe the Internet to him, but if you were to have a drink with him, it would be little different from meeting anyone you might have known in the years between 18 and 22.

For his stunning statement on youth and ambition, Fitzgerald's first novel introduced him to the world at large before being swiftly forgotten and considered out of fashion. Gatsby may be the book in every high school classroom, but students might be urged to seek out TSOP on their own, as they might read something they could actually identify with, rather than something that they might just not understand.

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