Wednesday, January 4, 2012

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roll over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.

This Side of Paradise
was Fitzgerald's first novel, published at the age of (dammit) 23. It has the unsurprising kitchen-sink quality common to a first-time novelist who wants to try everything, and flits from narrative to poetry to drama with wild abandon. Among other things, it comprises a short play, several bad lyrical poems, an elegiacal one in the Celtic style, and several letters. In one of them, Amory Blaine's friend Tom tells him, "As for the well-known Amory, he would write immortal literature if he were sure enough about anything to risk telling any one else about it."

Also unsurprisingly, Amory, the young proto-writer and disaffected Princeton man, is a stand-in for the young Fitzgerald, as Stephan Dedalus was for James Joyce five years prior. Fitzgerald shares Amory's anxiety about have nothing certain to say, and so the novel becomes about him--"I know myself," Amory cries in the last line of the book, "but that is all!"--and the ecumenical style becomes a way of compensating. Like Portrait of the Artist, Paradise reads as a sort of legend of its own creation, but the key to Joyce's achievement was an otherworldly confidence in the quality of the book, not an otherworldly confidence in the quality of the author.

Paradise is at its best in the straightforward narrative mode, which begins as a satirical portrait of Amory as a precocious and quite insufferable child. My favorite line is this, describing Monsignor Darcy, a priest and friend of Amory's mother:

He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.

Darcy proves to be a wise man and a stalwart friend to Amory, but the brilliant understatement of "[he] rather liked his neighbor" never fades, as does his confidence that he and Amory are of a special class. (This is a view that the author clearly shares, and perhaps he is borne out by history.)

The satire drops out as Amory grows, and becomes more lyrical as he becomes more lyrical, but the poetry he writes is largely forgettable. The prose is more successful:

Often they swam and as Amory floated lazily in the water he shut his mind to all thoughts except those of hazy soap-bubble lands where the sun splattered through wind-drunk trees. How could any one possibly think or worry, or do anything except splash and dive and loll there on the edge of time while the flower months failed. Let the days move over--sadness and memory and pain recurred outside, and here, once more, before he went on to meet them he wanted to drift and be young.


Only far inside his soul a little fire leaped and cried that something was pulling down, trying to get him inside a door and slam it behind him. After that door was slammed there would be only footfalls and white buildings in the moonlight, and perhaps he would be one of the footfalls.

But then there's a strange interlude where the Devil appears, some more bad poems, and a centerpiece where Amory's brief, tempestuous relationship with a girl named Rosalind is written as a stage play. The meaning of this is gut-wrenchingly obvious (she's histrionic, like an actress) and Rosalind and the playlet itself battle each other to determine which can be less interesting. The momentum of the book never recovers, and for some reason, even when Amory meets more interesting people (one girl rides her horse off a cliff to prove she doesn't believe in God!) he still yearns for Rosalind. Worst of all, where the climax should be, Fitzgerald provides a lengthy discussion about socialism with a complete stranger, and then the novel sort of limps off to die in a New Jersey ditch.

One of the strangest things about Paradise is that World War I is almost completely absent. Fitzgerald calls attention to how little Amory thinks of the war beginning as a high school student by limiting his notice of it to a half-page chapter. Then, when Amory goes off to fight in it, Fitzgerald provides--an act break. The Amory that returns is not markedly different. I'm pretty sure that Fitzgerald did not fight in WWI, but he felt it necessary that his alter ego did. And yet, he felt it not worthy--or too daunting?--to include. I wonder why.


Brent Waggoner said...

Man, this sounds like a crazy book. Maybe high schoolers should be reading it instead.

Comical Ali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Comical Ali said...

Rereading it (I think -- it is palpably forgettable), I felt dismayed enough to do a search about its disappointingness. This post hit the spot. I should have stopped after rereading "The Beautiful and Damned," a fine work for which this serves as a failed test run. How crappy must contemporary American literature have been for FSF to hit the big time for this drek.
[previous comment removed for typo, some additions]