As I’ve made clear before, I did not enjoy This Side of Paradise one bit. I was a little surprised, because I imagined that Fitzgerald was so adept with language that any book he might write would be worth reading if only for its sentences. While it’s true that over the course of this novel it is possible to see signs that Fitzgerald is slowly coming into his own as a writer, as a rule this novel’s language is just as banal as its subject matter. I see absolutely no evidence in the pages of this book that in only five years’ time its author will have the skill and dexterity to write The Great Gatsby. What happened in those five years – Paris? Alcohol? Zelda? A sense of competitiveness with Hemingway and Faulkner? This question is the most interesting one that emerged out of this book for me.
This Side of Paradise is about Amory Blaine’s “rise” (it’s more of an endless plateau, actually) from pampered child to deceitful prep-school student, and from there to an obnoxious social-climbing Princeton undergraduate and bitter, simpering young adult who can’t understand why his girlfriends always leave him. Amory’s childhood is fractured by the financial situation of his parents: his aristocratic European mother, Beatrice (sentences about Beatrice tend to end with exclamation points) and his humdrum father, “an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopedia Britannica” who “hovered in the background of his family’s life, an unassertive figure with a face half-obliterated by lifeless, silky hair, continually occupied by ‘taking care’ of his wife, continually harassed by the idea that he didn’t and couldn’t understand her” (9).
Where’s Freud when you need him?
Amory’s struggles to find meaningful relationships with girls and women are an ongoing (and entirely boring) element of the novel. Beginning with a “bobbing party” in late childhood – an event that seems like something Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie ought to have been involved in – that culminates in his first kiss, and proceeding through a college romance with a girl from his hometown to a post-college romance with a college friend’s sister Rosalind, which ends when Rosalind realizes that Amory does not have enough money to support her in the manner to which she has been accustomed, Amory seems to have inherited or absorbed his father’s inability to be a force for good in a relationship with a woman, and he never stops feeling victimized by his own ineptitude, which he always manages to blame on someone: he mother, his father, the girls themselves, the girls’ mothers, and so forth.’
It seems to me that this novel is inextricably a product of its times. I’m no scholar of the 1890’s through the 1910’s, but because World War I so thoroughly shattered first Europe and then the United States out of the innocence and frivolity of these years, I have become aware that these years were innocent and frivolous – and this novel certainly portrays them in this way. Young male Ivy League undergraduates in this novel, for example, spend more time “linking arms and singing” than the entire rest of the human race put together, and all kinds of fusses are made over dance cards and those sorts of things. Works of art whose purpose is to capture a place, an era, and a culture often do not age well. They become textbooks rather than art. I can imagine this novel being taught in a social history or cultural anthropology course about American society at the turn of the twentieth century, but I see little use for it as a novel.
That said, this novel certainly qualifies as a central text of the Jazz Age. Like A Moveable Feast – which is usually categorized as nonfiction – this novel spends a good bit of time complaining about the fact that life in the post-war years is empty and meaningless. In spite of the vague, dismissive way Amory’s service in World War I and even the death of several of his friends is treated in the novel (it’s not quite “a vast Teutonic migration,” but it’s close), Amory expounds to his friend Tom that the war “certainly ruined the old backgrounds, sort of killed individualism out of our generation” (203). “Oh Lord,” he expounds, “what a pleasure it used to be to dream I might be a great dictator (!!) or writer or religious or political leader – and now even a Leonardo Da Vinci or Lorenzo de Medici couldn’t be a real old-fashioned bolt in the world. Life is too huge and complex. The world is so overgrown that it can’t lift its own fingers, and I was planning to be such an important finger” (204 – the exclamation points after ‘dictator’ are my own).
This novel seems to be trying to do something experimental with genre, though these experiments are too timid to work very well. Two portions of the novel are inexplicably told in the form of short plays. I do think I understand the reason for this genre switch: it allows Fitzgerald to write scenes in which Amory is not present, in spite of the fact that the novel as a whole is told from his point of view. I didn’t especially like this technique, but I also have a history of complaining when novelists shift their point of view around willy-nilly, so I suppose Fitzgerald’s solution to this problem is as good as any. Furthermore, the novel is subdivided not only into relatively long (and titled) chapters but also into subsections that are also titled. At times it is common for two or three of these sections to fit on a single set of facing pages. These titles are often a little on the pretentious side: “In the Drooping Hours” (248), “The Collapse of Several Pillars” (241), “Amory on the Labor Question” (196), “The Superman Grows Careless” (96), and so forth. These little subtitles reminded me of the titled sections of each episode of Frasier (remember those – they would appear every 8-10 minutes throughout each episode, every time a new scene began?), and at times the outward pretention combined with inward loneliness and self-loathing reminded me of some of the characters in Frasier, a show that I very much enjoyed. I thought for a while about why I disliked this novel so much when it reminded me of a show that I liked, but then I realized: Frasier is a comedy. It wants to be laughed at, and the comic form gives us the unstated promise that the characters will all eventually be okay, while This Side of Paradise takes itself painfully seriously. It’s impossible for me to read it without being constantly aware of the huge boulder that Amory’s speeding train will crash headlong into sometime in the second half of 1929. Fitzgerald didn’t know about the Great Depression, of course, but in both this novel and The Great Gatsby he seems to have a certain intuition that something is coming that will make people like Amory Blaine immediately and catastrophically irrelevant.
I never would have finished this novel if it hadn’t been for the Numbers Challenge, and of course I’m glad that I read it. The fact that this precursor to The Great Gatsby is of such questionable quality makes Gatsby all the more of a singularity, and therefore more impressive. The early works of some great writers feel like dress rehearsals for their later work, but this novel feels less like a dress rehearsal and more like the work of an entirely different writer – it almost makes me wonder if some kind of life-altering event took place between 1920 and 1925 (again – Paris? Alcohol? Zelda?) that affected Fitzgerald so thoroughly that it created a fissure in his work that divides what came before from what came after.