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.
What is the Numbers Challenge? I missed the explanation of that somewhere. Having read your essay, I feel no obligation to read this book. On the other hand, the formatting makes it sound sort of interesting to read. On the other hand, I do not have a lot of patience with the blatherings of over privileged individuals, so I guess I will pass.
Jill and I made a list of 24 books that we feel we “should” read, either because they are important classics or because we have owned them for a very long time. Neither of us has seen the other’s list. Each month we send each other a number, and we read the books that correspond to our number. You can make a list and play along if you’d like?
I am so behind on the Numbers Challenge…. I was thinking, actually, that we should put a tab for our lists up at the top of the blog one of these days. I just don’t know how to format it.
I was thinking the same thing, but then I stopped thinking it because it dovetailed with something else that I am deliberately trying to stop thinking about, which is that our home page is a mess. We have over 200 categories, for one thing, and once we add our 2015 lists we will have another row of page headings at the top, which will just add more clutter. Unless someone is looking for a specific author and catches on to the fact that we have them alphabetized by first name, there is no easy way for someone to look up an author they are looking for – and so on. There is a Word Press users meetup group that I want to attend at some point to see if I can get some ideas. And of course, all of this is overwhelming, which is why I haven’t mentioned it or done anything. But I agree with you that the Numbers Challenge should be highlighted more obviously.
Yes, we need to reorganize in 2015.
You two are amazing. Someday I want to meet Jill. I think of myself as a reader, but compared to you two I am a dilettante. As to the numbers challenge, hmmmm. That list would include most of Hemingway, a lot of Shakespeare, oh, too many things! But your posts (both of you) keep me inspired.
We should make plans for a get-together with Jill sometime. That would be fun.
A better precursor to the Great Gatsby is the Beautiful and the Damned, about the romance, marriage and final degradation of the jazz age couple, Anthony and Gloria. There are a lot more serious issues covered here, we watch two beautiful people deteriorate into soiled shadows of their former selves and waste their lives waiting for something to happen. This was written early in Fitzgerald’s career and pretty much sums up what eventually happened to F.Scott and Zelda, only their fates were even worse. I have always thought it remarkable that Fitzgerald wrote as beautifully and as deeply as he did given his chronic alcoholism, mindless adulation of Zelda, and seeming indifference to what would be considered real work. But actually, he had deep insight into the aging process, the loss of innocence and the necessity for healthy goals and realizable dreams. He was really a very moral and old-fashioned writer who was unable to pull himself together enough to remain sober for appreciable periods of time. He reflected his historic period beautifully, burned very brightly for a very short period of time and then literally dropped dead. And then, of course, there is Zelda who literally burned brightly, but that is another story.