This Side Of Paradise: A Review
The only truly terrible thing is that we have no books written by dead people, for perspective.

By dead people I don't mean pre-modern sages who understood what life was all about in a way that we--decadent drug-addicted post-literate retro-tribalists of the twenty-first century hypertextual dead zone that we are--are no longer capable of producing or understanding. That is ridiculous. When you take into account sanitation, lack of distribution ability for writing and ideas, slave labor and universal suffrage, point for point, it is probably better to be living in the twenty-first century than any alternative.

What I mean are literal dead people. We have no books literally written by the dead. And we could really use them. A place to stand and strategize for a while, maybe to whistle a little.

Any book you read was written by someone on the same crazy train as you. Think about that and you'll start to feel low.

As you ride the crazy train, somewhere in the deep blackness beneath the river just between stops, your ears pressurizing, they ask you for money--or they tell you stories. (Books are stories, written down, and that is all they are. Unless they are asking for money.) Some of the passengers tell you stories meant to entertain you, stories about their crazy landlord or the time they fired sixty machine gun rounds into a Mexican bar and took off, not waiting to see who lived or died. Some of them tell you about their horrible dreams, and some of them tell you about your wonderful dreams. Some of them--the older ones--tell you about the things they've learned about the train over the years on this same stupid circuit from station to station, and some of them--the younger ones--tell you about how they've finally figured it out, all you have to do is get off the train, ride between the cars, whatever dumb thing, and you're happy to listen because you remember being like that, stupid and bound for death too soon.

But every story you hear is a story told by someone who's stuck on the same old train.

That's what's depressing and great about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He knows all about the train, writes beautifully about the train and how gorgeous, simply gorgeous, you beautiful fool, it can be to ride it. But on some basic level he doesn't seem to realize that he's on the train as well.

At least he doesn't realize it in This Side of Paradise. Or maybe this is just the book where Fitzgerald's wide-eyed suckerdom--meaning his passionate belief in his own cynicism, as expressed through descriptions of languorous, bob-headed jewels stretching and seducing with a whisper that smelled of money and then breaking the hearts of young rakes with laughs that flowed like wine and tears; love, love, scoffed Amory, disillusioned yet again, is a game for saps and trustees--is the clearest.

Things like plot do not really get in the way of this well-phrased suckerdom. The novel follows Amory Blaine, an egotist, through his privileged youth, prep school education, and Princeton years. It skips World War One, then picks up again with Amory's efforts to succeed in New York and at one point drink himself to death. I don't know this for a fact, but I bet you five bucks that someone, somewhere, has written a graduate school paper about how Amory really means "love", and yes--this "Amory" loved too well! Five bucks.

But beyond the fact that everything happens to Amory, there's not a really clear line connecting all of these dots. Fitzgerald tries to build an overall narrative arc: Amory is fundamentally an egotist, various influences shape him and deflect him on his journey to become, in the end, a real "personage"; some kind of journey from Youth to Experience. But even though all the mile markers are in place for that trip, there's no sense that time is passing or that Amory is developing even a little bit as a person. Amory at Princeton is a typical Princeton person. Amory in New York is a hack copywriter. Amory in the Maryland countryside is a frontier poet and intellectual. Amory in the slums of Harlem is a socialist who has to take the subway, poor kid. Identity flows from place and age, never from character. It's a Bildungsroman with no damn Bildung.

Please understand that none of this is meant to be damning. Quite the contrary! Although The Great Gatsby, with its hellbent main character and its succession of mistaken identities and mob connections, is easily the stronger book, it's hard to imagine a tighter narrative that contains the kind of scenes This Side of Paradise is able to contain. Fitzgerald's poetry turns up every few pages, and whether his poems damn the "Victorian War" that Amory is about to fight, bid an ambiguous farewell to the first of Fitzgerald's 8,000 insane love interest characters, or just diss a series of contemporary poets, they always scan and they're always pretty good. The scenes with the female characters are the strongest, naturally, and even though none of the girls are up there with Daisy or Nicole Diver, there are still some powerful moments: the ignored younger sister dancing alone through the strewn lingerie in Rosalind's posh bedroom, Elanor charging toward a cliff on a horse to prove that she has no religious beliefs left, pubescent Myra sulking in the backseat of a car with pubescent Amory, both of them late to the apple-bobbing party. And of course it's always uncomfortable and horrible to read Fitzgerald writing about drinking, and This Side of Paradise provides that horror in spades. There is even a good scene on a dock, and a mad cardinal. He does not connect these dots, but they are pretty good dots, all told.

In the end, here's what our man F. has done. He's written a book, at the age of 23, about what it is like to be at the age of 23. It is an aimless book, filled with strong memories, that describes an aimless age, filled with strong memories, and describes it probably for good.

Later, of course, both Amory Blaine and Fitzgerald will move on. Amory will turn 24 and suddenly know everything, whereas Fitzgerald will start drinking in the wake of his failed marriage and write books about people who drink in the wake of their failed marriages.

Since it seems like it's probably famous somehow, I have zero qualms about quoting the last line of the book. It runs as follows:

"I know myself," Amory cried, "but that is all."

Except that he doesn't know himself, and neither does Fitzgerald. All of which goes to show: you can tell good stories about yourself when your ideas about who you are are just wrong, flat wrong. And everyone on the train knows it, except for you.

(That is a tip, for anyone who is submitting work to us. Be a sucker who is wrong. That's the recipe of the week!)

Posted by future on Sun, 23 Mar 2008 22:40:46 -0400 -- permanent link

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