Monday, July 29, 2019

July's Book: This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Literature (1920 - 269 pp.)

Amory Blaine is a Midwestern youth who attends Princeton during World War I, serves in the war briefly, and ends up in exciting romantic entanglements before and after. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who almost certainly based Amory on himself, had the same story. This Side of Paradise follows Amory's life through his relationships with his college friends, girlfriends, and the ever-present Monsignor Darcy, who writes him lengthy advice letters. It's also, however, a real-life expos√© of the then-veiled Ivy League party world, as well as a faithful tracking of Fitzgerald's relationships with Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre.* Whether taken as pure fiction or as the flimsiest roman √† clef, the book is about life, and it portrays life as convincingly as possible. Amory, like Fitzgerald, is ultra-literate but hopelessly flawed. This Side of Paradise came out when Fitzgerald was only 23. Sadly, despite releasing The Great Gatsby in 1925 and working for MGM Studios in 1937, Fitzgerald would never again reach the same heights in his lifetime.**

Amory's Princeton years, while full of partying and self-discovery, fill him with doubt. Amory develops archetypes for "the Slicker" and "the Big Man", complete with bullet-point lists he can check off whenever he thinks he has encountered either. (44) Short version: the Slicker is someone who looks extremely clean and has slicked-back hair, whereas the Big Man is someone with more bravado than substance. In the decades before jocks, nerds and other categories were immortalized, Fitzgerald's Princeton had categories of its own. Much as with the mainstream-ification of jocks and nerds (fantasy football combines both nicely, for example), Amory finds the Slicker designation too blurred to be useful. The Princeton chapters would be nearly uniformly cheerful, even including Amory's failed romance with his old friend Isabelle, if not for his friend Dick Humbird's jarring drunk driving death. (89) The suddenness of the death, from a day of partying to a semi-gory description, delivers a more powerful emotional punch. Along with Amory's other Princeton friend Jesse Ferrenby dying in World War I, Amory's romantic mishaps are trivial by comparison; the tragedy of the book is Amory's complete failure to realize this, although he does reflect on his deceased friends.

When Amory meets his cousin Clara, whom he loves unrequitedly, Fitzgerald creates wit in each of them that plays into the book's penchant for clever one-liners. Amory and Clara have what appear to be the best conversations of either of their lives, punctuated by Amory's fascination at Clara's ability to discuss so many different people: Nobody seems to bore you,” he objected. “About half the world do,” she admitted, “but I think that’s a pretty good average, don’t you?” (138)  The flipside is that Clara finds 50% of the people she meets interesting, which bodes well considering the age-old trope that networking leads to career success.^ Their intellectual bents shine through as Fitzgerald states the concept of confirmation bias, in a tradition as old as Thucydides, extremely succinctly when Clara says to Amory, “Naturally your imagination, after a little freedom, thinks up a million reasons why you should stay, so your decision when it comes isn’t true. It’s biased.” (140) Based on Clara's employment of the concept, it is quickly clear the two are not meant to spend much more time together. Clara, a widow with two children, was probably not a good fit for then-college-aged Amory anyway.

This Side of Paradise is the arch-example of Fitzgerald's gift at switching between writing styles effortlessly. Most of the book consists of quick-moving prose in a similar style to Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, although This Side of Paradise was published six years earlier. Elsewhere, Fitzgerald leads the reader through multiple poems, winding letters, a 2-page Q&A session Amory has with himself (246-247) and a 16-page screenplay taking up a significant portion of "The Debutante". Never again would Fitzgerald change his characters' moods so readily through the diction and pacing of their thoughts and words, as well as how much setting lies interspersed throughout. When Amory falls in love with his friend Alec Connage's sister Rosalind, because of course Amory would fall in love with his friend's sister, numerous witty exchanges occur that do not require a single piece of setting or plot to tie them together. A good example is when Mrs. Connage, looking for Rosalind, finds Alec and their younger sister Cecelia at the party instead:
MRS. CONNAGE: Where on earth is Rosalind?

ALEC: (brilliantly) Of course you’ve come to the best people to find her. She’d naturally be with us. (176)
Rosalind is with Amory (who else?), discussing the merits of romanticism and sentimentality (Amory discusses these topics often). During the seemingly endless conversation that ends in, once again, a woman and Amory deciding they can't be together, they share the moment of realization that each is only capable of finding what the other wants:
ROSALIND: (sadly) Oh, nothing–only I want sentiment, real sentiment, and I never find it.

AMORY: I never find anything else in the world–and I loathe it. (178)
Amory's brief relationship with Eleanor is the last in the book, and its ultimate chapter opens with the narrator stating that the coming scene was Amory and Eleanor's last night together. Echoing Humbird's sudden and senseless death in Part I, Eleanor means to ride a horse over a cliff but then jumps off at the last minute, leaving her horse to jump off the cliff alone to its death. (229) Like the relationships before it, Amory and Eleanor's is doomed to fail. Amory has no relationship with a woman that survives the book, but then, the book virtually opens with the proclamation that "the Blaines were attached to no city." (17)

Arguably, This Side of Paradise should have ended sixteen pages earlier. After Amory's final affair ends in heartbreak, after it is confirmed Amory is jobless, and after Amory's financial situation is worsened still, Amory briefly flirts with socialism for the simple reason that he has little to lose. This turns into a lengthy diatribe to a man he later finds out is Ferrenby's father. For all its faults, this section contains of Amory's most enduring statements: “It’s not life that’s complicated, it’s the struggle to guide and control life.” (259) Once it was clear Amory was in this situation, though, before the quasi-socialist diatribe, there was a passage that rivalled The Great Gatsby's famous last words: “Another dawn flung itself across the river; a belated taxi hurried along the street, its lamps still shining like burning eyes in a face white from a night’s carouse. A melancholy siren sounded far down the river.” (253)

A criticism of the criticism of This Side of Paradise is that the literary community appears to care more about its extrinsic factors - Fitzgerald's rise to fame and marriage to Zelda - than on its intrinsic factors - the actual book. James L.W. West's The Making of This Side of Paradise (1983) contains, from what I can gather from the linked JStor article, one of the most detailed ever breakdowns of the writing and publication of a book. By contrast, for a classic novel, This Side of Paradise may have one of the worst Wikipedia plot summaries I have ever read. It barely mentions any of the characters, or anything Amory does with his life. This is a shame, as This Side of Paradise should be remembered as the book not only that made Fitzgerald famous, and not only as the book that rung in the Jazz Age, but also as a story about a supposed elite who rarely feels that way, and about coming of age during the WWI era. The idea that living a compromised version of the American Dream could make a proud young American man distanced from a firm understanding of his world is one that would creep up in Fitzgerald's later works and, indirectly, in many other authors' works since.

Fitzgerald presaged cultural movements. Amory's friend Tom D'Invilliers, a fellow literary type, remarks during a rant about literature that “I wish American novelists would give up trying to make business romantically interesting. Nobody wants to read about it, unless it’s crooked business.” (209) Gangster fiction wasn't yet an established genre when This Side of Paradise was published, but it would be throughout the 1930s and then into the noir era. In the same conversation, Amory discusses the relationship between WWI and the Lost Generation: “Well,” Amory considered, “I’m not sure that the war itself had any great effect on either you or me-but it certainly ruined the old backgrounds, sort of killed individualism out of our generation.” (204) The notion of a generational collective was not in the academic discourse in 1920, but later books like Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997) brought that research so far to the forefront it is now a global phenomenon. (Apologies for the substandard picture of me in that last link.) Perhaps most interesting of all the future wars Fitzgerald foresaw was over the rising cost of American university tuition. When Amory quits his job as an advertising copywriter over his perceived poor salary, Amory and Mr. Barlow spar over the money in a way an employer and employee could in 2019: “You had just started. You’d never worked before,” said Mr. Barlow coolly. [Then Amory said,] “But it took about ten thousand dollars to educate me where I could write your darned stuff for you.” (198)

Despite the tendency for parents to name their children after popular characters, and This Side of Paradise's smashing success, the name "Amory" never ended up in the top 1000 baby names in America. Fitzgerald didn't invent the name, though; it is derived from the Old German Amalric, and has some notable owners.

With This Side of Paradise being 100 years old next year, it's a perfect opportunity for a Hollywood blockbuster based on the book. This is rather short notice, so whoever can make a major movie in a year, please begin forthwith.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: Undefined^^

*The joke that will never die, or at least not for a while: Fitzgerald married a woman named Zelda, whereas Millennial men marry women who play Zelda.

**Although The Great Gatsby was popular, it did not sell as well as This Side of Paradise in Fitzgerald's lifetime. The idea of The Great Gatsby being Fitzgerald's magnum opus is a post-WWII invention. Regarding Fitzgerald peaking early, a more modern example is Swedish death metal band Entombed. Their first three albums, Left Hand Path (1990), Clandestine (1991) and Wolverine Blues (1993), when the band members were 18, 19 and 21 respectively, are their most critically acclaimed. Had Fitzgerald's short stories he wrote as a teenager been his most successful works, we probably would never have heard of him.

^Thousands of pop entrepreneurship websites promote networking, but Hans-Georg Wolff and Klaus Moser of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg actually performed a longitudinal study on networking and career success: Spoiler alert: networking is indeed positively correlated with career success, although career satisfaction effects remain stable over time.

^^This Side of Paradise is a crucial primary source for a scholar of early 20th-century literature. Likewise, it is a great view into how Americans in the early 20th century saw themselves, which could provide research directions for someone studying WWI-era social history. I assure you, however, that Fitzgerald had absolutely no inkling this book would ever be either, no matter how egotistical Amory becomes.

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