This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise was given a tentative thumbs-down by the literati of the day, most not understanding what Fitzgerald was trying to accomplish. And even today it’s not a particularly easy read. From the standpoint of early twenty-first century, though, the book seems a precursor to postmodern literature, with its disjointed narrative, its social and political references, and above all, its overwhelming self-awareness. The book has been called a critique of humanity’s attraction to glamour, but that hardly seems the complete story.
Amory Blaine is a well-to-do, bratty WASP – egoistic, handsome, with a glib mouth. Underlying all this is an insecurity that begins to show its teeth during Amory’s Princeton days, as his mum dies and leaves him with nothing of value. He turns to girls for succor, but he quickly discovers, in the way of early twentieth-century life in the U.S., that his looks, his disarming way, have little truck without a serious jingle in his pocket.
Thus Amory enters into a series of promising but ultimately unfulfilling romances, joins the army during World War I, and returns to life as a menial ad copy writer. His conscience during this time is personified in a Catholic priest, Thayer Darcy, who has had a dalliance with Amory’s mum in days past. But Amory can’t be corralled by faith and religion. He does, though, offer to sacrifice himself before the law in order to save a friend’s reputation. Still, even this turns to spoiled milk.
In the book’s final pages, Fitzgerald offers a clumsy, summarizing motif: Amory is given a ride by two well-off, conservative men, and they enter into an argument concerning what today would be Milton Friedman’s argument for capitalism. I was stunned as I read these pages – how appropriate that argument seems to today’s bare-knuckled conflicts over the same ideological ground!
Fitzgerald’s writing here is brilliant in places, but his structure seems of the ad hoc variety. As with the argument mentioned above, many of the book’s themes and situations are handled clumsily or are dropped unfinished as the author moves on to other ideas. At its core it’s a bildungsroman. But there’s also Amory’s fall from grace, which establishes his reinvention, something that was a religio-literary staple of the day. In the end, Fitzgerald leaves Amory disillusioned but hopeful. In the final paragraphs, Amory sums up thusly:
“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.
And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed….
He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.”
Still, that ending is a good start for a literary career as this supremely talented writer began his slow, awkward climb toward a never-achieved literary perfection.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars
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