#45 of 2011 • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I admit to having less than pure intentions for reading Fitzgerald’s first novel. I was crazy in love for his The Great Gatsby—and I can’t wait to read it again and reach that calm whiskey feel of that last line. Boats, ya know. So. His first novel, I read because it was his first novel. Curious about the man, curious about his evolution as a writer, curious about what led to Gatsby, which was, you know, great.
Fitzy’s first novel is a thinly disguised autobiography of one of the founders of the Jazz Age. Complete with a skewed childhood with a gloriously degenerate mother—our hero Amory Blaine, known to us early as Amory, Son of Beatrice—followed by a stay in Princeton University, “the pleasantest country club in America,” where he meets a host of artiste friends; and a host of Golden Girls that simultaneously makes Amory’s life more vivid and lays waste to it.
Throughout the novel—with its marked experimentations in style—we see Amory feeling around for a personality he’s comfortable with. In childhood, he was bandied as a tiny talking trophy by his mother. Later on, displaced from his “natural” surroundings of lazy glamour, he’s the unpopular kid who gets teased because of his airs, his snootiness—and Amory’s outward defense is to raise his chin just a notch higher. In Princeton, he seems to fit right in, but even here there are subtle class divisions. More importantly, now that he’s got the power to explore himself, there come the endless opportunities to take on roles. We never read Amory at ease with himself, least of all with other people.
[Holden Caulfield, that annoying snot-phoney (hah, repression!) of a boy, came to mind at times when I read Amory Blaine. The difference is, methinks, Amory knows he’s being a clumsy fake at times, because he needs and wants to belong. I liked Amory better for his socializing and his puppy-dog-trailing, and his ooh-I’m-a-writer-and-a-lover, and his “Oh, darling Byron, snip snip, cock-a-doo” shenanigans, and whatever airs he puts on because, unlike Holden, he’s not insisting, Bah, I don’t like ‘em, ew, ew. Goddamned emo kid with his hands in his pockets. Look to the left, that kid with a cigarette in his lips and an amateurishly assembled cocktail—that kid with pomade in his hair, quoting dead poets and lugging around Wilde and Joyce in his ivory pantsuit? That’s Amory Motherfuckin’ Blaine, ya hear me? He is far from slick, he is doomed, he will walk out of this book drunk and heartbroken—but demmet, guy’s got class, and the guts to admit that he wants to belong, but just can’t.]
Hell, yes, Amory Blaine was annoying, even shallow. But it was right. Plus, vital to his development as a character was his fall from his put-on idealism, his façade of Golden Boy. He falls in love with a procession of women who, one way or another [usually with the glitter of money catching their eye elsewhere] break his heart. He begins to renounce his philosophies—woven from I Want to Hear the Sound of My Voice conversations with his peers—and deplores the world that refuses to accept him.
There is nothing profound about Amory Blaine, no shining epiphany, no drums-and-cymbals defeat. Ultimately, his offenses against his peers, himself, and the reader stack up against him. This is a coming-of-age story at a time when glitz and glamour was the thing. Of course there’d be offenses.
But, see, I read This Side of Paradise because I read The Great Gatsby. A part of me fervently believes that our man Gatsby emerged from this limp-wristed boy and his illusions.
True, I am itching to have Gatsby and Paradise stand side by side, and point out their similarities, their differences. Say how the latter is not as taut and lyrical, but there is an obvious, admirably recklessness with the form and the structure. Say something about how, in Gatsby, we found a man pining for the girl who’d refused him, façade or otherwise—and, in Paradise, we found this boy pining for the girls who refused him, façade or otherwise. Indeed, both stories trace the fizzling of their protagonist’s hope-despite-ennui into full-on cynicism and wretchedness. Both novels have protagonists preoccupied with endless posturing. But this kind of comparison-contrast would be lazy of me, no? Same is true for my giddy need to have Amory Blaine grow up to be our wretched Gatsby.
On its own, This Side of Paradise falters, pales in comparison. Of course it does. Fitzgerald’s vision is fully realized in The Great Gatsby. But Amory’s arc as a character, his haphazard narratives, the string of lost loves—I don’t think I’m that off-kilter as to imagine young Gatsby having tread the same road, to have the Gatsby most of us have met repeat those mind-numbing mistakes of the past. Only this time, with gravitas. This time, with much passionate love—that edged kind, laced with hopeless obsession. Only this time, with boats.
Hello, visitors. I’m thrilled to be one of the first stops of The Lost Generation Tour held by Classics Circuit—please visit today’s other stops: 2606 Books and Counting on The Enormous Room by e.e. cummings; and A Literary Odyssey on The Sun Also Rises by [Papa] Ernest Hemingway. Please note that the tour is until 03 April. As always, much thanks to Rebecca for organizing the tour [and keeping Classics Circuit alive for dorks like me].