Archive for March, 2010

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald

March 31, 2010

Reading “This Side of Paradise,” I was struck by the way that literature from other eras can be both strangely foreign and strangely familiar. In part, the book feels like a period piece, set in a lost and almost quaint-seeming culture. It is less accessible to a contemporary reader than Fitzgerald’s later works, especially The Great Gatsby. But at the same time, the flashes of Fitzgerald’s genius are all here. In particular, the book’s depiction of its main character, Amory Blaine, is indelible, and some of Fitzgerald’s/Blaine’s commentaries on American culture and politics read like they could have been written yesterday.

The “period piece” nature of the book is fairly obvious–it’s all about flappers and Prohibition and World War I and so forth. But you especially see what a different era Fitzgerald was writing in when you consider the book’s reticence about sex. Fitzgerald was writing in 1920, just as English and American literature were beginning to open up to frank discussions of sex (Ulysses was published in 1922, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1927).  But in this book, Fitzgerald is much more prim than his more daring contemporaries.

The primary plot behind the book involves Amory’s unsuccessful attempts to court three women: Isabelle, Rosalind, and Eleanor. Even these names seem to evoke a bygone era. And the way that the courtships unfold seems foreign to my eyes–there’s a lot of bad poetry exchanged, and much of the drama happens at strange events such as an unmarried girl’s “debut.”

Moreover, it was unclear–at least to this reader–just what Amory was up to with his girlfriends. Much of the description seems deliberately ambiguous, sending mixed messages to the reader about who’s doing what with whom. It reminds me of many older movies–see Slavoj Zizek’s famous meditation on the “did they or didn’t they” scenes in Casablanca. It’s interesting to compare this with contemporary literature, with its very explicit willingness to tell the reader exactly what happened.

Despite this limitation, or perhaps because of it, Fitzgerald truly exhibits his genius in depicting the coming-of-age of Amory Blaine. He brilliantly captures the intensity and rapidity of experiences in the years between late high school and post-college. Amory adopts one persona after another, tries to fit into the complex social hierarchies of Princeton (one aspect of the novel that hasn’t changed in the intervening years) and also to rise above them. He discovers the seductions and dangers of wine, women, New York’s night life, and fast cars, and the whole experience seems almost dreamlike and surreal, which strikes me as pretty much what college is still all about.

The novel also engages in social criticism, mostly presented through the eyes of Amory. Here, much of what he says feels bracingly contemporary. Listen to Amory holding forth on how the media turns politics into a spectator sport:

“People try so hard to believe in leaders now, pitifully hard. But we no sooner get a popular reformer or politician or soldier or writer or philosopher—a Roosevelt, a Tolstoi, a Wood, a Shaw, a Nietzsche, than the cross-currents of criticism wash him away. My Lord, no man can stand prominence these days. It’s the surest path to obscurity. People get sick of hearing the same name over and over.”

“Then you blame it on the press?”

Absolutely. … What’s your business? Why, to be as clever, as interesting, and as brilliantly cynical as possible about every man, doctrine, book, or policy that is assigned you to deal with. The more strong lights, the more spiritual scandal you can throw on the matter, the more money they pay you, the more the people buy the issue.

We want to believe. Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t. Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in the case of newspapers. …”

I found this passage striking, especially in the way that so much of what Amory says could be said today about the relentless 24-hour cable news cycle and the never-ending “now” of the blogosphere. It’ worth re-reading Fitzgerald, if only to realize that we’ve had a lot of these problems for a long time, and we’ll probably still have them for a long time to come.

Saramago’s Death at Intervals

March 28, 2010

This book is typical of Jose Saramago insofar as it explores what happens when society’s fabric begins to come unraveled. In this case, the subject is death, with a lower-case d, and what happens when she decides to change the rules of the game we’ve all played willingly or not for the history of mankind. Saramago tries to answer what have typically been deep, philosophical questions about death through a more bureaucratic lens that borders on the hilarious and eventually transmutes itself into an almost unthinkable love story.

Overall, I found the book to be highly accessible, even enjoyable, but not particularly compelling. One recurring issue is that Saramago often does not both to make the plot believable, even within the confines of fantastical fiction. He often admits this during the course of the story and speaks to the reader directly to convey that while we might find such-and-such unexplainable, it did in fact happen, so don’t ask any questions. The strategy reminded me a bit of Mark Twain’s  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which depends on a few unrealistic and unexplained plot elements to get going. The difference is that Twain more than makes up for mailing it in logic-wise with the depth of issues he is able to explore whereas I’m not convinced that Saramago delivers on this end.

Saramago certainly brings a certain amount of humor to death and explores his view of death as a person. But whether this portrayal in turn leads to any deeper understanding of the human condition, I’m not sure. Overall, I would say that even if you really liked Blindness, don’t expect to find the same level of writing and exploration of ideas here.