Scott Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940, age 44, after spending his last 36 months working as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d stopped drinking by then, but the well-paying screenplay re-write work that brought him to Hollywood had dried up too. With a weak heart, and a chronic lung condition aggravated by heavy smoking, he was increasingly bedridden, laboring away on a long-planned Hollywood novel.
Benzedrine got him up in the morning; Nembutal tucked him in. A steady intake of cork-filtered cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pans of chocolate fudge, rounded out the medications. They weren’t enough. Two mild heart attacks anticipated a massive third, which quickly ended things. The Tycoon manuscript, approximately 50,000 words in five-and-a-half chapters, was edited promptly by the preeminent critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend from their days at Princeton, and published by Scribner’s the next year in a combined edition with The Great Gatsby, titled The Last Tycoon (issued in an edited format half a century later as The Love of the Last Tycoon).
Readers will find good accounts of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood sojourn in Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love; while close-up views are rendered in Aaron Latham’s out-of-print Crazy Sundays; F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood and Against the Current, the 1985 memoir of Fitzgerald’s secretary Frances Kroll Ring. But Fitzgerald’s own reports of his struggles helped to cement his legacy. In 1945, The Crack Up, a collection of his magazine articles, notes, and letters, also edited by Wilson, was published by New Directions. Its title was taken from three confessional essays that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1936, shocking then for the abject candor Fitzgerald used to describe a recent nervous breakdown and his wobbly recovery.
Widely admired by young academics like John Berryman — who published a glowing reappraisal of Gatsby in 1945 — The Crack Up launched a movement in confessional literature that’s lasted to this hour. Once The Far Side of Paradise, Andrew Mizener’s 1951 biography, appeared, Fitzgerald’s brief, dramatic life, as reflected in his writings, became perhaps the central literary legend of the American Century. Gatsby, which had nowhere near the sales of his hit first novel, at last found an audience.
Fitzgerald’s L.A. years are typically regarded as a minor coda to a tragic life, and Tycoon as a brilliant fragment of tantalizing promise. However, Tycoon succeeds in expressing a lot: its portrait of L.A., of studio work, of fully seen characters; how Hollywood’s atmosphere of imagination ruins people. Wilson edited Tycoon and The Crack Up to benefit Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, who had been left in no small want at his death. By launching the author’s posthumous career, The Last Tycoon finally let Fitzgerald support his family comfortably with income from his writing, which had been the goal all along.
I propose that this revival-after-death was planned by a man aware that time was running out; that at the end, Fitzgerald was working on something that would endure because he wouldn’t finish it; that Fitzgerald had found a way for his death to give Tycoon, a necessarily fragmented tale of loss, a more moving outcome than anything he might dream up. Largely forgotten by 1940, his subsequent literary resurrection was no less important and lasting than that of Franz Kafka, a writer who died in utter obscurity, and whose own unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Trial, Fitzgerald knew very well.
He had hit bottom in the summer of 1936 following the disappointing reception of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which he’d struggled for years to finish. At the end of his financial rope because of Zelda’s hospital bills and Scottie’s school tuition, his short story writing, high-paying romantic hackwork for The Saturday Evening Post, was completely blocked. Hiding out at a cheap North Carolina resort hotel near Zelda’s sanitarium, Fitzgerald consoled himself with a steady intake of beer, which, not being gin, somehow didn’t count as alcohol.
Without money or prospects, he wrote the abject Crack Up essays for Esquire, then a girlie magazine with literary pretensions published in Chicago. In their wake, miraculously, a sympathetic MGM executive offered Fitzgerald a writing job: $1,000 a week for six months. Out of options, he moved west, where he started re-write work on high profile projects like A Yank at Oxford, The Women, and Gone with the Wind.
Edmund Wilson gave Fitzgerald a copy of The Trial in early 1939, during a visit east. In May, Fitzgerald wrote thanking him, the first of his Los Angeles letters Wilson uses in The Crack Up: “It seemed to renew old times [with you] learning about Franz Kafka […]” Fitzgerald wrote another Princeton friend around this time recommending, among other books, “The Trial –fantastic novel by the Czech Franz Kafka which you may have to wait for but it is worth it.”
Eighteen months later, the Czech was still on his mind, writing Max Perkins, his Scribner’s editor: “Kafka was an extraordinary Czechoslavakian [sic] Jew who died in ’36 [wrong, but the Crack Up year]. He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books writers will never be able to forget.”
He closes: “This is the first day off I have taken for many months and I just wanted to tell you the book is coming along and that comparatively speaking all is well.”
He was dead a week later.
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, after instructing his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn his three unfinished novels. Brod instead had them all published in Germany within two years. The Trial’s first English translation appeared in the U.K. in 1936, in the U.S. the following year.
To this day, editions of The Trial and The Last Tycoon are remarkably similar in form. Both were edited, with notes, by a close friend of the writer, both include unconnected manuscript episodes, notebook entries, and letters. Consequently, their authors play large off-stage roles in the novels’ wider drama. Some readers might also note how ably Kafka’s air of absurd paranoia translates, in Fitzgerald’s arch romantic vision, to cutthroat goings on in Hollywood.
Fitzgerald first went to Los Angeles in the ‘20s, when movie sales of his stories were nearly automatic. He returned needing work few years later, and his drunken, show-off antics at Beverly Hills parties quickly sank his prospects. During both stays he spent time with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s creative chief, who, in the Crack Up year of ‘36 successfully worked himself to death: 37, pneumonia.
Thalberg, of course, fascinated Fitzgerald; they were both young, gifted, successful self-made men with glamorous wives (Thalberg was married to Norma Shearer, then MGM’s biggest female star), both preoccupied with popular storytelling. That Thalberg died of overwork the same time as Fitzgerald’s own breakdown made him an irresistible subject.
The Last Tycoon begins narrated by a studio chief’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, looking back to when she was twenty, five years before. Like Nick Caraway’s remembrance of Gatsby, she is recalling a dead man — Monroe Stahr, her father’s studio partner, and bitter rival.
An elegiac mood sets in early as Cecilia describes her particular view of the movie colony with a world-weariness more appropriate to a man of forty: “I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house.”
Published recollections of Fitzgerald’s appearance are in striking agreement on just how ghostly he appeared in Los Angeles: pale green eyes, light brown hair, pallid skin, old, dark Ivy League suits (he drove a used Ford sedan); and how modestly he behaved in public, fading into backgrounds when once he demanded attention. According to Beloved Infidel, his lover Sheilah Graham’s bestselling 1958 memoir, she first sees him at a party, a handsome, very pale man sitting in an armchair smoking, smiling at her from across the room one minute, and, when she looks again, vanished the next.
Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s writerly dialogue and sense of storytelling was so criticized by movie people, Tycoon is built on talk, and an early scene mercilessly dissects a story conference for a bad romantic B picture. Fitzgerald’s L.A. is as sad as Raymond Chandler’s, cruel as Nathanael West’s, though richer than both. He had, in fact, been relieved earlier that last year to find that his friend “Pep” West’s The Day of the Locust, which he greatly admired, didn’t cover Tycoon’s territory.
Cecilia Brady’s monologue soon shifts to a third person narration, though in much the same voice, to describe events she had no way of witnessing. Either Fitzgerald couldn’t quite decide how the story would be told, or was attempting something closer to film narration. Tycoon is held together with cuts, and mood, of making do with fragments.
A sense of the incomplete pervades the story. Nothing Stahr touches is ever finished: not the endless line of movies needing his constant attention (in Chapter IV he fires a director from a set, before reviewing dailies from several different productions); not his half-built Malibu house, the novel’s central symbol; not his marriage to his dead wife, a great movie star whose image can’t disappear, continued (as Sheilah replaced Zelda) in her apparent double, Kathleen Moore. Early, or untimely, death is never far off. Fitzgerald didn’t need a complete novel to show how short Hollywood lives could be.
Working from a story outline, trying to keep to a production schedule, he took great care with each emerging chapter, polishing them until they were nearly done. The sketched-in ending — a plane crash related somehow to a studio power struggle — had a possible coda: (spoiler) a boy finds Stahr’s briefcase in the wreckage and keeps it. That is: the papers survive the man.
Wilson was given the manuscript by Perkins and lacking any obvious directions consulted both Graham and Kroll Ring to shape the manuscript for publication. One Fitzgerald biographer asserts that he made the work appear more realized than it was.
Whether Fitzgerald was confident his old friend, a la Brod, would fashion something from the manuscript is impossible to say. But given Wilson’s stature then as America’s foremost critic (he had just published the magnificent historical study, To the Finland Station), it almost certainly crossed his mind. Three weeks before he died, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson, the last letter in The Crack Up, saying how pleased he was with the new novel, and that its emotional honesty will probably get him in trouble. “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” He closes with a p.s. mentioning he was working under “a horrible paucity of time.”
Late in Chapter V, shortly before the manuscript stops, his heart doctor realizes that Stahr “was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms?” Indeed, Fitzgerald was waiting for a visit from his own cardiologist at Sheilah’s apartment near Sunset when the third attack hit.
“He will never have a wide public,” Fitzgerald, writing about Kafka the week before he died, was probably thinking the same of himself. However wrong that turned out to be, he absolutely knew what he had with The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon: “two books writers will never be able to forget.” That same day he also wrote Zelda to say he was getting better; that he needed rest; that it was odd how, alone of all the body’s organs, the heart was able to repair itself.
As a bookish only child who came of age in the ’90s, I got ideas about how I might become lovely — and as a result, I hoped, passionately loved — not from the style sites, beauty blogs, YouTube tutorials, Instagram videos, and Pinterest pages that are now ubiquitous, but from the novels and stories in which my nose was perpetually buried. My innate interest in beauty — spiritual, sartorial, skinwise, and otherwise — was stoked by 20th-century literature and the captivating female characters who populate it. Books I read between the spongy ages of 12 and 20 were especially potent. They inspired me to become a writer and invent fictional characters of my own, but I didn’t only long to write; I also longed to be written, like the heroines of these books — to be regarded with the kind of affection, interest, and attention to detail that infuses so many of the satisfying sentences their authors used to describe them. Inevitably, many of my choices and rituals concerning beauty and adornment, several of which persist, resulted from the images that bloomed in my imagination while I read.
In junior high, my hair — thanks to hormonal changes, no doubt — transformed of its own accord from fairly straight to extravagantly curly. I struggled to accept the sudden ringlets, which required an entirely new way of washing, combing, and styling. I also agonized over what I was sure was the near-fluorescent ruddiness of my cheeks; it betrayed, I thought, the awkward bashfulness with which I was often battling, and I tried to mask it with powder as soon as I was allowed to wear a bit of makeup. Then I met Ántonia Shimerda, the 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. She was a character whose vitality, spirit, and earthiness I admired. And she had curly hair. And red cheeks. Ántonia’s “curly and wild-looking” locks make an ideal if temporary dwelling for a grasshopper she brings home to show her father. She “carefully put the green insect in her hair,” Cather writes, “tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls…,” and her cheeks “had a glow of rich, dark color” that Cather likens to “red plums.” Because of Ántonia, who was a role model of mine due to the indomitable strength of her personality and warmth of her heart, I embraced my curls and put down the face powder.
Eschewing makeup, however, demands vigilant skin care, and I’m grateful for potions that lend the face a lit-up look. One of Leopold Bloom’s errands on the eventful day of June 16th in the first part of James Joyce’s Ulysses is to have the neighborhood chemist make up a batch of the face lotion favored by his lush wife, Molly. Bloom marvels at the quality of Molly’s skin, which he deems “so delicate, like white wax.” At the chemist’s, he recites most of the lotion’s ingredients — “Sweet almond oil and tincture of benzoin…and then orangeflower water…and white wax also” — so I’ve been able to concoct an approximation at home with supplies sourced from the local health food store. Playing apothecary is fun, and I share Bloom’s sentiment that “homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttermilk. Skinfood.”
Of course fastidiousness is crucial to both inner and outer beauty, and the skin of one’s body must not be forgotten in the effort to maintain a luminous face. Following in the footprints of the ever-fresh Komako, the lonesome young woman living at a hot springs resort town in the mountains of Japan in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, I take frequent baths. Komako always seems to be coming from or heading to the bath: “[T]he impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness,” Kawabata writes. “Every day she had a bath in the hot spring, famous for its lingering warmth.” While my own bathwater doesn’t spurt from a mineral-rich spring, it’s usually infused with what I hope are similarly healing salts, plus drops of pine oil to evoke the conifers of Kawabata’s icy landscape. Just as I imagine Komako does, I like to do plenty of scrubbing to detoxify and promote good circulation.
Nicole Diver, the charismatic blonde with a sad secret in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, also takes a bath before beginning a love affair that will shift the trajectory of her life. “She bathed and anointed herself and covered her body with a layer of powder, while her toes crunched another pile on a bath towel…She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen.” This passage not only impressed upon me the degree to which literature can provoke an exquisite sensory experience, but also the importance of perfume application as an everyday ceremonial rite. Fitzgerald invented Chanel Sixteen — there never was such a thing — but the first fragrance I bought for myself was a Chanel, the softly shimmering eau de toilette version of No. 5. Then I caught it: the perfume bug, an ongoing fascination with odor as a kind of olfactory language that both makes and unearths memories. My obsession has not only inspired me to write a book’s worth of as-yet unpublished perfume essays, each one devoted to a different scent, but has also driven me quite happily from costly bottles of obscure niche fragrances to tiny vials of cheap but pleasing oils and everywhere in between. I don’t discriminate. I just want to smell like someone about whom stories could be written.
After bathing comes dressing. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the cooler of the two titular women, Gudrun, is an artist blessed with an enviable sang-froid that remains unruffled even when she is catcalled by local miners — “What price the stockings?” — while stepping out in her signature boldly-colored tights. She has them in a kaleidoscopic array of shades and fabrics: “…grass-green stockings…pink silk stockings…woolen yellow stockings…” Because of Gudrun, I went through a brightly-tinted-tights phase, partly because of the aesthetic pleasure it gave me, and partly because I wanted some of her blithe attitude to seep into mine, though in actuality I was much more like her hypersensitive sister, Ursula, who dons no stockings of remarkable color but instead has practically got her heart sewn onto her sleeve.
Little finishing touches that complete a look come in many forms, including nail polish — an adornment about which I’ve always had mixed feelings. I sometimes put it on, but invariably remove it within hours. I love it on others the same way I love other people’s tattoos, but on me it feels somehow wrong, artificial. Maybe it makes me uneasy because I can’t help but associate it with Muriel, the shallow wife of the brilliant and sensitive seer, Seymour Glass, who figures in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and other stories. When Muriel first appears, she is in the process of “putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.” Growing up, I — like his younger siblings Franny and Zooey — was heavily influenced by and devoted to Seymour, and it was clear the hopelessly mainstream Muriel just didn’t get him. “With her little lacquer brush…she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left — the wet—hand back and forth through the air.” This insouciant gesture seemed to embody all the spiritual poverty and bourgeois materialism of which I was sure Muriel was guilty.
Other finishing touches, however, feel the opposite of artificial, but rather like external reflections of one’s inner self. I’m never without my two little gold bracelets — one on each wrist. There is something about adorning my wrists — the gateways to my hands — in this way that makes sense. I like to write and make jewelry; my hands accomplish the tasks at the heart of my life. But I first got the idea to do this while reading my favorite of Jack Kerouac’s novels, the autobiographical chronicle of once-in-a-lifetime adolescent love, Maggie Cassidy The book’s title character accessorizes similarly. “Tonight,” Kerouac writes of Maggie, “she is more beautiful than ever, she has…little bracelets on both wrists; hands crossed, sweet white fingers I eye with immortal longing to hold in mine…”
I may feel complete with the bracelets, but there’s also sometimes a vaguely nagging sense of unfinished business: like many women, my thoughts often return to my hair, as they did in junior high. I may maintain its natural coiled texture, but what about the color? It’s a question over which I’m lately mulling, especially now that I’ve spotted and plucked a number of silvery strands. So far, though, I’ve done nothing about it. In Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, witchy Eustacia Vye, fondly dubbed “Queen of Night” by Hardy, is a loner desperate for adventures beyond the bleak heath where she lives. She has inky hair — as dark as her eventual mood. “To see her hair,” Hardy writes, “was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” The romantic portrait is partly why in the era of ombré, “sombre,” “tortoiseshell,” lowlights, “babylights,” and all the other enticing iterations of highlights, I continue to choose, sometimes uneasily, to let my locks remain their natural nearly-black hue.
Consequently, not too long ago, an author of short stories and novels thrilled the bookish girl in me when he whispered that my hair was “so dark a seagull would love to die in it.” Oil-dark was what he meant. His statement, too, was dark—humorous, singularly strange and sweet, a compliment only a writer could give. For a few moments, I felt a little like a woman inside a novel. He answered the longing I’d felt when I first fell under the spell of fascinating feminine figures bound between pages and rendered only with words. I was no longer exclusively the reader or the writer; sometimes, I would be the one who is written, the one who is read.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
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Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
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Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
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If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
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And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
With the arrival of both my first novel and my firstborn this year, my available time for reading evaporated right alongside time for other basic human requirements such as sleeping and breathing. When my nose found its way between pages, it was likely to be advice about how to raise the Happiest Bébé in my Arrondissement so that I might someday again do something other than swaddle, swoop, and shush my son.
Research for my next novel (out in 2015!) took top priority, so I dove deep into both Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill’s moving biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, and re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of them in Tender is the Night. But what novel about Lost Generation types would be complete without some theoretical physics? So I’ve been going back over Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos and, on somewhat of the other end of the spectrum, my Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Because one central character is an artist, and most art from Warhol to present leaves me eye rolling and/or giggling, an artist friend of mine recommended his favorite book on contemporary art, David Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy – which has finally helped me to understand the contents of the Whitney Museum as more than bad practical jokes.
Outside of book research, the rest of my yearly reading has been mostly focused on my students at SUNY Purchase College. In addition to their (often) impressive work in class, I’ve been pushing myself to expose them to the kinds of great books and stories that they wouldn’t normally see in a classroom. Last Spring in a course on The Art of the Novella, we read classics like The Dead and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also mind & form-bending works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03. (If that sounds exciting, I apologize – registration for Spring 2014 was last month and the class is now full).
This fall, my Advanced Fiction students have been knocking me out, and I’m doing my best to keep up with them as we work our way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. (Wood came to campus in September to deliver an incredible lecture on the question of “Why?” in Fiction, which we’ve been grappling with ever since.) We’ve now been focusing on short fiction, from classic masterpieces like Chekov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” to contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Loory, Karen Russell, Jessica Francis Kane, George Saunders, and Wells Tower. Most of the time I can’t tell who is learning more, me or the students, but I’m glad to be there either way.
When the semester winds to a close, I’ve got a huge pile waiting for me. If all goes well I might get to the first two on the pile – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – before January, when I have to start reading for my Creative Nonfiction seminar in the spring.
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I am consistently drawn in, and consistently disappointed, by bio-novels about women made unhappy by famous men. I read The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway. I read Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. I read the diaries of Sofya Tolstoy. And now I’ve read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I put each of them aside a heavy sigh when I’ve finished. I’m not disappointed in the books, but in the lives of the women. The point of these books is to tell their side of the story, but in reality, and definitely in Zelda’s case, they didn’t get their own side of the story.
Z follows Scott and Zelda from their courtship in Zelda’s native Montgomery, Ala., to their newlywed years in New York and then the long spiral into unhappiness via Paris, the Riviera, Hollywood, Maryland, and a few mental institutions. Although there are sweet moments in the beginning, the narrative quickly devolves into a “party, fight, repress, repeat” structure. The only thing that changes is the subject of the fight, but even that doesn’t vary widely.
On its own, it’s not a compelling story. What makes it noteworthy is that these are the parties and fights experienced by the man who wrote The Great Gatsby, and this is the woman he made unhappy. Zelda had aspirations in painting, dancing, and writing, and showed promise in each. Scott prevented her from pursuing painting and dance beyond hobbies, and when she did write short stories or essays, they were published under his name (to ensure acceptance and higher payment). When she finally published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, under her own name, Scott edited out all the parts that made him look bad, and the novel failed.
In the book, Zelda refers to her novel as “another failed endeavour.” In Therese Anne Fowler’s eyes, it’s another “what if?” What if she hadn’t let Scott edit her novel? What if she had become a professional dancer? What if she didn’t have to move every time Scott alienated another group of their friends? What if she hadn’t married him at all? Would her life have been easier, more fulfilled?
Fowler’s novel asks these questions, but can’t answer them. Nothing can, because we only have the story of what actually happened. These books about Hadley and Sofya and Zelda ask us to imagine how much easier their lives would have been if they’d had their own stories. At one point in the book Zelda asks herself, “Whose life is this anyway?” Not hers, is the answer.
There’s a lingering myth that even if it’s stormy, it’s something of a privilege to be married to greatness, that letting your life be subsumed by an artist’s is a beautiful sacrifice to what he creates and a chance to be immortal. It is true that without Zelda, we wouldn’t have Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Beautiful and Damned — after all, she’s in those books — but it’s another matter to assume that she was content to sacrifice her happiness for three great novels.
Fitzgerald and Zelda were a complicated couple, and Fowler illustrates how they could love each other, make each other crazy (sometimes literally), and despite the turmoil stay together. Fowler doesn’t show Zelda simply as a miserable wife, or as someone who was happy to live in service to Fitzgerald’s work, but rather as a wife who “was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it.”
Paradoxically, this is the reason to write and read about Zelda, because she deserved a life much more interesting than the one that she got. Interesting to her, that is, a life she could have given her energy and talents to, not just a life made interesting by famous friends and European capitals. Fowler’s intricately drawn portrait of Zelda is less a titillating story than a museum of untapped potential. We can never know what that potential might have lead to, but we can look on as she carries it with her through life, as it slowly becomes too late.
What disappoints me about the lives of Zelda, Hadley, and Sofya is that they’re museums of untold stories rather than legitimately good stories. They were all remarkable women who thought that marrying remarkable men would, naturally, make their lives remarkable. But repeatedly anything great in their husbands’ lives came at their expense. I am continually drawn to them out of a sense of responsibility, or penance, a feeling that someone should look and appreciate what they gave up.
1. San Francisco
Last October, under-employed and back in San Francisco after three years’ absence, I was early for a weekday appointment in the Mission District. I decided to spend an hour in Dolores Park, open up my copy of Tender is the Night, and try to have thoughts about it (read these thoughts–and more–in the most recent installment of the Modern Library Revue!). It’s a truism in San Francisco that summer starts in September and peaks in October, when Dolores Park traditionally writhes with tattooed flesh, and there is a pervading smell of pot and damp feet removed sockless from kicky little shoes, and the throng of people outside the caddy-corner Bi-Rite Creamery causes an encumbrance to the thoroughfare.
On this balmy Wednesday, I found a spot on the grass and opened my book to the white sands of Gausse’s beach, the romping ground of Fitzgerald’s idle rich. I had been having trouble with Tender is the Night. How should I think about Fitzgerald’s leisure class and their intrigues? I wasn’t really connecting with them, in the parlance of our times. I was distracted by Dolores Park’s famous vista: the palm trees, the dome of Second Church of Christ, Scientist, the churriqueresque facade of Mission High. The park was oddly crowded. I watched the male half of an attractive couple pull a bottle of wine from a basket and look out at the serene Bay while he poured. Their Boston Terrier lolled; an elegant blonde reclined on a blanket. I removed my aged cardigan and broiled in the October sun. What a classy, languid Wednesday everyone seemed to be having!
Then, there among the lotus eaters, I had a moment of clarity. I was on Gausse’s beach. It was high summer on The Riviera.
2. San Diego
The next month, November, I went with my husband to San Diego, where I fretted through the presidential election while he attended a conference. The conference was given by Tableau, a data visualization software used to sculpt and prune immense amounts of information into cheerful graphs and dashboards — a product that promises to let its user “tell stories with data on the web” and elsewhere. The conference was three days, which were for me days of aforementioned fretting and trips to a place called Taco Express (which, although it’s not pertinent to my story, is one of the best places, of any kind, that I have been).
On the last evening, I attended the Tableau customer party. My experience with conferences is limited to the California Antiquarian Book Fair, at which there is a be-curtained vendor area with candies and apples and plastic cups frosty from the water cooler. At Tableau, Malcolm Gladwell delivered the keynote speech. The customer party was held on the field of Petco Park, which is where the San Diego Padres play Major League Baseball. There were buffets and bars and a lighting scheme, and elevated platforms strewn about the turf. In keeping with the general “stadium” vibe, caterers ranged around with bucket-sized lemonades. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings had been engaged; the dance floor was mere feet from the spangled edges of her dress. If one wanted to visualize them from some broader vantage, there was the Jumbotron. On the heels of my wedding, I was inclined to see things in terms of head counts and catering costs; long before the fireworks display, the mind had boggled.
While an astounding number and variety of organizations are anxious to plumb big data’s secrets, my husband and his colleague seemed like the lone civil servants in a phalanx of people from trendier sectors. I had watched Obama accept the presidency in the hotel lobby with two women from Facebook, who were using the software not to track users, but as an internal tool, I believe having to do with HR. Not only, it would seem, is Facebook visualizing my clicks on your wedding album; they are turning the glass inward. Our data, ourselves.
At the party, I clasped my lemonade bucket in two hands and gazed. In front of Sharon Jones were slender men and women in high quality outerwear that kept the chill away and yet revealed sculpted pecs; they danced and Instagrammed and exuded, to an outsider with nothing but the crudest anecdotal data from which to draw, a certain marathoner, waxed-ass aspect that seems to characterize the beautiful people of the tech sector. Are they the marketers? The money? Outside the dance floor stood less kempt bunches, many of them visually corresponding to the old-fashioned techie stereotypes: lurky men, not a lot of women.
I have since learned that baseball diamonds and Sharon Jones are small potatoes, as tech conferences go. At “Google/IO,” people fell from the sky, landed on the top of Moscone center in downtown San Francisco, biked to the edge, and rappelled down while wearing Google Glass[es]. Tech reporters and bloggers pepper their reports of “disruptive” technologies with the good shit, i.e., parties featuring jungle creatures and nude women and Snoop Dogg hired out by twenty-something millionaires. There on the field of Petco Stadium, though, I was stunned by the spectacle. I wondered if everyone present felt totally normal, as if they belonged at a party in a major sporting venue in a major American city, listening to a pretty major band, all of which had been laid out to express the gratitude of one corporate entity for their collective skill and patronage. I wondered whether any carpet will be left furled, any expense spared, to amaze and delight this new class of data wranglers.
Then I wondered, “Is anybody writing this down?”
3. San Francisco
Back in San Francisco, it is impossible not to feel that the Tableau customer appreciation party is linked in some fundamental way to the extreme late fanciness of Dolores Park, the velvet rope outside of the Bi-Rite Market, or other developments in the vicinity. One stretch of Valencia Street is now a kind of Pinterest stripmall, where a line of shops with suspiciously complementary old-timey signs display our new symbols of opulence in deranged little installations: an ancient push-pedal sewing machine, a distressed birdcage, a shoe. Down the street you can buy a refurbished Danish lamp like something from the Nautilus, retailing at fifteen hundred dollars. I recognize the pretty people from the Tableau party spilling out the doors onto the sidewalks before a legion of pricey yet aggressively casual restaurants, where there are no reservations and infinite waits and the waiters have tattooed knuckles, brilliantined side-parts, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pasta kinds.
People who lived in San Francisco during the tech boom of the 1990s have already stopped reading, so tired are they of the perennial griping about rent, the lament of the great exodus of minorities and artists and assorted non-artistic poor. Even the costly preciousness of Valencia Street is in its second release. I’m sure, too, that people who live in Brooklyn, or Austin — or any other place where food trucks and mid-century furniture are ascendant — probably feel there is nothing new under the San Francisco sun. But there have to be things peculiar to every boom — some special intersection of place and catalyst. There was coal dust on the dickies of the Pittsburgh industrialists.
Booms have their characteristics. San Francisco has its own kind of miner. One night not long ago I met two; one man works for a company that has an algorithm that knows, for example, when your industry-specific LinkedIn contacts have a life change, and sends an alert so that you can sell them things accordingly. Another man made a searchable database of accomplished programmers; it gathers up all the breadcrumbs they leave on the Internet so that you can then hire them away from their existing jobs, the better to implement your various algorithms.
Booms have their characteristics. I have a friend who is friends with a person who invented an Internet thing you’ve heard of. She spent her Labor Day weekend with this friend and several other people in a rented vacation house having something called a “Teach-up:” every attendee gave an hour-long presentation about a topic of their choice for their friends’ edification. It was a country house weekend with a side of data. My friend enjoyed the experience, but I don’t mind telling you (or her) that I found this practice to be insane, and also insanely interesting. Such an improving way to spend a holiday weekend! I was desperate to visualize the vibe in the house. How do people pull something like that off without being self-conscious, if they haven’t evolved to some new social state?
I began collecting these snippets almost without realizing. The more I hear, the weirder it all seems. A culture is forming, one born of big data and what Evgeny Morozov calls solutionism. But there are some old-fashioned boom hallmarks — extreme wealth, frantic enterprise — and traditional prestige moves, new takes on the salon. I have another friend who until very recently worked at Facebook. When I asked her about “culture” my eyes grew wide at her tales of love and treachery down on the “campus,” even wider when she mentioned the ballet lessons and chamber music group she and her colleagues get into in their free time.
Someone must be writing this down.
There is plenty to read. Every day about the molten San Francisco housing market, the $2,700-per-month one-bedrooms, the Google buses, the tax breaks for Twitter. Rebecca Solnit and David Talbot had what could have been the last words on the matter in the London Review of Books and San Francisco Magazine, respectively, but the hits keep coming. As Solnit points out, using the Gold Rush as her example, in a boom time you get boom towns. When Industry arrives; shit gets expensive. You hear yourself talking about rent prices every time you see your friends and you wish you could shut your mouth, because it’s such a hashed-over, boring old topic.
Truly, there’s an orgy of written evidence of the formation of culture. Talbot evoked the salon in reference to a socialite named Susan MacTavish Best, who
…became so exasperated with everyone being glued to computer screens and smart-phones that she turned her rented Pacific Heights Victorian into an old-fashioned salon, where her friends and acquaintances engage in face-to-face conversation. Best, 38, who runs a public relations firm for tech clients such as Craigslist and Klout, moonlights as something of an alternative Martha Stewart, hosting eclectic dinner parties, growing kilos of kale and other nutritious vegetables in her backyard, and producing a cookbook that combines her maternal kitchen wisdom with the organic consciousness she picked up while living on a hippie farm in Mendocino. The Chronicle has anointed her as “the hippest party hostess in the history of Silicon Valley’s pocket pen-protector set.”
At TechCrunch, I read a first-hand account of Square, the company that allows you to run a credit card on your iPhone: “As I’m learning more about how Square operates as a company, or family if you will, the team showed me a neat internal app that they use to communicate with one another and maintain a ‘closeness,’ even when people are out of the office.” A New York Times article on corporate tax breaks quoted a Tweet from a Twitter employee: “Tanned on Twitter’s new roof deck this morning as some dude served me smoothie shots. This is real life?” And one more: SFist recently reported on a new trend item, The Quantified Self Movement, an army of individual data visualizers who visualize themselves. (Against this, what’s one woman’s meager effort to keep a Google calendar of her period?)
There is plenty to read, but very little of it fiction. As my collection of anecdotes grew, I began to to wonder: where is The Bonfire of the Vanities for this new Gilded Age, this data mining, this excess, these Teach-Ups?
6. Where are the Novels?
I was in a newish bar in the financial district, which, when I last lived in San Francisco, you might have reasonably expected to be full of finance types in voluminous pleated slacks. Now, there are more hoodies. Waiting for my drink, I overheard two young men, mid-twenties, talking about the starting salary of a third-party acquaintance.
“110,” said one in neutral tones, and the other one looked askance: “What, you think that’s low or high?,” he asked. The friend seemed to parry. “Low,” he finally said.
They were good-natured about it when I fixed my several-sheets-to-the-wind lazy eye upon them and interrogated them about their lives. Yes, they were Tech People. They worked at Glass Door, the online aggregator of salary information. Who were the chroniclers of their ilk, I asked, trying not to sound like a loon and sounding like one. There was TechCrunch, they said, or Gizmodo. “What about novels?” I asked, and they drew a blank. I asked if they liked novels, and they did. One of them told me his favorite novel was The Life of Pi.
I just got an iPhone for the first time and I think it actually makes my life better. I use an app to visualize my finances. I am bitter about the Tech People because they live in the trendy neighborhoods and make them too expensive for me, even though I am grotesquely sanguine about the prospect of making my neighborhood too expensive for someone else. I sometimes wish that popular, unmissable restaurants that don’t take reservations will burn down in a searing fire, after I get a chance to eat at them. I find myself embodying a kind of bumbling, solutionist fascism at work, wondering why we can’t just streamline all our systems, but not knowing exactly what the new tools are or how to use them. I hate that a Jack Spade is going to move into the former space of beloved, priced-out Adobe Books, but I also want its owner to have not hired so many feckless youths, and not persisted in using a notebook to record purchases when the dapper wolf was so patently at the door.
In every place except my chaotic home, I feel entitled to efficiency. In fact, my quest to find the great tech novel — something sprawling and social and occurring inside the Teach-Up and outside the restaurant and around the home of the displaced shopowner and the H1B-visa programmer — is in itself a kind of solutionism. Novels are captured social data. You want a snapshot of nineteenth-century French provincial bourgeois life? There’s an app for that: it’s called Flaubert. And that’s before we consider the novel as an aggregator of human data of the biggest, most nebulous kind. You want a map of the human heart? Whose heart? What century? There’s an app for that too.
I’ve been to school and I know that if a novel says something is one way, it does not mean it is that way. The cemeteries are full, undoubtedly, of French apothecaries who died cursing Flaubert. Novels are often places for satisfying vendettas, mythologizing, and righting the wrongs of reality. But so are blogs. So, probably, is TechCrunch.
People will point out, quite sensibly, that “Tech” cannot fit in one novel. There are people who think of the technology, people who make it, people who sell it, people who finance it, people who sue the people who made it for patent infringement, people who hack it and make it better or different, people who use it the normal way, people who live in the city where the restaurants open to feed the people who make the technology. For my purposes, here in San Francisco, we are all Tech People now.
(Although, of course, tech cannot be said to live in one place; it is not exclusively the province of San Francisco, or even California. Aaron Swartz, the young man who developed the RSS feed and liberated academic journals and recently committed suicide, is an Ur-Tech figure, and lived in San Francisco only briefly. Estonia has some of the best technology infrastructure in the world. But in a great tech novel, I think California would come up.)
8. Bibliography II
I took to TechCrunch and Quora in search of this great tech novel. I asked the Tech People I came across whether there were books about what they did and where they lived. I looked on Amazon. There is an overwhelming number of books about Silicon Valley, overwhelmingly nonfiction. They have titles like The Silicon Boys: And Their Valley of Dreams; The PayPal Wars; and so forth. Many of them are about the 1990s tech boom, which does not feel directly relevant to the hotness of a restaurant called Flour + Water — which is listed, incidentally, with GoodReads in the portfolio of a seed venture fund — but is certainly not irrelevant in the scheme of things. There are also instructional texts: one of the startup men I spoke with told me that The Lean Startup is a current hot title among entrepreneurs.
There do not, however, seem to be many novels. Finally, through a Quora search and the recommendations of two Book People who are also kind of Tech People, in funny ways, I read three: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a young adult novel; Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a young adult novel masquerading as an adult novel; and Andy Kessler’s Grumby, a young adult novel where the young adult is 35. Taken together, these novels sort of approached what I was looking for: Grumby (2010) — a light-hearted tale of ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and Furbies — is the most explicitly about the business end of software programming and the high adrenaline, strange ideas, and crazy money of Silicon Valley. Little Brother, written in 2007, is also about programming, but weighted heavily to human and civil rights to privacy in an age of big data. Mr. Penumbra, the newest novel, is a very cheerful bibliothriller, if that is a word, that imagines a world where the printing press lies down with the e-reader; the Google woman with the book-selling man (as long as he can program too).
Mr. Penumbra and Little Brother, although they take place in a present-that-is-not-quite-the-present, get geographically closer than Grumby to the heart of what I am looking for: they take place in San Francisco, and they are explicit about how changes in industry and technology shape society. If I squint at all these novels from the right angle, I can see evidence of the outsize effects of these changes in the industrial epicenter, i.e., the Bay Area. Sloan’s Googlers correspond to the overachieving Tech People I hear and wonder about, and both he and Doctorow root their novels in place to an extent that really drove home what a small town this is and how fast it is changing.
That said, the fact that Doctorow’s novel satisfied some of my parameters seems almost accidental: true Tech People — hackers and gamers and people who can build computers from thin air — are not constrained by any 49-square-mile plot of land or housing market. In the case of Little Brother, which sometimes reads like a San Francisco guidebook (one with some rapidly outdating cultural references), the city is less important to the narrative for its tech history than for its tradition of social protest.
These are three perfectly reasonable novels, all of which I enjoyed. Between them, they come up with a lot of good, strong, important themes: Kessler concludes that “technology, for all its benefits, [is] no substitute for people’s own judgments.” Sloan arrives at something similar, with individual smarts, friendship, and the printing press beating an army of Google code-breakers. Doctorow, injecting philosophy at every possible juncture, cautions us against selling our rights, our control over our own data, for the illusion of safety or efficiency. All of these are important, and all of them are communicated in competent writing.
In spite of their themes, however, these novels are strongly plot-driven; they don’t explore inner lives or relationships in any profound way. They have some good data, in terms of telling us what buildings in San Francisco look like, or the ways programmers think about problems and solutions. But really great novels need the human factor to be relevant, both to present-day readers who don’t share the author’s world, and to the readers of the future. People dismiss Tom Wolfe for not always knowing what he is talking about vis-à-vis college sex (or Miami), but Tom Wolfe knows how to transmit capitalist anxieties and weirdness from the top to the bottom.
It is worth noting, too, that the three novels are remarkably similar in voice. They are first-person accounts narrated by smart, affable males, a little goofy, but fundamentally loyal, moral beings, proud nerds all. If these guys weren’t too busy putting themselves in real or financial harm through their devotion to solving problems and meeting challenges, they would be great boyfriends. If it’s not Rule One of the MFA, it should be: Great boyfriends do not make great literature.
These are not meant to be social novels, and I don’t think any of the novelists were setting out to write Pulitzer prize winners, so I feel like a jerk for picking on them (especially Doctorow, who was writing for young adults). These novels had the misfortune of being my representative texts from an evidently rather small body of work about a particular milieu. But I was looking for a work of art for the ages, so I am compelled to report that these are not it. In the future, if the present is any basis from which to judge; pretty-good-not-spectacular novels are for the academics or the antiquarians (unless Google, or the Internet Archive, are planning to change all that).
Novels do not have to be worldbeaters to be worth writing and reading. But one can still hope, and wait, for that big work of literature.
A novel of this kind has been written, I just don’t know about it because it hasn’t been published or I didn’t look hard enough.
I am eager to read anything, including short fiction, that explores technology and society in industrial centers in a meaningful way. Please avail yourself of the comments section.
We are not at the proper remove from time for a novel of this kind to be written (or appreciated).
The literary theorists have even started mining big data. A recent New York Times article described the tools we have to treat books as huge deposits of data; novels can be scanned and parsed by machines instead of people. The machines are confirming what most novelists know already: enduring novelists are not always appreciated in their time, nor do they reflect the current trends. This has a couple of alternate implications. One: I am or will be too constrained by my temporal reality to know the great tech novel when I see it. Two: it will not come through traditional publishing channels, because publishers will suffer from the same constraints.
More obviously, great social literature (or social protest literature) of the kind I’m looking for — a Germinal, a Sister Carrie, a Bonfire of the Vanities — takes time and perspective to write, so it stands to reason that the novel I want won’t emerge fully-formed from the mind of the creator the minute her apartment becomes too expensive.
Furthermore, I suspect that the immediate present — particularly of a place that considers itself at the forefront of something — lends itself more to satire and near-futurecasting than measured reflection of the moment. Little Brother describes Homeland Security on steroids; Robin Sloan chortles over a Google program powered by hubris. New developments seem so ludicrous we can’t yet describe them without getting a little hysterical. Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did a lot of this kind of writing, specifically, Vile Bodies or Antic Hay — novels that are good data about their times and place, but are too facetious to feel like serious novels. I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling Robin Sloan the Huxley of the future, but I could buy Mr. Penumbra as fun footnote in a great career.
Another word about time, though: it’s been ten years since the last tech boom. That’s plenty of time to produce something important.
There is something about tech and literature that makes them inimical to one another.
Let no woman say that Tech People — and here I mean the real architects of technological progress–can’t express themselves. Reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s epistolary article about Aaron Swartz in The New Yorker, I was struck, and moved, by how open Swartz and his friends were in their public and private writing. Swartz wrote raw, intensely personal things on his blog; Reddit is full of people expressing themselves in ways that are often shocking. But a novel requires something a little different.
It is my understanding that most writers feel some sense of being outside of things looking in. A good social novel requires a particular balance of alienation and access to be successful. (Tom Wolfe had to get invited to all those dinner parties; the tech novelist has to get invited to the Teach-Up.) Tech, the way it happens in San Francisco at least, seems to present some real deterrents to the access part of the equation. Tech companies, even when they are in the city proper, seem like compounds evoking non-disclosure agreements and badges and loyalty. The buses that ferry the workers from their San Francisco neighborhoods to their Peninsula offices are unmarked. I think these are insular, fortified environments in which it would be hard to achieve the balance of outside and inside status. And when you work twelve hours a day, how would you find the time?
Then there are the career novelists and the people who read them. Allison K. Gibson described for The Millions the uneasy way that fiction-writers engage with technological realities in their work. Jonathan Franzen, whom I consider to be the star novelist most capable of writing an old-fashioned social novel, is famously technology averse, and writes on a computer stripped down to a fancy typewriter. And really, how can you write something huge when you are Instagramming? But how can you be in the culture when you aren’t? Technology is fast; novels are slow. We’re still talking about Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter, when offices don’t even want to use PowerPoint anymore.
The social novel — or the novel generally — is getting phased out of culture.
Perish the thought. Alexander Nazaryan asked whither the novel and made a depressing but brilliant analogy: “A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.” I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, all I can do is thank the creator for allowing me to live during even the scraggly, flea-bitten tail-end of the age of the social novel.
Please prove me wrong on all accounts. Show me the great things I’ve missed. And if you’re writing fiction about today, taking notes on your iPhone, stealing time for art on the Facebook bus, keep at it. The people of today are waiting. The people of tomorrow are waiting.
Image via calmenda/Flickr
This week marks four years since I began the Modern Library Revue, and herewith its 32nd official installment. I began the project the way I think people must begin training for a marathon, or eating like a caveman, or going to church: I felt some inner restlessness, some fullness, that needed exercising and exorcising. I chose the Modern Library list for my spiritual Nordic Trac because I had read one or two novels less than half the novels on it, and thought quite sensibly that this would give me a good head start. At first, the entries tumbled out of me as fast I could write them. And in these four years, I’ve managed to read another 30 titles from the list. But somehow, here we are at a mere 32 Revues. At this pace, it will be another eight years, God willing, before I finish the enterprise. (And oh, the party I’ll have.)
Despite my initial aspirations and productivity, I have found that the familiar books have been the hardest to interpret, the most likely to hamstring me over a period of weeks or months. Always they require rereading, and sometimes something more drastic. I’ve been stalled on Tender is the Night since October, which befuddled me to the extent that, not only did I have to reread it a third time, I had to reread all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and meditate on them before deciding that I know less, possibly, than I did before.
I used to feel that the novel output of Fitzgerald was like the literary version of the Myers Briggs test: whichever one a person favored was some fundamental indicator of his or her personality. Roughly it followed that ordinary and banal people liked The Great Gatsby, snotty, effete types liked This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned was for the discerning and unconventional (I’ll let you guess in which camp I numbered myself). Tender is the Night was sort of an unknown quantity, preferred by dramatic people, maybe, or people who take pills. This fall, in a classic Modern Library Revue time-suck, I revisited my youthful prejudices, all in service of understanding Fitzgerald’s last, strangest novel.
I can’t say that revisiting my youthful prejudices has confirmed them — This Side of Paradise crept up in my estimation, while The Beautiful and Damned moved slightly down, even while retaining the coveted corner office of my heart. However, to venture onto a tangent, I can say that The Great Gatsby still remains for me the least stirring of Fitzgerald’s novels. Perhaps it’s due to some wellspring of hipster haterade that must deem things played out, or perhaps The Great Gatsby is so great that it has actually managed to play itself out. After all, it’s as familiar now as the noble bombast penned by Fitzgerald’s own relative, the green light like the rocket’s red flare, the pier at East Egg like the ever-stalwart rampart, the boats beating on like liberty itself.
I feel that The Great Gatsby is the most together, the most surgically artistic effort of a novelist who was more exciting when he was not trying to contain the hot, maudlin, meandering mess of his own talent. (For the record, I also sense something phony about Gatsby’s very phoniness — for me the only convincing poor person Fitzgerald wrote was one who lost his fortune, not one who made it. Fitzgerald’s poor people were like his black people or his Jews–all characteristics, no character.)
If The Great Gatsby represents the nadir of said hot mess, Tender is the Night is its sprawling apotheosis. It’s hard to know what to say about this sultry dream of a book. Aesthetically it is very beautiful, the most impressionistic of Fitzgerald’s novels. A paragraph about Gausse’s Riviera beach makes me want to disport myself in the wine-dark sea, and ruin my skin in the sun wearing pearls and a marcel wave. There is a striking amount of color: the first two pages features a “tan prayer rug of a beach,” the “pink and cream of old fortifications,” a “purple Alp,” a man in a blue bathrobe, a girl with pink palms. The first half of the novel is all a bright haze of color, sensation, perception, personality. The revelation that the life events of the novel’s motley crew of upper-crusters might have anything to do with something like a plot is a surprise when it comes, about a third of the way through the novel.
As a plot, it’s an odd one, full of a kind of fruitless drama and portents that somehow portend both nothing and everything. Only the flimsiest motives are provided to explain why a man like the superhero Dick Diver, with his jaunty striped shorts and bathing cap, should piss away his life, trade in his professional credibility and crazed beautiful wife and Riviera idylls for a ruined liver and thwarted attempts at grab-ass in sleepy villages along the Hudson. Even fewer reasons are provided for why we should care. The demise part is okay — that’s a theme in all the novels past This Side of Paradise. But Dick and Nicole Diver are the sort of unlikable corollaries of Anthony and Gloria Patch of The Beautiful and Damned, which is a great, old-fashioned morality tale with implacable logic. I think it’s a shame, how it works out for the Divers, but they never seemed like very fine people to me.
I found an explanation for the novel’s strangeness partly in a 1962 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins about Sara and Gerald Murphy, the original inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver. The novel started out to be about the Murphys, and turned, says Tomkins, into a book about the Fitzgeralds (who were also the models for Anthony and Gloria Patch). These Murphys were real Somebodys, who knew everybody and lived artfully in Paris and on the Riviera, which they actually discovered as a summer destination.
Tomkins’s profile, which is well worth reading, has its own, dare I say, novelistic logic. I spent the first half of the piece feeling a certain savagery toward the Murphys. Page one (of thirteen) makes Tender is the Night out to be a turd on the porcelain of the Murphys’ impeccable lives:
“I didn’t like the book when I read it, and I liked it even less on rereading,” Sara said. “I reject categorically any resemblance to us or to anyone we knew at any time.” Gerald, on the other hand, was fascinated to discover…how Fitzgerald had used “everything he noted or was told about by me” during the years that the two couples spent together…Almost every incident, he became aware, almost every conversation in the opening section of the book had some basis in an actual event or conversation involving the Murphys, although it was often altered or distorted in detail.
I found both positions deeply suspect — the vehement denials and the faux naivete about artists, from people who surrounded themselves with artists (Hemingway, Stravinsky, MacLeish, Dos Passos, etc.). This strain of philistinism was as alienating to me as the impeccable lives:
Those closest to the Murphys find it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends. An evening spent in their fragrant garden, looking out over the water toward Cannes and the mountains beyond, listening to records from Gerald’s encyclopedic collection (everything from Bach to the latest jazz), savoring the delicious food that always seemed to appear, exquisitely prepared and served, at the precise moment and under the precise circumstances guaranteed to bring out all its best qualities (Provençal dishes, for the most part, with vegetables and fruits from the Murphys’ garden, though there was often a typically American dish, such as poached eggs on a bed of creamed corn); the passionate attention to every detail of his guests’ pleasure that gave Murphy himself such obvious pleasure; Sara’s piquant beauty and wit, and the intense joy she took in her life and her friends; the three beautiful children, who seemed, like most children who inhabit a special private world, to be completely at home in adult company (Honoria, who looked like a Renoir and was dressed accordingly; Baoth, robust and athletic; Patrick, disturbingly delicate, and with a mercurial brilliance that made him seem “more Gerald than Gerald”) — all contributed to an atmosphere that most people felt wonderfully privileged to share…
And then came their singing of the “American Negro spirituals.”
(All this, even the title of the profile–“Living Well is the Best Revenge”–made me want to throw their smug lives in their faces. Revenge against what? Against the horrible smashup of the Fitzgeralds — one drunk, one crazy — one who died choking on blood, the other on smoke, both before they reached 50?)
Tomkins’s society-page raptures notwithstanding, somewhere around the middle of the thing I began to defrost. First, there’s the death of two of the Murphys’ children — pain that cannot be extinguished by any amount of exquisite living. Then, in the excerpts of letters to and from the Murphys and Fitzgeralds, the real depth of their friendship (relationship, better to say), was revealed. I cannot imagine a relationship of my own bearing so much volatility — surrendering my home to an unhinged friend, placating my other guests when friend flings figs and ashtrays, putting up with his barbs and his staring and his weird questions about money, finally reading myself in his unedifying novel as the beautiful mental patient, the incest victim, the involved but unloving mother. It would be a lot.
Tomkins’s descriptions of the Murphys’ collective life are very like the tableaux Fitzgerald creates in Tender is the Night. Here, in the novel, the young film actress Rosemary is entranced by the Divers on the Mediterranean shores:
Rosemary felt that this swim would become the typical one of her life, the one that would always pop up in her memory at the mention of swimming. Simultaneously the whole party moved toward the water, super-ready from the long, forced inaction, passing from the heat to the cool with the gourmandise of a tingling curry eaten with chilled white wine. The Divers’ day was spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value, and she did not know that there would be another transition presently from the utter absorption of the swim to the garrulity of the Provencal lunch hour.
What is missing from Tomkins’s account is the resentment that runs through Tender is the Night, the resentment I instinctively felt myself for the Murphys’ Mediterranean menage. Seen thus, the novel is almost a revenge against the Murphys’ good lives, a preemptive retribution; right around the time that Fitzgerald started to die in Hollywood, Gerald Murphy–whose own melancholy spells Tomkins mentions only in passing–took up the family business, a little outfit called Mark Cross, and did a thriving trade for two decades. Perhaps the novel even adds some necessary balance to Tomkins’s fulsomeness.
But as the character of Dick Diver transmutes to Fitzgerald himself, the resentment takes on a strange key. In a novel partly about psychoanalysis, what does it mean that Abe North, the drunk creative type clearly modelled on Fitzgerald, is kicked to death on a spree in New York, a moment that roughly marks the start of Dick Diver’s slow, similarly gin-soaked decline? (Nicole Diver was raped by her father in her lonely adolescence, an event that led to her nervous breakdown. And yet somehow Dick Diver’s Gendarmo punchout, when his Fitzgeraldian side is ascendant, is five-fold more awful.) The novel even suggests, with Fitzgerald’s characteristic attention to money, that Dick’s demise is a tied to his unmanning financial dependence on Nicole. More resentment, class bitterness transferred.
Tender is the Night is no Gatsby, with everything nailed down tight as a coffin-lid at the end. When the novel is over, Dick is still shunting around doing God knows what and living off of Nicole, who has been transferred part and parcel to another, less cerebral man. There’s nary a moral to be had between this novel and its characters. Yet curiously, even with its multiple lives clumsily conflated — extraordinary lives, furthermore, with outsize amounts of talent, privilege, and misfortune — there is something true and lifelike about this flawed, lovely, befuddling book. Writing well may not be the best revenge, but a few decades later, it comes pretty close.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs is continuing his efforts to get a street in Los Angeles named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now, he’s put together a short story competition to further commemorate the author. Here’s the release:The film production and web publishing company responsible for the petition drive to name the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in honor of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald has announced a short fiction competition to further commemorate the author on the sixty-fifth anniversary of his passing. At the time of his demise on December 21, 1940, the celebrated author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night was living at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue in the home of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Rodger Jacobs, President of 8763 Wonderland Ltd., is requesting works of original fiction of no more than four hundred words on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last days in Hollywood. “The stories can deal with Scott directly or indirectly,” says Jacobs, “just as long as they somehow address F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.” Entries will be judged on originality and overall style. Prizes will be announced “sometime in the near future.” The deadline for short fiction entries is August 1, 2005. Entries may be e-mailed to [email protected] There is no fee for entrants, though Pay Pal donations are suggested to help defray costs involved in mounting the continuing petition drive. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Memorial Petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.
Here is his press release:It’s been done for such entertainment luminaries as Bob Hope and George Burns, and now author and journalist Rodger Jacobs hopes to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to change the name of a street corner to honor F. Scott Fitzgerald on the 65th anniversary of the author’s death.”F. Scott Fitzgerald is an American icon.” says Jacobs. “Some would even argue that he’s one of the greatest authors this country produced in the 20th Century.”When the author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 21, 1940 he was living with gossip columnist Shelia Graham at her luxury apartment on North Hayworth Avenue in Hollywood.”Fitzgerald spent his last years here in Los Angeles,” Jacobs explains. “I don’t think a lot of Angelenos know or appreciate that fact. He wrote extensively about L.A. in his unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and in the Pat Hobby stories he wrote for Esquire.”Renaming the intersection of Hayworth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, Jacobs hopes, will encourage locals to explore the literary world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”I would be happy if this attempt to keep Scott’s name in the public eye would bring just one curious person to pick up a book of his that they might otherwise not have read. According to census data, the number of literate Americans who are no longer reading books at all is growing in leaps and bounds ever year.”The entire petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.