Sunday, June 05, 2011

[Books] Book Look: This Side of Paradise

Book Look: This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Keeping with the above theme of college days, my main read this month was F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. Note that while I have linked this to the Kindle version on Amazon (free), it is long past its copyright expiration so you can snag it for free from just about anywhere on-line. is a good place to start for the Kindle averse.

This is the story of a wealthy, spoiled boy with a flighty mother and disconnected father. He is sent to boarding school; goes on to Princeton; falls in love and has his heart broken. Along the way, almost tangentially, his parents die, he fights in WW1, and goes broke. We are given detailed descriptions of his innermost thoughts and feelings at school, especially at Princeton, his impressions of those around him, and his evolving desires and ideas. But his reaction to his parents deaths is little more than annoyance, we hear nothing about his war experiences despite being in combat, and his reaction to the vaporization of his family fortune is blase.

It sounds reversed doesn't it? The huge dramatic events in his life are mere sideshow, but all the details of his identity and ego development are the topic of the book. And that is a stroke of genius, because that is what it is like to be that age: completely self-consumed. The self-obsession of the main character is exaggerated contrast to the external events around him. Clever way to zero in on a young man's ego.

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald's version of "The Book Everyone has In Them." For most it's the "college experience/coming of age book" although there are variations that have nothing to do with college. It is the documentation of the painful birth of an adult, or at least the start of the ongoing process of adulthood. Someone we know once wrote a book called Apple Pie along the same lines.

The eternal commonality is there. The deluded self-opinion, the disregard for that which does not directly affect you, the misguided attempts at self-definition and the corresponding attraction to charismatic, pseudo-intellectual ideas and people. Also there is the pain and uncertainty, which in retrospect from a fully lived life can seem almost quaint and precious, but as lived it is devastating.

This Side of Paradise is set pre-WW1 for the most part, so despite the familiar themes and feelings, things are different. Most of the young characters speak in florid semi-cryptic poetics, more concerned with the impression their words leave as opposed to clarity of communication. But there is still shameless college pranksterism and debauchery, here among the elite at Princeton, and which I witness in Ann Arbor to this day. The writing often seems self-indulgent, but again that kind of plays into the themes. This was his first novel and Fitzgerald was not quite Fitzgerald yet, but the core of the talent that eventually produced Tender is the Night and Gatsby is discernible.

Should you read This Side of Paradise? Not until you have read Gatsby or Tender. It doesn't measure up to those in any way. Allow me some self-indulgence and suggest you read Paradise after reading Apple Pie. I'd be curious to hear what parallels you could draw.