This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s break-out novel, tells the transparently autobiographical story of one Amory Blaine (aka: Fitzgerald). Amory moves through adolescence, puberty, boarding school, university, and, lastly and most wanderingly, his twenties, all the while musing endlessly on a variety of topics mostly having to do with himself. The book catapulted an unknown Fitzgerald into the upper echelons of literary society at the time and was heralded as a work of genius.
This is all well and good, but what surprised me the most while reading it was its absolute timelessness. Despite some of the inherently historic aspects of the novel (most obviously the “interlude,” as Fitzgerald terms it, of World War I and then Prohibition), Amory’s post-university struggles with who he is, who he should be, and what to make of the world around him still rang wholly true and felt particularly pertinent for this twentysomething. I think the current post-university generation is often perceived as too “self” everything: self-aware, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, etc., but Paradise, if nothing else, vigorously proves that this attitude of self-introspection is hardly a new phenomenon for “the younger generation.”
Amory spends most of the novel looking inwards to divine who he is, as if that will give him the key to what he should do next, and wandering from place to place, both physically and mentally, in search of his life path. Some years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted the emergence of “the Odyssey Years” as a new phase of life unique to contemporary twentysomethings. Personally, I love the idea of an entire life phase built around Homer, but, at the same time, I must admit an entire life-phase of wandering is nerve-wracking. Thus, I found it hugely comforting to read, in Paradise, of the exact same experience occurring 90 years ago. It makes this period of my life seem less formidable, more communal, and possibly grants a historical validity to it.
All the same, for all the lovely moments of generational continuity I felt reading Paradise, it still wasn’t an amazing read. It is at times downright philosophical and almost Martineauesque in its forced dialogues between characters about life-views. The style ranges widely, including the traditional novel format you’d expect but occasionally veering off into memoir, plays, letters, and even poetry. I thought the play part came off the strongest, although there were touches and moments of quotable truth scattered throughout the entire book.
And honestly I think that’s what Fitzgerald does best: he writes occasionally blindingly eloquent and perfectly-phrased truths. His prose isn’t consistent and it doesn’t even cover the majority of the book, but every so often he would phrase something so aptly and beautifully that I had to stop and re-read the phrase, sentence, or paragraph back again a few times. The combination of these occasional pure truths and the remarkable agelessness of Paradise made it a very rewarding (and timely, on a personal level) read, even though I think it meandered too much to be a really good one.