Thursday, August 11, 2005

NOT Tender at all

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"

Well, I haven't "been through all of" Fitzgerald's books myself, but I'm a huge fan of the technique of his short stories, and had chewed on Gatsby a couple times before picking this up on a whim at Borders Saturday. My overall impression of Tender is the Night is that this is very uneven work, with occasional bits of delicious languid prose, then hyper stoccato dramatic scenes--these sudden and at times awkward changes in tone and affect are schizo (as are several of the characters); this produces an effect bordering almost on the Joycean. I found reading it by turns frustrating and rewarding.

But looking at it as more than a "novel"--as a frank fictionalized depiction of Scott's own woes, and as a harbinger of the writer he might have been had he lived--is very interesting. When I taught literature I'd spend a couple weeks on the Holy Trinity of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and of the three I'd paint Fitz as the most traditional and conventional--a sublime creative mind, of course, but not as revolutionary as Faulkner and not so forceful or willful as Papa. And yet, having read Tender is the Night (which was written, at least in part, here in Towson as Zelda cut paper dolls and convalesced at Hopkins hospital before burning down Scott's house in Rogers Forge) at last, I think my opinion was unjustified. Biographical honesty aside, there are passages of manic modernist beauty here, the energetic play of a great talent showing no signs of the dissipation being catalogued. At times the book bogs down in conventional boilerplate, but then Scott will light up the page with incisive and vicious dissections of his characters' motivations, descriptive passages that are simply off-the-hook good, or metaphors that shake the soul (one about love as a dye-job that obliterates all individual colors haunted my dreams).

I mean, yeah--one "should" read this, so I don't need to recommend it, but if you plan to only read one Fitzgerald novel, make it Gatsby, which, like his short fiction, is almost perfectly crafted. Tender is the Night takes patience but pays off. Nobody else does dissolution so well, but this novel is not as polished as his other work.