Fitzgerald’s Demons and Teen Fiction

During all this time running around like a chicken with my head cut off, or screwed on wrong at least, I’ve been able to plow through a couple books that have been laying around for months. By now, I’ve learned that I can’t be picky with my present tastes when it comes to new reading. I can only distinguish between Books I’ve Already Read and Books That Have Been Laying Around For Months. So if I finish a particularly lengthy Dostoevsky or a whole slew of allegorical teen exercises in relevant sarcasm, I don’t have much choice but to grab whatever’s closest, be it a tome by Gogol or a period piece (pun intended) by catchall teen sensation Cherry Ditemeyer.

Faced with this discipline-inducing dilemma, executing a mountain of books by means of diligent spinal severance while ever increasing my literary awareness, I can assure you that the sheer selection at my finger tips is soothingly eclectic in taste, content, and length, as equivalent as a massive library of books can be to a Stephen Spielberg film.

Such choice lends me the ability to follow up vigorous gossip tale Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald with spunky disturbo-angst firecracker Fade by Lisa McMann. The former captivated me every three pages or so, and the latter for the duration of its 3-hour run time (that has to be a pitiable pace, as I am such a slow reader). I enjoy the juxtaposition of a language driven volume whose shorter sibling, The Great Gatsby, is universally dreaded by so many tenth graders despite its tints of debauchery and raucous rebelliousness, and a stylistically enhanced serving of teenage catnip, comparable in length to The Great Gatsby, that has been praised for attracting young converts to the joys of reading despite (but probably because of) its baitingly blatant debauchery. When you judge the payoff between the two, the melodrama and tit factor in Fade win by long shots in the ADHD market, but it’s bereft of the emotional heft and haunting quality that Tender is the Night affords the more dedicated reader. It’s unfair of me to compare the two at all, but what’s unfair is usually fun, if only for a single paragraph. And don’t think I haven’t reserved some share of criticism for Tender is the Night, even if I have just learned its torturous journey to the page.

Fitzgerald’s penultimate novel, last to achieve finished form, Tender is the Night contains all that I know Fitzgerald to be lauded for: inside scoops on luxury and excess, scandal, disillusionment, and a love for words. His characters continue to connect today, endowed with highly conversational dialogue that swaps our slang for theirs and nevertheless flows like real speech, but cursed with motives that Fitzgerald only touches upon, so when we see the Diver couple and Rosemary Hoyt make bad decision after bad decision, we can only guess at what they’re really thinking. However, you could argue that Fitzgerald defines them very well, but that the motives are so helplessly personal and ill-informed that they could only be made by real people. Either way, we are as mystified by their actions as anyone who has sat by and watched a friend or relative take a downward spiral.

It helps to imagine Fitzgerald’s situation as he wrote it. Now I can’t say how he handled stress, but during the decade of work attributed to Tender is the Night, his wife Zelda suffered a nervous breakdown and Fitzgerald continued to battle alcoholism. Below this however, we can all on some level relate to his experiences with writer’s block (am I the first to suggest calling it writers’ block, as a gesture of community and support?), even more commonly known as anxiety. Fitzgerald for a long time did what novelists do best, depicting what he sees in the world into the written word, beautifully. But it feels like Fitzgerald could have grappled with his subject matter,  expended his arsenal of high living hijinx used to cloak abstract ideas, before his wife’s condition came along and gave him a new take on life. Her treatments inspired a humble approach to life, the consequences he ran from finally having caught up, and although he plays with mortality loosely at times – A dead man in bed! Quick! Get rid of the body! – he shows his characters progress from intellectual infancy to world-weariness without fitting their growth into a single, or series, of wild episodes. Instead, we watch the focus shift from Rosemary to Nicole to Dick over a lengthy period, until eventually it settles on Dick, or Fitzgerald himself. After a decade of work, he must tell his own story at the expense of his wife’s and friends’ struggles. Thus Tender is the Night comes across as Fitzgerald’s final word, if not before death then before retirement. The novel as a whole shares equal shrift among its inhabitants, all connected to or in some way affecting Dick Diver. We see the interference of others and trouble that has plagued him his whole life, but we leave with his ex-wife looking back on him, seeing only the trouble he caused himself.

With flashes of sensational romance and mischief, Tender is the Night is anchored by jaded sensibility, and by the final page, it all feels like it’s been told in retrospect, with common people reflecting upon their regrets. You’ll wonder where Dick Diver ever ended up.

I struggled to finish Tender is the Night during a rough time in September and October. With work, school, and a wedding up in the air, it can be hard to concentrate on my little papery friends. It’s hard enough keeping up with the flesh and blood ones, y’know? To keep up the rhythm and establish a string of reading victories, I started easy with the sequel to Lisa McMann’s Wake, ambitiously called a novel, which continues right where Wake left off. Continuing in Fade, Janie Hannagan is an independent teen who lives with her alcoholic mother and has the tendency to enter other people’s dreams.

Some call it an ability. Some a gift. Janie? Calls it a f***ing curse. She hears her mother stirring in her bedroom. Shaking the last sticky drop of vodka down her throat. Licking the rim.

Janie sighs. One more year, she thinks.

Her toast pops up like an ironic sign or something.

So goes McMann’s prose, praised for being lyrical, haunting, sinister, and affecting. It is remarkably frank, like teenagers prefer, and McMann doesn’t shy away from heavy duty cursing, coarse sex,  and adult themes (like teenagers prefer). It’s the kind of gritty book that publishers can get away with marketing to youngsters because it makes the adults into the bad guys. Sometimes a bit too much.

This time around Janie is recruited to flush out a sexual predator from Fieldridge High School, an unenviable task reserved for her special ability, or curse or whatever. She secretly dates her partner, Cabel, who we remember did such a good job playing undercover as a bratty skateboarder, and who bears the scars of an abusive father, making him a kindred spirit to Janie. She learns more about her ability, exerts her independence from Cabel, gushes about their romance, commonly misunderstands his actions, narrowly escapes danger, and sets herself up for a third book. The pace never slows, but it could certainly use a plot twist or two once we learn who the prime suspect is. To give you a hint, there’s never another prime suspect.

Adults in her work often come across as empty vessels leaked of their dreams and moldering in self delusion. Save for the police captain and handful of cops, McMann populates Fieldridge, Michigan with an adult generation of slimebags and failures (or ‘fails’?) living their dreams in their heads, playing with marionettes one string at a time. Although stinging with bitterness, McMann’s Wake books offer little hope, and try as she might to distinguish the seasons with her 24-esque timekeeping, Fieldridge always feels like the third week of a rainy November.

At times it’s too transparent, pandering to the online generation with its rapid fire scene shifting, indulgent angst, and dra-MA-tic fragments. But it’s a different kind of animal from the novels of old times and old timers. Lisa McMann shares the deepest kind of pain, the kind that only a small but alarming number of kids know, and when more privileged readers encounter McMann’s back story they’ll realize that her sometimes laughably harrowing scenarios are more plausible than they could imagine. I bet younger kids will be stunned by the effect the written word can have on them when administered by Lisa McMann.

Now rinse off the McMann effect with some Michael Chabon.

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