The Last Tycoon … Questioning Why I Read Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is one of those authors who provokes in me a love/loathe reaction.  There was something unforgettable and moving in The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise; the surreal, Wuthering-Heights level of drama and the tragic stories lingered in my mind a long time afterward.  Tender is the Night haunted me in a different way: an instant trainwreck with little rhyme or reason, it left me so disgusted I had to quit reading early on.  So when I saw the library had just added The Last Tycoon to their ebook collection…and it was available, and it was under 200 pages…I invariably got pulled into checking it out and reading it over the 4th of July.

There aren’t many authors I would recommend reading solely for their writing style, but I think every aspiring American writer should read something by Fitzgerald, even if it’s just a chapter.  There’s something distinctly American about his style.  It’s a strange, signature combination – breathless, matter-of-fact, poetic, alluring, and mournful all at once.  The Last Tycoon (1941), set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, has all of this, and being an unfinished novel it holds an additional sense of mystery, somewhat diminished by the addition of Fitzgerald’s notes and plans for the novel at the end.

I usually can’t tolerate “meta” stories, i.e. stories about authors or movies about movie makers, so it’s to Fitzgerald’s credit that my favorite thing about this book is its setting and the commentary on Hollywood in the 1930s.  He doesn’t even bother to change the names, so you’ll see a minor cameo by Gary Cooper, a mention of Cecil B. DeMille, and a myriad of other name-dropping references fans of classic film will enjoy (unsurprisingly, some actors and actresses are disparaged, but Fitzgerald manages to leave them anonymous, at least by name).

The plot is both compelling and frustrating.  Our Gatsbyian protagonist, Monroe Stahr, is a brilliant film producer still mourning the death of his wife, Minna, while battling the last months of his own life.  One night he catches a glimpse of her doppelganger in the face of an elusive British woman, who, as it turns out, is as interested in him as he is in her.  The book is partly told in third person and partly in first person, because the other piece of this lust-triangle is the sometime narrator, Cecelia Brady, a much younger girl who since childhood has had a massive infatuation with Stahr.  The storyline follows the ups and downs of Stahr’s work life, Cecelia’s plotting to be with him, and their efforts to find out more about the woman who looks like Minna.

That the story is believable doesn’t make it any less depressing, and once you distill it down to the simple facts, it becomes incredibly unromantic and pedestrian.  Stahr has the makings of a great character, but the female characters throwing themselves at him are even less likeable than Daisy Buchanan, so you end up very irritated that Stahr has anything to do with them.  As in The Great Gatsby, there’s also a number of derogatory references to people of other races through the book.

As a story of Hollywood it is all readily believable, and in fact Stahr was based on the real-life head of MGM, Irving Thalberg.  The consolation prize is you feel you’re reading about history, rather than something completely fictional.

While I’m not sure I’d recommend The Last Tycoon, I’m not completely sorry I read the book.  Like This Side of Paradise, it’s a peek into a different era. The biggest takeaway from this book for me is that more things have stayed the same than have changed.

February Reviews – Lightning Round!

Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald – (no rating)
Biggest disappointment of the year so far; did not finish.
The Atlas of Beauty – Mihaela Noroc – 3 stars
An interesting library book.  Somewhat repetitive; would’ve 
preferred less social-political commentary.
Embers – Sándor Márai – 4 stars
Surprisingly great!  European history buffs will appreciate
 this ruminating novel.  Full review here.
Poetry of the First World War – ed. Marcus Clapham – 3 stars
Not an easy or pretty read, but a sobering one.  More thoughts here.
Moonflower – Jade Nicole Beals – 4 stars
 Poems of peace and introspection; this was a refreshing read.
Anthem – Ayn Rand – 2 stars
Great concept, so-so execution.  Full review here.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote – 1 star
Writing style on point, story not my cuppa.  More thoughts here.

This has not been the month for in-depth, written reviews, and I’m feeling a bit sheepish about that.  Work has been so busy; I’ve gone from one big project to the next, which is great but takes a toll on the reading energies.  Here’s to hoping March will be a little easier!

That Hideous Strength and Its Weaknesses

Disclaimer: I have a longstanding, sentimental regard for C. S. Lewis’s writing.  His Narnia series was a love of my childhood, opening up a beautiful world of heroism, wonder, and bravery that’s influenced me ever after.  My first fictional scribbles at a young age were a personalized plagiarism of Narnia and Carroll’s Wonderland, because I just loved those stories so much.  With that in mind, if I’m a bit hard on Lewis in this review, it’s because there is so much of his writing that I love, and it is impossible to evaluate this book without comparing it to the greatness he is capable of.  (For a recent example, please see Till We Have Faces.)

C. S. Lewis’s names for the planets

That Hideous Strength begins in the village of Edgestow, a quaint corner of England and home to a small but illustrious university.  The protagonists are a recently married couple settling down in their new life together – Mark, comfortable in his fellowship at the college, and Jane, less comfortable in the role of housewife.  Politics are rampant at the University of Edgestow, where the sale of some land to the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is under debate.  As Mark grows distant through his social life, Jane must confront her personal challenges alone, not least of which are the nightmares that keep haunting her, and which may have something to do with the N.I.C.E.

The last book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength focuses in on planet Earth and an imminent change in the social order that governs it.  At the forefront of the conspiracy is the N.I.C.E., ironically named, and though prior knowledge of Oyarsa and the edila is useful, this book can still be read as a standalone novel, for there is more dystopia here than fantasy.  In fact, the N.I.C.E. can be seen as a partial representation of Nazism, and the fact that C. S. Lewis wrote this during WWII can hardly be a coincidence, since the two groups hold much in common.

Though I loved the fast-paced, thriller quality to this novel, I was completely let down by several key points in the story.  Some of the Christian themes were handled in a way that made me uncomfortable, and the treatment of Jane was extremely disappointing in the end.  I talked a bit more about this in my latest podcast episode, C. S. Lewis in Outer Space, Part 2.  Though the book was very entertaining and had some great moments, I cannot recommend it ultimately. 

Go Set a Watchman

US cover of Go Set a Watchman.jpg
US cover of Go Set a Watchman” by Source (WP:NFCC#4).
Licensed under <a href="; title="Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Go Set a Watchman“>Fair use via Wikipedia.

I finished Go Set a Watchman the other night.  Essentially I sat up in bed and started crying.  At times (some might say all the time), I can be a rather sensitive creature, so an emotional reaction is not unusual for me, but the book actually made me upset, which is fairly unusual.

If you like gritty fiction, you might appreciate this sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.  You might find Scout’s visit home to be an interesting study of her childhood, a revisit to the familiar setting of Maycomb from about twenty years later.  Certainly, there is something probably everyone can relate to in her struggle to recognize the family she remembers in the family she has now – and that includes Atticus.  For Scout, however, this conflict encompasses not simply personal differences, the common result of growing up, but it challenges the very thing that has given her courage and molded her conscience: that she’s always followed her father’s example.

As an unabashed, idealist Romantic myself, I came to regret that this book had been published.  It almost ruined for me the beautiful story that is TKAM, through its themes of lost ideals, childhood illusion, and a whole lot of cussing.  I find it hard to believe that Scout was a naive child, and this book doesn’t convince me that that must have been the case.  It does read as a very personal account, so maybe Lee did draw from her own experiences.  I don’t know.

I gave TKAM 4 stars; I give this one 2 out of 5.

One thing I will just mention is that this story is absolutely possible, even credible.  I’m not really questioning that.  And obviously, for a book to be upsetting, it must have a grain of effectiveness.  To me it is still a poor sequel because it neither comes across as a natural consequence of TKAM nor does it persuade me that everything in TKAM was just a kid’s daydream.  I think that is because TKAM was written second…in that sense, really, TKAM is the sequel to the struggle in this book.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic that still stands alone.  Time will tell if Go Set a Watchman ever catches up to it.

Four (more) short reviews

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
The Remains of the Day 
Kazuo Ishiguro
4 out of 5 stars
This award-winning novel is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who takes a road trip in the English countryside.  Though he attempts to keep a travelogue, he ends up reminiscing about his father, his friendship with housekeeper Miss Kenton, and his former employer’s role in the Inter-War/WWII era.

The book is pretty good, but I enjoyed the Anthony Hopkins film more.  His portrayal of Mr. Stevens is really moving, whereas book!Stevens is harder to like or understand.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Washington Irving
5 out of 5 stars
I knew the story already (from the Disney animated film), but it was a delight to read the original!  Ichabod is a rather egotistical, materialistic guy in the book, so one hardly feels sorry for him.
A Passage to India
E. M. Forster
 2 out of 5 stars
This book was really well-written, with some interesting depictions of the British Raj, but that’s about it.  I didn’t like the characters much, including but not limited to Mrs. Moore.  (By comparison, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a lot deeper and more vague, yet somehow easier to understand.) I’m not exactly sure what was the point of A Passage to India, although as an illustration it is ok.
Kafka’s Selected Shorter Writings
 5 out of 5 stars

This is a nice read for Kafka fans or readers who just want to sample his work.  The stories are very short (in fact, I believe the Gatekeeper story is an excerpt from The Trial).  Recommended if you have a half-hour to spare!