Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Yah-h-h-h!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

Netherland — Joseph O’Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a puzzling novel whose comparisons to The Great Gatsby aren’t warranted; although the two share some superficial themes in the sense of making America, their dissimilar narrative structure separates them: in Netherland, the protagonist is the story, while in Gatsby the eponymous quasi-hero is always kept a level of remove from the reader. At a sufficient level of abstraction, the novels are comparable, much as a grapefruit and a pie are both foods, but in going too far toward generalities one loses the particulars upholding those generalities. One becomes the literary equivalent of an architecture astronaut.

Another qualification: “puzzling” is not necessarily a slander—Ulysses puzzled the first time through, and a novel that starts in confusion might end in brilliant harmony, like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. For Netherland, it connotes my uncertainty about how to evaluate a book so perilously treading the narrow path between profundity and random observation that I can’t ascertain which side it strays toward. This might be its great virtue. Unlike, say, Sleepless Nights, it is coherent; but unlike, say, The Name of the Rose, it doesn’t wear many of its meanings on its sleeves. When Netherland does, it is least successful, and within that least successful field is Rachel; she says, for example, “Darling, I’ve got to move on. You’ve got to move on. We can’t go on like this, waiting for something to happen.” She speaks in cliché when she’s not speaking in armchair psychologist.

This is especially problematic because Rachel is the primary female character in Netherland. She’s married to Hans. They have a son. Theirs are issues of marriage and family, and in another instance of separation from Gatsby, that novel’s hero has the concerns of adolescence: the yearning for the unavailable girl, the creation of identity via effort to make one’s self greater through bravado and material possessions, and the endless chase. Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel.

At one point, Rachel tells Hans:

“You were just happy to play with [Chuck]. Same thing with America. You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.”
My reaction to her remark is to think, Look beneath Chuck’s surface? For what?

The dialog not involving Rachel is usually much better than this and sometimes very good, but Rachel does bring out O’Neill’s tendency to play with Big Themes explicitly, which is an unfortunate trait in a book often much more subtle than this. Hans observes this, but the observation and self-knowledge doesn’t excuse the habit any more, if it ever did.

Later on, Hans recalls the sensation of staring at the sky as a boy, and in simple language conveys the mystery of existence and pondering existence, creating a powerful moment in sharp contrast to Rachel’s eye-rolling. Dropping from story into philosophy is another separation from Gatsby, which doesn’t tend to have this strain between plot and ideas, perhaps because Nick isn’t as strong a personality as Hans and Gatsby focuses on the unattainable Daisy rather than the narrator.

Still, the persistence of the Gatsby allusions are notable, but the novel gets past them with ideas of its own, and some of its praise is not undeserved. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote:

Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories.

A large fictional achievement? Perhaps. Its academic and critical appeal is apparent from the subtle narrative shifts, as if the ground moves up or down a few degrees as you walk on it, the cultural intersections, and the frequent bouts of existential despair. Granted, I’m half-mocking such appeal, but I can see Netherland’s fit from the timeline shifts and the Big Ideas bursting forth in a way that comes perilously close to destroying the story vessel carrying them. Skepticism about conventional ideas, even once-unconventional ideas that have since become conventional, appears: a “shrink […] subscribed to the fine, progressive notion that each day we have lived is a kind of possession and, if we are its alert custodian, brings us ever closer to knowledge of the slipperiest kind.” Chuck Ramkissoon, a foreigner and sometime friend of Hans’, is a “Magic Negro” who acts as a liminar while becoming a repository for much of Hans’ musings about the nature of the world and success.

Their relationship is one of the central beams in Netherland, but not the only one. It differs from Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and Moby Dick, in that the first-person protagonist, rather than being drawn taunt between telling his own story and telling the story of the great man around him, is fundamentally the center of the novel’s universe. It also allows a narrator somewhat bigger than those of Ishmael or Carraway, which is a blessing and nurse. The discussion of big themes is calibrated at such a high plane that oxygen grows short, but that’s not to say that the novel isn’t full of amusing and witty comments, my favorite being “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” American college students prefer the same style. Hans says, “I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children.” Another line freights cricket with meaning:

I fell into that state of self-absorption that afflicts the waiting batsman as he studies the bowling for signs of cunning and untoward movement and, trying to recall what it means to be at bat, trying to make knowledge out of memory, replays in his mind bygone shots splendid and shaming.

Not only batsmen, Hans, and not only in cricket. The temptation to try and make further knowledge of this novel from the memory of my reading is strong but I will retire here, thinking that this is a novel whose flavor, like that of many chilis, is better the second time through.

Netherland — Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a puzzling novel whose comparisons to The Great Gatsby aren’t warranted; although the two share some superficial themes in the sense of making America, their dissimilar narrative structure separates them: in Netherland, the protagonist is the story, while in Gatsby the eponymous quasi-hero is always kept a level of remove from the reader. At a sufficient level of abstraction, the novels are comparable, much as a grapefruit and a pie are both foods, but in going too far toward generalities one loses the particulars upholding those generalities. One becomes the literary equivalent of an architecture astronaut.

Another qualification: “puzzling” is not necessarily a slander—Ulysses puzzled the first time through, and a novel that starts in confusion might end in brilliant harmony, like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. For Netherland, it connotes my uncertainty about how to evaluate a book so perilously treading the narrow path between profundity and random observation that I can’t ascertain which side it strays toward. This might be its great virtue. Unlike, say, Sleepless Nights, it is coherent; but unlike, say, The Name of the Rose, it doesn’t wear many of its meanings on its sleeves. When Netherland does, it is least successful, and within that least successful field is Rachel; she says, for example, “Darling, I’ve got to move on. You’ve got to move on. We can’t go on like this, waiting for something to happen.” She speaks in cliché when she’s not speaking in armchair psychologist.

This is especially problematic because Rachel is the primary female character in Netherland. She’s married to Hans. They have a son. Theirs are issues of marriage and family, and in another instance of separation from Gatsby, that novel’s hero has the concerns of adolescence: the yearning for the unavailable girl, the creation of identity via effort to make one’s self greater through bravado and material possessions, and the endless chase. Hans is a family man and a more active character than Nick Carraway—while the latter functions chiefly as a reporter and is the conduit through which Gatsby flows, Hans is a stronger character in his own right and imprints more of his personality and views on events. Granted, that personality is most often dour and depressed, but it is unmediated by another character. Rachel, although more independent than, say, Daisy, nonetheless shares Daisy’s flatness, and both reify Leslie Fiedler’s argument regarding the juvenile male character of American literature, made in Love and Death in the American Novel.

At one point, Rachel tells Hans:

“You were just happy to play with [Chuck]. Same thing with America. You’re like a child. You don’t look beneath the surface.”
My reaction to her remark is to think, Look beneath Chuck’s surface? For what?

The dialog not involving Rachel is usually much better than this and sometimes very good, but Rachel does bring out O’Neill’s tendency to play with Big Themes explicitly, which is an unfortunate trait in a book often much more subtle than this. Hans observes this, but the observation and self-knowledge doesn’t excuse the habit any more, if it ever did.

Later on, Hans recalls the sensation of staring at the sky as a boy, and in simple language conveys the mystery of existence and pondering existence, creating a powerful moment in sharp contrast to Rachel’s eye-rolling. Dropping from story into philosophy is another separation from Gatsby, which doesn’t tend to have this strain between plot and ideas, perhaps because Nick isn’t as strong a personality as Hans and Gatsby focuses on the unattainable Daisy rather than the narrator.

Still, the persistence of the Gatsby allusions are notable, but the novel gets past them with ideas of its own, and some of its praise is not undeserved. In the New Yorker, James Wood wrote:

Despite cricket’s seeming irrelevance to America, the game makes his exquisitely written novel “Netherland” (Pantheon; $23.95) a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read. Cricket, like every sport, is an activity and the dream of an activity, badged with random ideals, aspirations, and memories.

A large fictional achievement? Perhaps. Its academic and critical appeal is apparent from the subtle narrative shifts, as if the ground moves up or down a few degrees as you walk on it, the cultural intersections, and the frequent bouts of existential despair. Granted, I’m half-mocking such appeal, but I can see Netherland’s fit from the timeline shifts and the Big Ideas bursting forth in a way that comes perilously close to destroying the story vessel carrying them. Skepticism about conventional ideas, even once-unconventional ideas that have since become conventional, appears: a “shrink […] subscribed to the fine, progressive notion that each day we have lived is a kind of possession and, if we are its alert custodian, brings us ever closer to knowledge of the slipperiest kind.” Chuck Ramkissoon, a foreigner and sometime friend of Hans’, is a “Magic Negro” who acts as a liminar while becoming a repository for much of Hans’ musings about the nature of the world and success.

Their relationship is one of the central beams in Netherland, but not the only one. It differs from Gatsby, All the King’s Men, and Moby Dick, in that the first-person protagonist, rather than being drawn taunt between telling his own story and telling the story of the great man around him, is fundamentally the center of the novel’s universe. It also allows a narrator somewhat bigger than those of Ishmael or Carraway, which is a blessing and nurse. The discussion of big themes is calibrated at such a high plane that oxygen grows short, but that’s not to say that the novel isn’t full of amusing and witty comments, my favorite being “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” American college students prefer the same style. Hans says, “I was young. I was not much extracted from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent world conspires to place us as children.” Another line freights cricket with meaning:

I fell into that state of self-absorption that afflicts the waiting batsman as he studies the bowling for signs of cunning and untoward movement and, trying to recall what it means to be at bat, trying to make knowledge out of memory, replays in his mind bygone shots splendid and shaming.

Not only batsmen, Hans, and not only in cricket. The temptation to try and make further knowledge of this novel from the memory of my reading is strong but I will retire here, thinking that this is a novel whose flavor, like that of many chilis, is better the second time through.

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