F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender is the Night

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The same warning signs that told me Frog Music is an abomination appear again. The first sentence is stiff. We spend a whole page setting a scene, but the atmosphere isn’t interesting. I know France is an exotic, exciting place. This cliche was boring the first time I read it. Characters appear, and we get their visual descriptions first of all. There is no reason to picture a character in one’s mind if you haven’t given a reason to care about them.

A little later we meet more people. We’re told who’s unpleasant and who’s not. What separates the Divers from the rest isn’t very clear. Dick wears a hat, that was clear. Other than that, Rosemary just tells us how amazing and cool and fantastic they are and how she loves him. It’s another romance where people fall in love at the first sight.

Maybe if Rosemary was developed, I could connect this odd behavior to something. There is something with her mother, but Rosemary’s main role is to be a nail in Dick’s coffin, and to tell us how great he is. Her arc isn’t resolved. She vanishes when Dick decides so. It’s okay to have characters whose main purpose to help push the protagonist somewhere, but even side characters are people. When they act odd, we’ll want an explaination.

From here on out Tender is the Night is a predictible ‘literary’ failure. The main character hits the bottom with alcohol. There are a lot of psedo-philosophical passages trying to explain the relationships between the characters using sentences that are much longer than this one. It’s like The Golden Notebook, with weaker prose and less imagination. There is a lot of telling how the characters feel. You will also be told, over and over, how exciting, exotic and foreign France and Italy are.

I read this story of a rich man going down his spiral with a glass of whiskey before. It was called Appointment in Samarra. It was just as shallow, but O’Hara didn’t cover up his story with such stiff writing.

I wish I could find a reason why Dick reached the bottom of his spiral. I know why the protagonist hit the bottom in that Nine Inch Nails album, and it’s not even marketed as a rock opera. If Reznor can use a few lines to make us understand the downfall of a man, why can’t Fitzgerald?

There is a bit of a Jesus complex here. Dick is a man obsessed with saving people, especially women. This brings me back to my virtual days. Only, when I wanted so much to have heart-to-heart conversations with girls and help them with their issues it was because I wanted the same, or that I wanted power. I won’t start to self-psychoanalyze, but I could connect this ‘wanting to save people’ to a few inner attributes. Good superhero stories also relate this desire to save people to some inner struggle of the characer.

Throughout the book I kept waiting to see what was Dick’s flaw. I waited for the chink in his armor, the same one that made characters like Max Cohen so great and fascinating. I couldn’t find it. Again, it may be the drinking, but that’s external.

It’s hard to be emotionally invested in a man falling down for no reason. It’s sad, sure, but how do you relate or connect to it? A man falling down is no different than a stone falling down. They’re both objects trapped in Earth’s gravity. Humans tend to have much interesting reasons for falling down than rocks, but you wouldn’t know it in Tender is the Night.

” “He’s a spic!”, he said. He was frantic with jealousy. He didn’t want to be hurt again.”

I don’t even know what spic means, but I could tell from the context of the conversation that it’s not synonymous with “The guy makes me wish I was a homosexual”. This is how you show a person is ‘frantic with jealousy’. Why was that extra line necessary? Nowhere in the book it’s implied that Dick is a masochist, so telling me he didn’t want to be hurt again is like telling me there’s nothing wrong with his digestive system.

“He left a call for noon, stripped off his clothes and dove literally into a heavy sleep.”

What is the word ‘literary’ doing there? How do you ‘dive’ metaphorically? After all, diving is either plunging into water or to fall head down through the air. It’s like saying ‘he literally bit the steak’. It’s an extra word, like a lot of words.

That’s the biggest problem with the novel. It has a lot of words and complex sentences, but none of them lead anywhere. It’s a rambling novel, but its ramblings are closer to King’s Cujo than Catcher in the Rye or any Paul Auster novel. Fitzgerald’s crazy relationship with Zelda is always brought into the disucssion, but it doesn’t give new insight to the novel. It explains why it’s so bad.

Catcher in the Rye and Something Happened felt like they came from deep pain, but they trapped you in the character’s heads and made you feel what they feel. They weren’t written to tell a clear story but to tell you what it feels like. Tender is the Night tries too hard to tell a steady story, but its writing style is the ramblings of a depressed.

Depression rarely produces coherent pieces. It can produce emotionally powerful ones, but music albums like Saturday Night Wrist take advantage of the messiness. Tender is the Night tries to find order in something chaothic, and all it does is make the chaos lose its meaning. It refuses to speak with it on its own terms. It’s a conversation where the people speak in different langauges, only without the humor.

1.5 psychologists out of 5

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Saul Bellow – Herzog

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Feminists got it wrong with the whole ‘strong female character’ thing. Anyone who talked a little about fiction should know that by now. What’s more puzzling is how they got that idea in the first place. When they obsess over the strength of female characters, what are the example of male characters they wish to emulate?

Herzog belongs to the line of books that trap you inside the character’s head. It’s less of a story than a psychoanalysis of a character, which you probably already read in Pornoy’s Complaint and Catcher in the Rye. Like in those novels, a lot of effort is put into developing the main character. Also like these novel, the character is far from strong, independent and beautiful. He’s a wreck. He’s self-destructive. He’s a joke. Like the best characters, we’re encouraged to explore Herzog, not to wish to be with him.

That’s the key to making a great character. Good characters are not ones we wish to be, but ones who have an interesting psychology we want to explore. It’s easy to make a strong, independent women. All you’re actually making is a Clay Golem from Diablo II. Attempting a character like Moses is a harder and more rewarding effort. It’s not a wonder this style gave birth to a lot of acclaimed novels.

Herzog is weaker than those novels though. Bellow is talented, and the writing flows so smoothy it was jarring at first, considering I read Frog Music before it. Bellow has the skills to make enjoyable prose, but he doesn’t use it enough. He fails in the same way that other Jew failed, Bernard Malamud.

Paul Auster saw what was wrong and fixed it. A rambling style is fine. It could even lead to a great work, even if it’s difficult. This style works when all of the ramblings comes clearly from the character’s head. Everything the character says, then, reveals something about it. Even repetition, or copy-pasting paragraphs can have its purpose. The repetition of Something Happened is annoying, but it does wonders to build its character.

Bellow’s ramblings often seem to be outtakes from his essay collection. I understand Bellow was pretty prolific and had a lot to say. If you can’t say it via literary means, then maybe this fiction thing is not for you. Too often there are whole paragraphs which lose contact with the story. It’s not just when the letters Moses writes to others that these paragraphs appear. The novel is written in third person, which may make you want to take drugs. Any character study must be in first-person, because the third-person creates too much distance. When these snippets of essays appear in the mouth of the third-person narrator, the brain turns itself off.

The reason for this is because these snippets are pretty meaningless. There are people who think philosophy is pure bullshit and not worth anyone’s time. These people should have their rights revoked. Reading Herzog, though, you just might think these people may be on to something. What does a phrase like “the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization”? It’s a great Marilyn Manson song title, but its meaning is lost. Philosophy should use jargon only when it makes the writing more clear. Piling a lot of big words is a way to cover up the lack of ideas.

Worse, there isn’t any lack to cover up. As a satire of the intellectual, Herzog is pretty good. Bellow is too slack on him, though. As a person that this book makes fun of, I wish I had such a great sex life. Intellectuals are often criticized for not being able to experience life. Yet, Moses is a bit of a pick-up artist.

This is a theme ripe for exploration. Intellectualism, the desire to know shouldn’t distance us from life but to bring us closer. Yet you could easily find yourself reading too much instead of going out to see the weather has changed. Moses can’t enjoy a house out on the country, surrounded by green scenary, animals and quiet.

This intellectualism can easily wreck your relationships with other people. Spend too much time in heavy thinking, and you can become self-absorbed. We should gather new ideas and experiences not just from great dead authors, but with people who we can interact with. Bellow understands that too many books and you forget how to interact with a human being. Moses is a person stuck in his own world of ideas who can’t reach out to others. This causes wrecked relationships and with bad people, sometimes at the same. The reason he chose Madeleine was because of what it said about him. He managed to get a beautiful, intelligent women. Yet, he couldn’t see she was also not right in the head.

If Moses is such a social wreck, how could he have all these affairs? Intelligence is not sexy. Having a lot of sex is always a good thing. It’s a sign you’re well-adjusted socially. Perhaps this was written before people understood that anyone who preached to you how awful sex is was afraid to admit he wasn’t getting any.

There is a great author buried in here, but Herzog is too indulgent. The book fails exactly where its main character fails. It’s too self-absorbed, afraid to reach out to others (in this case, it’s afraid to reach out to its main character) There are wish-fulfillment fantasies and incoherent paragraphs. It doesn’t reach out enough for the reader. Like Moses, though, when it does it’s great. Moses is less coherent than Portnoy or Caulfield, but he’s an enjoyable pinata. Bellow is a good enough writer to not let the pen get away with him too much. Despite the occasional pointless paragraph and weird sexuality, Herzog is a good satire of intellectualism. It’s a must-read for anyone who reads a lot. We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

3 Jews out of 5