The Jazz Age and the modern age aren’t so different
Did F. Scott Fitzgerald foresee the rise of social media? Maybe not in a literal sense. But it would be a challenge to find a writer of any age who so cannily depicts the preening, vanity, attention-seeking, beauty obsessions, superficial connections, and empty self-validation that are synonymous with the online experience of our day. An author who wrote a hundred years ago has as much to say as Ben Mezrich, Jia Tolentino, Dave Eggers, and other journalists and fiction writers who today train their sights on such pathologies.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
So it seems fitting that 2022 is shaping up as a big year for the author of the novels This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Last Tycoon, and such short stories as “Winter Dreams,” “The Ice Palace,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Rich Boy,” “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” among many others.
Just weeks after the Library of America put out a new volume of Fitzgerald featuring The Great Gatsby along with short stories ranging from canonical to obscure, Japan’s most famous living author, Haruki Murakami, gave an interview to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in which he spoke at length of his ardor for this American writer. Murakami has translated a number of Fitzgerald’s works, and his Japanese edition of the unfinished The Last Tycoon came out in April. In the interview, Murakami shares his view that if Fitzgerald had gotten around to finishing The Last Tycoon, it would stand as one of the greatest novels in America’s canon.
What is the nature of Fitzgerald’s appeal for a contemporary Japanese writer? That may be a more fitting topic for a dissertation than for a short online piece. Put simply, Murakami likes to explore distance in relationships and the trap of superficial and largely meaningless bonds and interactions between people, and stories like “Scheherazade” and “Nausea 1979” help give you an idea of why Fitzgerald’s work speaks to Murakami. The Great Gatsby and many of the shorter pieces in the new Library of America volume are also about a society rife with connections based on just about anything other than friendship or love as traditionally defined.
Fitzgerald, Then and Now
As I have noted elsewhere, the protagonist of The Last Tycoon, Monroe Stahr, is a dead ringer not only for a famed producer of Fitzgerald’s age, MGM head Irving Thalberg, but for one of our own time, disgraced mogul and convicted felon Harvey Weinstein. Stahr fixates on that fleeting quality, beauty, to an unhealthy degree. No doubt the parallel is not lost on Murakami.
Some novels hold up to rereading better than others. The quality of the prose in Gatsby runs circles around that of other works you may have had to read in high school. But what will really strike you is the novel’s prescience. Fitzgerald has captured the neuroses of 2022 and recent years. Early in the novel, the narrator, Nick Carraway, lists at length all the socialites who turn up for parties at Jay Gatsby’s Long Island estate, and gives accounts of the dancing, singing, drinking, and carousing at those bashes. Lavish does not do justice to these events and you can expect anyone who’s anyone to show up.
Contrast the early scenes, where Gatsby’s estate is overrun with partiers, with a scene late in the novel. Only a tiny handful of people show up for his funeral. You do have to wonder just how many of the folks at those parties had any kind of real attachment to or even acquaintance with Gatsby. Fitzgerald predicts nothing so much as the online experience to which we have grown so inured, where you may well wonder how many of a user’s 1,000 or 1,500 friends he or she knows or has any sense of as a person. Has the user ever met a tenth of these “friends” or exchanged a single text? Sure hope none of them is a Russian spy, disgruntled ex-colleague, or spurned lover using a fake account. You just never know.
Apart from getting to know Gatsby again, one of the pleasures of the new Library of America edition is that it presents many stories that even those of us who have read and enjoyed Fitzgerald’s novels may never had heard of. Given the decision to go this route, the lack of an introduction offering context and analysis is a bit disappointing. But if you have never read stories like “The Third Casket,” “The Baby Party,” “Absolution,” “Gretchen’s Forty Winks,” “The Rich Boy,” “The Popular Girl,” “The Dance,” “Hot and Cold Blood,” “Love in the Night,” “A Penny Spent,” and other obscurer works in the Fitzgerald oeuvre, many hours of discovery await you.
It is not possible to sum up nearly all of these tales, but the thematic continuity on display here is striking. With few exceptions, they throw into relief the pain and awkwardness of trying to interact socially out of a sense that it is what people do, rather than an interest in others. “The Baby Party” is a darkly hilarious yarn about a bunch of young couples, eager and striving and insecure about their status, who get together to watch their tiny children play and, who knows, maybe start friendships.
When a couple of the babies get in a tussle, it nearly brings the parents to blows. They are quick to side with their own child and demonize the other as the aggressor, to say nothing of the horrible parents of that ill-bred little demon. The reader senses that in their fevered and grasping minds, affirmation of where they have ended up life requires recognizing that the baby that their genes produced is in the right in the quarrel that has broken out. These adults don’t really know each other and the supposed friendship that inspired the baby party is a play-act poisoned by their vanity.
It is hard to resist pointing out that Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes” is pretty much the same story as “The Baby Party.” Two adults get into a fistfight over a dispute about what one son did with the other kid’s bike.
In “Hot and Cold Blood,” a protagonist who has grown so tired of the mooching habits of people in his professional circles refuses a favor to a man who shows up one day with a claim to have known his father and now to be in desperate straits. The protagonist made those earlier loans when angling for professional advantage, but now, when there is a credible motive for helping an acquaintance of his late father, the spigot of his generosity has run dry. One of the more obvious stories in the new volume, “Hot and Cold Blood” nonetheless has the charm, comprised of whimsy and sadness, of an S.J. Perelman sketch.
“The Third Casket” is about the chief executive of a firm who, knowing that he won’t hold the reins forever, looks to three sons of his college friends as potential successors. He will pick only one of the three. After they come to work at the firm, he cannot decide who performs the best, so he changes tack and tells them to take three months off. The one who pursues leisure in a way most congenial to the retiring exec’s sensibilities gets the job. One goes on a vacation in Europe, and another opts for high-minded philanthropy, but in the end (spoiler!), it is the candidate who “fails”—staying on the job long after his physical and mental health require a rest—who wins the old man’s favor.
In other words, not having a life outside work, and being incapable of envisioning one, best position you for the role in a society that has sacrificed the community of social beings to a bloodless, profit-driven calculus.
Fitzgerald’s prescience takes myriad forms. If Haruki Murakami translates this story into Japanese, maybe it will help force a reckoning with his country’s epidemic of karoshi, or death and suicide from job-related stress.
As Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night, “Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure.”