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Monday, 20 February 2017

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like many people, I read The Great Gatsby as a set text for my classes in English. And while it didn't have the impact on me that books like The Outsider, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. So, while browsing the shelves at the independent bookshop that has parted me from more of my money than I would like to admit, I noticed a book that combined F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seemed like a good way to look into more of his works. Plus, I have a fondness for the Roaring Twenties, so what could go wrong?

This Side of Paradise follows Amory Blaine, the only son of wealthy parents, from his early adolescence to young adulthood, a period of time that covers his time at Princeton, fighting in the First World War, and several love affairs with beautiful but unattainable women.
If you're a dedicated reader of any kind, it sometimes occurs that you are hit with the unassailable certainty that you are reading the first piece of long-form writing that the author has published. Oftentimes this is due to some part of the construction being noticeably unpolished, and after a lot of practice I have found that the feeling is very rarely wrong. It was certainly on the money with This Side of Paradise.
Normally I would split the critique of plot and character, but since there is no plot beyond "How is Amory developing as a character?" it feels redundant splitting the two elements, as I would ultimately be parroting back the same issues with both. My issues with Amory then. Despite reading about almost nothing but him and his personality for over 200 pages, I don't think that there is much to actually pin down about him besides the impressively hard-wired traits intellectual arrogance and fay selfishness. The narrative desperately wants you to think that he is brilliant but flawed, but quite honestly there is so little human warmth in him that all of his poetic ambitions seem hilariously out-of-touch considering that you need to be able to feel things in order to express them. Honestly, it feels kind of embarrassing having Amory as a lead character, as he doesn't seem to have either the drive to do the great things that he sort of assumes that he will inevitably achieve or the emotional range to be quite the ladykiller that he proves to be. The nagging feeling that Amory was based on Fitzgerald himself somehow just makes this worse. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that I've found an author stand-in character that actually works.
So, despite the emotional lack of depth and the plot that gets less and less defined the more Amory puts off making actual adult decisions, I would say that there is something that prevents This Side of Paradise from being a complete waste. The actual writing itself. While there are long stretches where it does little more than adequately depict the events of the book, you do get flashes of really interesting writing that makes you realise why people really loved this book when it was first published. It's things like changing the format from prose to script for certain romantic sections, or a particularly striking line of prose, and you get that whoever wrote This Side of Paradise is going places, even if he isn't there yet.

This Side of Paradise is quite obvious as a first novel as you read it. The act of following Amory Blaine is an effort that doesn't really pay off, as the plot can only be interesting when he actually has some kind of direction in life, which is seldom. There are moments of brilliance in the writing though, so some definite promise to save it from being a totally wasted effort. 3/5

Next review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Around the Moon by Jules Verne

So last time I was looking at From the Earth to the Moon and found myself pleasantly surprised despite the dodgy 19th century science. Presumably then I would be similarly taken with its direct sequel, Around the Moon, right? Yeah, about that.... 

Around the Moon follows Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan as they journey to the moon in their projectile. All seems well, until they realise that they have been knocked off course and may miss the moon entirely. 
As a lot of my previous review covers suspension of disbelief, I will quickly address how Around the Moon compares in that regard. It is so much worse. While I could kind of wave away a lot of the previous installment with the sentiment that the principle is more or less sound, when almost the entire plot focuses around the characters noting down their observations of the moon, or what the 19th century thought the moon would be like, it is extremely difficult to ignore or wave all the ways that this is wrong. Like the point where they open a window in order to dispose of an animal carcass into the vacuum of space. It is points like that that make the suspension of disbelief so much more difficult this time around. If you can deal with imaginative departures from fact, then you may find this less distracting than I did. 
Now to the part that is special to Around the Moon when compared to its predecessor. The action, bar the last few chapters, all takes place within the confines of the projectile fired at the end of the previous installment. Now, when you have a story occur in entirely one place, your writing skills are pushed to the limit, especially if none of the characters can leave said place. There are two things that need to work near enough perfectly for such a situation to work: the pacing and the characters. To say that Verne dropped the ball may be an understatement. In regards to the pacing, it kind of settles on a slow trudge due to most of the action being the observation of the moon and space. There are a couple of points where the projectile is almost hit by asteroids, but there's nothing that the protagonists can do in the face of it, so it doesn't really stop the monotony of watching a huge deal. As such, the characters become even more important, and it couldn't have been a bigger catastrophe if it tried. Of the three main characters, two are flat caricatures of the practical American stereotype that Verne seems to love, and even their supposed intelligence is put to question considering that they only consider how they are meant to get back to Earth once they are well past the Earth's atmosphere. They are nothing compared to the irritation that is Ardan though. You know in some series you get those characters that are meant to be charmingly whimsical but end up being a vacant ninny infatuated with their own stupidity? Michel Ardan is that character. He keeps suggesting things that are blatantly ridiculous or dangerous for them to do whilst on the journey, only to moan that his travel companions are too practical and boring when they inevitably poke holes in his ideas. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that he would ignore them at the point where he wondered what it would be like to float along in the wake of the projectile. By all means Ardan, throw yourself into the icy vacuum of space, it will be the most use you've been all trip, especially after sneaking a flock of chickens on board for no real reason. 

While From the Earth to the Moon was a fun thought exercise where human ingenuity causes something amazing, Around the Moon was the space equivalent of setting out on a journey only to realise you only have fuel for a one-way trip and everyone left their money at home. Sorely disappointing. 1.5/5 

Next review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Signing off,