fridgepunk: (Exoticising the otter)
[personal profile] fridgepunk
I read Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale about 6 months ago and have been trying to read various more "literary" books, in part to find other sources of good prose, Atwood's good writing having made reading my usual supply of SF like eating stale rice cakes.

So I start a few books, and can't finish them because I kept finding weird ones like Steinbeck's East of Eden where you get an entire novel into the book and the actual story still hasn't started, and in East of Eden I might have continued on if, after getting the novel worth of backstory of two brothers, Steinbeck hadn't proceeded to start telling the backstory of a female character.

Said female character's only character trait being that she's a manipulative, amoral monster, which is bad. Note however that in the preceding tale of the two brothers, one of them is also an amoral monster, but a more physical and introverted one rather than a socially manipulative one, and he at one point even nearly murders his brother with an axe over fuck all, but he's presented as just a gruff man and so having violent rage attacks is just a (well, his only) character quirk and thus renders him morally neutral; Like a tornado or flashflood. Meanwhile the female character is presented in a much more negative light for doing milder stuff.

The prose was nice but the multiple levels on which it others women made me just decide it wasn't worth my time, a common response I'm having to supposedly "serious" literary fiction. Not least because 90% of the books I keep finding appear to be terribly written romance fiction aimed at literature professors, all of which are specifically about a middle aged academic having an affair with a much younger woman. I think the problem with Literature is, unlike the other main genres of fiction, that the tiny and ultra-narrow demographic the writing is aimed at has, like in "christian literature", led to most of the actual books in that genre being terrible simply because none of the writers have sufficient competition that they really have to bother putting engaging stories or interesting characters in their books. Instead, more often than not, it's crap where the writer has just focused on pandering to their audiences ultra-specific prejudices and weird fetishes.

Tender is the Night of course is notable in that the author, who may be familiar from his earlier book "The Great Gatsby", did tell people that this book was a "romance", because it mostly follows the relationships between the unfortunately named Dick Diver, his supposedly schizophrenic and incredibly rich wife Nicole Warren, and a young movie starlet called Rosemary Hoyt.

Dick Diver is a psychologist, unfortunately this is a book written during the interwar period and the reader is doubly-unfortunate because Fitzgerald did his research, and thus the psychology presented to the reader is almost comically Freudian.

Thus Nicole Warren's schizophrenia is given a clear cause at the very start of the book when her father explains, to the clinic doctor who he's handing Nicole over to, how after her mother died he and Nicole became close and prone to holding hands in public, which obviously leads to him having sex with her and thus giving her schizophrenia and not via syphilis or anything - this is pure woo from what's now known as the psychodynamic school of psychology; Incestuous molestation as a child, therefore paranoid schizophrenia.

Fortunately contact with Dick Diver via letters between Nicole and him, as he fights on the western front during ww1, leads to her schizophrenia going into remission. So much so that after the war when Dick takes up a position working at the clinic as a psychologist, it is not long before Nicole is able to be discharged, and Dick oh so bravely makes the decision to cut off ties with her, both because she is infatuated with him, but worse; because he totally reciprocates that love! Calvin and Freud, together at last!

Professional ethics fall immediately out the window after Dick bumps into her again while going up an alpine mountain so he can cycle down it... and this is where I found myself somewhat committed to the book, because while the prose is nice, it's not that amazing, and then from a book written during the interwar period by the author of the great gatsby, we get Skiffy grade exposition on the working of a mountain tram, henceforth known as a "mountain-climbing car":

Mountain-climbing cars are built on a slant similar to the angle of a hat-brim of a man who doesn't want to be recognized. As water gushed from the chamber under the car, Dick was impressed with the ingenuity of the whole idea - a complementary car was now taking on mountain water as the top and would pull the lightened car up by gravity, as soon as the brakes were released. It must have been a great inspiration. In the seat across, a couple of British were discussing the cable itself.
'The ones made in England always last five or six years. Two years ago the Germans underbid us, and how long do you think their cable lasted?'
'How long?'
'A year and ten months. Then the Swiss sold it to the Italians. They don't have rigid inspections of cables.'
'I can see it would be a terrible thing for switzerland if a cable broke.'

It turns out on the next page that Nicole and some young male admirers of hers are in the car too, and in a couple of pages, after Dick has ridden down a mountain alone, there will be a jump forward to Dick and Nicole having gotten married and taking their kids down to the riviera on holiday - apparently a side effect of the original format, in which the beginning of this book was really something that was told in flashback much later on, which quite rightly caused people to call bullshit, as anyone should if they are presented with the answer "yes they will, and have 2 children" only to have it FOLLOWED UP BY the question; "Will they or won't they?"

Of course, even as the copy I have is, there's not much doubt they will, as Dick is such a ridiculous gary stue that of course he's gonna marry the incredibly moe rich heiress with occasionally diminished mental responsibility, much beloved as he is by everyone who meets him for vague traits that we're only ever told about. If judged by the stuff we see him do on the page, he comes across more as an introverted and shy chronic mumbler than the crowd pleasing rake that the version of him other people in the book constantly inform him that he is.

Which wouldn't be a problem unless the author is aiming to have him slowly degenerate into a drunken introverted and chronic mumbler during the second half of the book. In which case the major difference would be everyone in the world slowly realising he's the same person that the reader's been putting up with for the past two-hundred or so pages and the book starts to become hard to read as the not particularly likeable character just gets more and more belligerent and mopey at this strange new world that no longer tells him his shit don't stink.

But before that we need to introduce the third node of the love triangle, in form of the young american up and coming silent movie starlet Rosemary Hoyt, who totally wants The Dick.

Rosemary is really likeable, and in the relationship between her and Nicole there's a very human interactions rather than the sort of catty bullshit you might expect given that they're antagonistic points on a love triangle, but both are decent people and comes across as nice and well meaning. Though make no mistake; This book is literally Dick-centric and does not pass the bechdel test, buuuut having nice female characters actually talk with each other and the male characters puts it head and shoulders above most SF I've read, and the female cast isn't limited to just these two, the others are however supposed to be flawed people in various ways and thus not as nice. But their flaws are human ones and presented as such, rather than the narrative all but going "tch! Women!" anytime a person fucks up.

Rosemary also briefly gives us a glimpse at her mother, who is also her agent and closest confidante and based as fuck.
It is too Rosemary's mother that Rosemary first talks about falling in love with Dick, and whether she should do anything about it, especially as she loves Nicole and would hate to hurt Nicole or for Nicole to hate her.

And this is one of the things that I kinda love about this book that was written in the frigging 1930s; A woman wants to do someone, she goes to another woman for advice and to be told what to do and that woman tells her to trust her own judgment because she's old enough to make her own choices, and it's all perfectly organic rather than some bloody biological derterminist thing for both women.

The best thing: Rosemary isn't punished for deciding to go Dick diving. Indeed, you know how I mentioned that Dick degenerates as the book goes on? Well part of the character arc for Dick and Nicole is that as Dick degenerates and leans more on Nicole, Nicole in turn gains more agency and comes out from under Dick's wing. And I'm not just gushing because that's the exact opposite character arc for the majority of modern "strong female character".

However, it's still not a good book or story - I've been leaning heavily on the romance at the core of the book, but that maybe takes up 150 to 200 pages of this 300 odd book, the other hundred pages are this weird stream of interludes and what I assume are real life anecdotes Fitzpatrick tossed in with the names changed to protect the guilty just to pad out the book.

Like at one point there this long build up to a pistol duel between what I think is hinted at as being the significant other of a flamboyantly gay friend of Dick, and this random french guy. And this weird drunken interlude in which an american friend of Dick's with a drinking problem, accidentally sets off a lynch mob against a black guy because he mistakes him for another black guy who Dick's friend, being drunk, manages to confuse, and then all three of these guys just show up at a hotel which Dick, Nicole AND Rosemary are staying at and interrupt a fairly tense scene to retell their goofy story.

And then somehow after Dick has gotten all three of the guys out of their hotel, one of the black guys manages to sneak back into Rosemary's bedroom, which happens to be right next to where another tense scene is happening so he can be VERY QUIETLY be shot to death and thus cause the scene that was actually going somewhere to become a completely different scene of Dick asking the hotel manager to cover up that the guy was shot in Rosemary's room and help Dick move the body into another room to avoid a scandal.

Ex Nihil, Exeunt Nihil.

Fitzgerald's prose is often times tight and masterful - for much of the early part of the book he balances when to show and when to tell really well, making for a smooth and easy read, even as he skips a month here, or a few years there, in the blink of a sentence, without it seeming as jarring as it should be. At least at first. Where it fails utterly is when he forgets to inform the reader of key elements or events of scenes, like this one part, after Nicole starts to have a relapse due to suspecting that Dick and Rosemary are having an affair, and the family of Dick, Nicole and their kids are driving down a country road to a hotel, the reader is told that Dick loses control of the car. A crash is then described to us, and only once everything comes to a halt in a bush, does the narrator decide to inform us that Nicole basically grabbed the steering wheel and caused the crash.

I can't really recommend it, it's flaws are terrible, and it's pros can be found in other books without the flaws or at least much better flaws than this one has.

But I did like the writer's style, and having not read the Great Gatsby I'm enthused to want to read it now, whereas before it was merely one of those "must read" novels that I didn't really have any reason to read other than societal peer pressure.
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