Do Fictional Critiques of the Wealthy Ever Really . . . Work?

Andrew Martin and Benjamin Nugent Discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald on His Birthday

Today, September 24th would have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 125th birthday. Though he died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 44, his work has had many afterlives, his reputation rising and falling with economic conditions and Baz Luhrmann adaptations. To mark this anniversary, Benjamin Nugent (author, most recently, of the linked story collection Fraternity) and Andrew Martin (whose latest is the collection Cool for America) discussed what Fitzgerald once meant, what he means now, and whether there is such a thing as effective anti-rich-person fiction.

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Benjamin Nugent: I was aware, reading The Great Gatsby at seventeen, that one of its central themes was fraudulence, but my response to the book was an act of fraudulence. I parted my hair in the middle and put on a fake plummy accent and bought some white button-down shirts and white khaki pants at the thrift store downtown and wore them all the time, and lied to everyone about what my family was like, pretending we were aristocrats in decline. “I work at Pizza Hut, how far we have fallen.” All of this would seem to be the opposite of the appropriate response to a book about the brutality and shallowness of the upper class.

Truffaut is supposed to have once said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film,” meaning that even when war movies depict horrors and crimes they glorify war by immersing the viewer in the perspectives of soldiers, dramatizing their valor and camaraderie. That was what Gatsby was like, for me. Nick Carraway avers that Tom and Daisy are members of a “rotten crowd”, but the novel left me with a powerful desire to join that crowd because it enabled me to see the houses, cars, clothing, and mannerisms of that crowd so clearly. The Fitzgerald-influenced novels that I sought out afterward, like Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero, which were also supposed to be critiques or skewerings, also had the effect of making me want in. Was that your experience?

Andrew Martin: Gatsby didn’t make me want in, in part because when I encountered Fitzgerald (and McInerney and many others in that tradition) I was going to a prep school down the road from Princeton, the Mecca of Fitzgeraldiana, where this kind of wealth and lifestyle was very much in evidence. As bewildered, bookish new money, I felt alienated from that world, and therefore superior to it. I wanted the drunken night at Tom’s mistress’s apartment (minus the misogynistic violence), and the drugs in Bright Lights, but I got a useful taste of how boring rich people can be fairly early on, and maybe that inoculated me a little bit from that particular angst. Well, maybe not totally.

I wanted the worldliness and cynicism that Fitzgerald’s rich characters have, and you need money for that, at least in his cosmology. It strikes me that Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, for example, are pretty effective anti-rich person novels, but maybe some people are attracted to that scene even if it means suffering from a debilitating junk habit and horrific abuse at the hands of your father?

BN: Yes, I was one of the people who would have cheerfully accepted incest, heroin addiction, and self-hatred as the price of admission. I think if the Patrick Melrose novels are effective anti-rich-person fiction it’s because St. Aubyn is interested in showing rich people being boring, not because he shows rich people doing terrible things. I can imagine Fitzgerald writing that one of his characters was a victim of forced incest in an old farmhouse in France, as Patrick Melrose was; Fitzgerald likes to rub rich people’s monstrousness against their beauty and thereby make sparks fly. But Fitzgerald wouldn’t write the scene in Bad News in which Ballantine Morgan asks a waiter at the Key Club to fetch his self-published book about his gun collection and treats Patrick Melrose to a long presentation. That moment is like something out of Wodehouse, whereas Fitzgerald and Wodehouse are oil and water. For Fitzgerald, rich people are deadly serious, Olympian. His prose style is good in part because it’s unhinged on the subject of the rich.

AM: Right, he’s definitely unhinged on the subject, but at times I think that unhingedness bleeds into the prose style, to the point that I’m not sure it’s good in the traditional sense. It’s certainly always alive though, in a way that the prose of some of his contemporaries (Sherwood Anderson, for example) is not. But I’m thinking of stories like “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a boy’s adventure tale/fever dream/parable, complete with 20th century slavery on a secret mountain in Montana and aerial warfare, in which the hero concludes “There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and the shabby gift of disillusionment. Well, I have that last and will make the usual nothing of it.”

Or the bloated morality play The Beautiful and Damned which, after chronicling many drunken parties, comes to essentially the same conclusion. (See also, the title.) Nick tells Gatsby he’s “better than the whole damn bunch of them put together,” but by then, Fitzgerald’s ambivalence is clear enough that even high school me learned what an unreliable narrator was. I think there’s always a touch of contempt, especially self-contempt, in Fitzgerald’s writing about the rich, even when he’s being melodramatic or bathetic, and I think that’s what saves it from seeming totally ridiculous. Or maybe it is totally ridiculous, but his intelligence about people in general makes me forgive his obsession with these particular, often objectively awful, people. I guess what I’m wondering is: can we still learn something important from a writer with such an occluded perspective?

BN: Yes, you can. The occlusion itself, the absurdity of his worldview, is part of what makes him interesting to read. Even his letters are interesting, for their absurdly occluded perspective. When Fitzgerald writes to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about the treatment his wife Zelda has received for her mental illness, he says, “The biggest man in Switzerland gave all his time to her—and saved her reason by a split second.” I find that sentence revealing and hilarious and inadvertently Wodehousian; it gets to something that sits at the core of Fitzgerald.

For one, he lets it be known that he hired the biggest shrink in Switzerland; for two, he appears to conceive of Zelda’s course of therapy as having had a kind of photo finish. The forces of madness are about to conquer Zelda’s reason irrevocably, when, by a split second, the biggest man in Switzerland, paid for by her heroic husband, beats them back and saves her. “The Biggest Man in Switzerland” should be the title of something. The key is to read everything Fitzgerald writes as if there were intentional dramatic irony.

AM: McSweeney’s did a project where writers produced stories based on unrealized ideas in Fitzgerald’s notebooks. Sam Lipsyte’s choice was the all-time great title “The Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks in England.” I bet he and the Biggest Man in Switzerland were friends.

Your note points to the fact that Fitzgerald was often at his best when writing about illness and dissipation. He knew alcoholism and exhaustion well, obviously, and despite the claims of that letter and all the money spent, couldn’t beat back Zelda’s mental illness. “The Crack-Up” and the fiction of that later era, especially “Babylon Revisited,” are the most elegant and restrained things he wrote. The exuberance is burned away. Even if he somehow still believed that money could solve the problems he’d caused for himself, it’s so obviously a false and empty hope that it does read, as you say, as intentional dramatic irony. (And I mean, are any great writers fully intentional with their dramatic irony, or do they just have a nose for its presence?)

One of my favorite later stories is “The Lost Decade,” in which an architect who’s been on a ten-year bender returns to New York sober for the first time. Suddenly he notices the specificity of the way the waiters in restaurants carry themselves. He reaches out and touches the side of a building he designed, registering its texture. He’s a tourist now in a city he only knew as a drunk. Fitzgerald in elegiac mode could lay it on thick, and even here there’s something of the old hack’s tendency towards hyperbole. But I also find it incredibly poignant. He can’t help but romanticize his fallen state in the world, but at least he admits to it and tries to reckon with it. Because he was obsessed with money, he was quite good on the nobility of being broke.

BN: “The Crack-Up” in interesting because Fitzgerald will say something and then in effect say, “Oh, wait, what I just said is ridiculous and false.” For example, he says, “Like most Middle Westerners, I have never had any but the vaguest race prejudices” and then goes on to confess, in the same paragraph, “This… strays afield from the fact that in these latter days I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers…” Of course his admission that he’s a bigot doesn’t do anything to absolve him, but I’m interested in that doubling back because he’s now capable of reading his own self-deluding statements for what they are, at least some of the time. That’s a moment I find poignant, the moment it becomes evident that he can now read himself skeptically. I also like that “Virginians” are on that list.

Did Fitzgerald ever appeal to you, when you were young, as a model for how to be a literary celebrity? Did you want to be a dissolute and wild young writer in that mold? Do your creative writing students want to be Fitzgeraldian, the way aspiring writers used to?

AM: Re: bigotry, it’s a shame that he was often a lot less self-aware about it than in “The Crack-Up.” Some of the early stories are full of blithe racist caricatures and slurs, made all the worse for being so casually deployed, and a real nostalgia for hokey “old South” shit runs through his body of work, including a few very weird stories set during the Civil War. At his best he was able to ironize it—as in Tom Buchanan’s buffoonish rant about the vanquishing of the white race in Gatsby—but in his lesser work you can’t get away from his depressingly common prejudices. It’s a major blight.

But, yes, from the minute I learned who Fitzgerald was I wanted to inhabit his literary career—the wildness and the success, the doomed romance with an impossible woman, the crash and the rueful self-pity and hackwork that would eventually be vindicated, sort of, by later generations. Maybe I should have said that when I claimed at the beginning of this that I didn’t want to be a Fitzgerald character; I wanted to be Fitzgerald, or at least my idea of him when I was a teenager. Knowing what I know now about him, I don’t want that—I want to live for a long time, thank you, and I don’t want to waste my meager talent on junk, even if that junk (in FSF’s case) could turn better than most people’s best efforts. But my fiction is full of youngish writers who are still chasing the dream of intellectualized self-destruction, and on occasional bad nights, I’m still chasing it, too. Once you’ve got these models—these myths—in your head, they’re surprisingly hard to kill.

My students don’t seem to have the understanding or adulation of writers as cultural celebrities the way that we did, even though we were already long past the golden age of that kind of thing when we came into the business. When I asked a recent class of undergraduates what they were interested in, it was mostly fantasy and science fiction of fairly recent vintage, though one student was devoted to Sally Rooney’s books, and another cited the Gatsby movie with Leonardo DiCaprio as a favorite, um, text. Rooney is living the closest thing we currently have to the old Fitzgerald dream, but, based on her latest book, it doesn’t seem like terribly much fun—mostly annoying Q&A’s and photoshoots, not too much blacking out in speakeasies with, I don’t know, Lana del Rey. It’s probably a good thing to be wary of the trappings of success, even if it does look from afar like they might be pretty cool. Ugh, have I learned nothing? Have you matured past dreams of being part of a lost generation, Ben?

BN: The last time an undergraduate confided in me that he wanted to be the next Fitzgerald, it was 2010. That’s natural. Recent events have rendered the people Fitzgerald fetishized more repellant than they once were; I’m thinking of course of the financial crisis, the climate crisis, authoritarian oligarchs. But the phenomenon that survives is people reading about characters who are presented as damned or flawed and then actively pursuing that form of damnation or pathology. Young people still read Jesus’ Son and go buy drugs or read Blood Meridian and move to Austin. I think that a great description of a particular experience is inevitably an advertisement for that experience. You read the account of surgery without anesthesia in Infinite Jest and go, huh, I should try surgery without anesthesia.

To be more specific: A great description of an experience that you, the reader, are excluded from, that is, an inaccessible experience, no matter what that experience is, tends to be compelling. Describe to the reader an experience from which that reader is excluded, and describe it beautifully, and what you write will tend to be like the green light in Gatsby. Fitzgerald understood that. If that experience is actually ugly, shallow, painful, depraved, then you’ve got a literary subject.

But, no, I don’t want to be Fitzgerald anymore. I’ll tell you what changed my mind. Once, at Occupy (it’s Occupy’s birthday too) I wound up hanging out, by dumb luck, with the singers of Neutral Milk Hotel and Fugazi. They weren’t killing themselves now that their masterpieces were finished. They were quietly participating in a protest where they had eight million rabid fans each, and nobody there knew who they were. It was so glamorous, more glamorous than being damned.

AM: Gosh, as if I needed another reason to love Fugazi. I can’t quite imagine Fitzgerald at an Occupy rally, unless, as his characters in “May Day” do, amidst clashes between socialists and soldiers in the streets, he was using it as an opportunity to drink and hook up.

You’re right that it’s socially irresponsible to want to be Fitzgerald or the people he chronicled at this juncture, but it’s not like our culture is any less worshipful of wealth and success than it was in his day, or in the decades in between. The fact that people still have “Gatsby parties” in the Hamptons says as much, and, even if people in our sphere are mostly talking shit about them, I think a lot of them would happily trade places with Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. We pay a lot of collective attention to the very rich, perhaps because they exercise so much control over our lives, and sometimes I worry that, like the teenage you of the beginning of this exchange, that attention will yield more converts than dedicated anti-capitalists. And the Dischord catalog is on Spotify now.

The upside to the cult of Fitzgerald dying out is that new readers, if he’s to have any, might be able to see his work with fresh eyes, to admire the alternating elegance and overheated emotionality of his prose and scenarios without quite so much mythic baggage. I’ve had surprising success introducing students to Fitzgerald stories in recent years, maybe because he’s no longer quite as familiar as he once was. The weakening of the brand might help people see him for what he was: a flawed but often brilliant writer who struggled to capture his, and our country’s, probably terminal obsession with wealth and power.

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Andrew Martin & Benjamin Nugent
Andrew Martin is the author of the novel Early Work, a New York Times Notable Book of 2018, and the story collection Cool for America. His stories and essays have been published in The Paris Review, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and Harper's. He lives in New York with his partner, Laura, and their dog Bonnie.

Benjamin Nugent is the author of the linked short story collection Fraternity, recently published in paperback. His fiction was awarded The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize. His work has been published in Best American Short Stories, Harper's, and The Paris Review.





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