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I never read introductions until after I've read the book in question, as I always want to get on with reading the story, and you never know what they are talking about until you know the characters anyway. My edition of "This Side of Paradise" includes an introduction by Matthew J. Bruccoli (whoever he may be). Reading this could have saved me some time, because he says (and I paraphrase only slightly) that it's a rubbish book and if it wasn't for F. Scott Fitzgeralds's later successes, there is no way it would still be in print.
Unfortunately, my compulsion to read "good" books led me to pick this up in a charity shop and get stuck in. Having only read The Great Gatsby, I was expecting more classic American literature. Unfortunately Scotty's first attempt at a novel, while lauded at the time, has aged horribly and was possibly only popular at the time (1920) because it was "different."
The protagonist is Amory Blaine, a young man who calls his mother by her first name, is popular with the young ladies, and flunks pretty much every exam set at Princeton. He has a gang of friends (similarly floppy student types) and they discuss war, pacifism, and poetry; saying things like "I don't get him at all, and I'm a literary bird myself." They also spend hours at a time categorising their peers into "Slickers" (typified by slicked back hair and a "clever sense of social values,") and "Big Men" (known by their un-slicked hair, general stupidity and tendency to call their schooldays the happiest of their lives.)
The trouble with this novel is that not a lot happens. Amory meanders along...and occasionally it looks as if something interesting might happen. Amory meets a girl. Hmm, this could get interesting... Oh, she's gone. A friend is killed, and Amory thinks he sees a ghost. This could definitely get interesting... no, nothing more is heard. Amory meets another girl... and so on. Nothing ever gets developed. (This is how you can tell it's based on real life.)
Another problem I have with this novel is that I don't know a lot of the writers that are referenced, whereas they were presumably popular and well known at the time. But who wants to read a list of books and writers, even if they are being treated to a scathing critique by Amory? It's as if F. Scott Fitzgerald was merely bragging about how many books he'd read.
For me, the writing improved when Fitzgerald employed a variety of styles - changing from boring prose, to poems, to a more appealing stage play style. Apparently this disparity was due to the fact that young Scott assembled the novel by filling it out with his unpublished bits and bobs. It's also said that the character of Rosalind (one of Amory's many girlfriends) was based on Zelda, whom the aspiring writer hoped to marry. She only agreed once his writing success and celebrity was promised - perhaps this mercenary attitude informed the slightly melancholy twists in Amory's life and his proclamation that "The sentimental person thinks things will last - the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't."
There are some quotable lines in which you can see the droll cynicism which would later epitomise Fitzgerald. Amory claims "When I see a happy family, it makes me sick at my stomach," and wisely observes "I know I'm not a regular fellow, yet I loathe anybody else that isn't."
But overall, reading this book is a bit like getting trapped at a party with a pretentious 19 year old philosophy student who wants to impress you with his reading list, and tells you why civilisation is all wrong, and society should change and live according to his ideals. It's cynical yet naive, and left me itching for an intelligent conversation with a grown up.