Staying Up Late With F. Scott Fitzgerald

Truly, I have never met a Princetonian who didn't appear to need a good kick in the teeth.

There was an excellent article in last week's New Yorker about a nauseating new fad: the memoir of failure. The piece is hidden behind the paywall, sadly, but it's an overview of four or five books written in the last decade by novelists who responded to failure by devoting their literary talents to the ancient art of self-pity. They launched themselves into self-destruction like it's what they had been dreaming of all along, developing substance abuse problems, alienating their families, and sometimes turning on the novel altogether. The memoir is a form that lends itself to self-indulgence, and this takes that to a whole new level—self-flagellating in a last, desperate attempt to impress the crowd, and finding an audience of people eager to gawk at your grotesquerie. Blech, amirite?

For a day or two, these hacks had me worried that, if dealt a creative setback or two, I might sink to their level. Then I realized I have a secret weapon in reserve, one that should keep me from ever fetishizing my own failure: I'm not a total chump. Funny how that can come in handy, right?

None of that matters, really, except to explain why I was thinking about The Crack Up, a sort of ur-text for the literature of failure, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the period between his literary success and his Hollywood failure. Charmed by a sexy cover, I picked up The Crack Up years ago, but never took it down from my bookshelf until the New Yorker story stoked my creative fear. Unable to sleep last night, I started reading the accompanying essays, which included heartbreaking meditations on Fitzgerald's lost New York, and tiresome humor pieces co-written by Zelda Fitzgerald. All in all, good reading.

Fitzgerald's prose is so lush, and the world he conjures up is so inviting, that it's natural to want to pretend you belong. Yes, Scott, I do miss the feeling of awe and inspiration that New York gave me once. Yes, Scott, I do think jazz is nifty. Yes, Scott, I do think I would like a cocktail. As soon as you try to join your yoke to his, you find how hard it is to keep up. Well no, Scott, I've never gotten tired of the Riviera. No, Scott, I've never tossed off a Broadway play just for the paycheck. No, Scott, I don't spend most weeknights staying out past dawn. For Christ's sake, Scott, I have a real fucking job!

In one of the essays, he mentions that he and Zelda burned through $400,000 during the '20s—roughly $5 million in boring old 2013 money. And that's why it's impossible to relate to the guy. I may have similarly complex ideas about love, art, and New York City—but I don't have the cash to explore them day and night. He was living in a Bertie Wooster world, and I live in Lena Dunham's. Sheesh. 

This was all seemed quite complicated to my sleep-deprived, four a.m. mind. And then I stumbled upon something that made all my prickly thoughts go away. In "Sleeping and Waking," Fitzgerald writes about insomnia, bridging our divide in an instant. He writes of the moment that "those seven precious hours of sleep suddenly break in two," dividing into "the 'first sweet sleep of night' and the last deep sleep of morning," and separated by "a sinister, ever widening interval." This is an experience I've been enjoying since high school. As long as I don't have to get up in the morning, a few hours' wakefulness in the middle of the night is just an inconvenience. But if it's caused my mosquito, he and I will both lose our minds.

For two or three New York summers, I had an air conditioner specially designed to let mosquitos in from the outside. I became highly sensitive to their bite, and would wake just a few second after they had finished dining on me, aware that I had a visitor in the room but clueless as to where he was. Knowing that I would not be able to fall back asleep until the tormenter was dead, dead, dead, I would turn on the light, perch on my bed, and go hunting—either with a rolled up towel or that day's New York Times. Repeat this three or four times a week, or until your girlfriend becomes so angry that she purchases a mosquito net. Fitzgerald's had only one such bout with mosquitodom, but it was no less dramatic:

It is astonishing how much worse one mosquito can be than a swarm. A swarm can be prepared against, but one mosquito takes on a personality—a hatefulness, a sinister quality of the struggle to the death. This personality appeared all by himself in September on the twentieth floor of a New York hotel, as out of place as an armadillo. He was the result of New Jersey’s decreased appropriation for swamp drainage, which had sent him and other younger sons into neighboring states for food.
The night was warm—but after the first encounter, the vague slappings of the air, the futile searches, the punishment of my own ears a split second too late, I followed the ancient formula and drew the sheet over my head.
And so there continued the old story, the bitings through the sheet, the sniping of exposed sections of hand holding the sheet in place, the pulling up of the blanket with ensuing suffocation—followed by the psychological change of attitude, increasing wakefulness, wild impotent anger—finally a second hunt.
This inaugurated the maniacal phase—the crawl under the bed with the standing lamp for torch, the tour of the room with final detection of the insect’s retreat on the ceiling and attack with knotted towels, the wounding of oneself—my God!
— After that there was a short convalescence that my opponent seemed aware of, for he perched insolently beside my head—but I missed again.
At last, after another half hour that whipped the nerves into a frantic state of alertness came the Pyrrhic victory, and the small mangled spot of blood, my blood, on the headboard of the bed.

Since that night, his sleep became fragile. (Being a confirmed alcoholic probably didn't help.) Mine is fragile too, but I don't mind it. Awake in the middle of the night, I get to read neat stuff by neat dudes like F. Scott Fitzgerald. No matter how different he and I are, I can imagine us meeting in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and sharing war stories about killing mosquitos.