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.

When James Met Nora: An Eight Paragraph Love Story

Posts about James Joyce are to be illustrated only with this picture.

Like all recovering English majors, I've always been mesmerized by June 16, 1904. The date on which Ulysses takes place, it is also the day that James Joyce's first date with his beloved—the wonderfully named Galway maiden, Nora Barnacle. It's easy to picture James and Nora strolling by the River Liffey, punning and thinking about Hamlet.

But as described in this lovely excerpt from Richard Ellman's biography—which I found, for some reason, on this nifty blog—James and Nora's meeting was much more ordinary, and all the sweeter for it.

The experience of love was almost new to [Joyce] in fact, though he had often considered it in imagination. A transitory interest in his cousin Katsy Murray had been followed by the stronger, but unexpressed and unrequited, interest in Mary Sheehy. He shocked Stanlislaus [Joyce's brother] a little by quoting with approval a remark of a Dublin wit, ‘Woman is an animal that micturates once a day, defecates once a week, menstruates once a month and parturiates once a year.’ Yet tenderness was as natural to him as coarseness, and secretly he dreamed of falling in love with someone he did not know, a gentle lady, the flower of many generations, to whom he should speak in the ceremonious accents of Chamber Music.
Instead, on June 10, 1904, Joyce was walking down Nassau Street in Dublin when he caught sight of a tall, good-looking young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride. When he spoke to her she answered pertly enough to allow the conversation to continue. She took him, with his yachting cap, for a sailor, and from his blue eyes thought for a moment he might be Swedish.
Joyce found she was employed at Finn’s Hotel, a slightly exalted rooming house, and her lilting speech confessed that she was from Galway City. She had been born there, to parents who lived in Sullivan’s Lane, on March 21, 1884. Her name was a little comic, Nora Barnacle, but this too might be an omen of felicitous adhesion. (As Joyce’s father was to say when he heard much later her last name was Barnacle, ‘She’ll never leave him.’) After some talk it was agreed they should meet in front of Sir William Wilde’s house at the turning of Merrion Square on June 14. But Nora Barnacle failed to appear, and Joyce sent her a note in some dejection:
60 Shelbourne Road
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me — if you have not forgotten me!
—James A. Joyce 15 June 1904
The appointment was made, and for the evening of June 16, when they went walking at Ringsend, and then arranged to meet again.
To set Ulysses on this date was Joyce’s most eloquent if indirect tribute to Nora, a recognition of the determining effect upon his life of his attachment to her. On June 16, as he would afterwards realize, he entered into relation with the world around him and left behind him the loneliness he had felt since his mother’s death. He would tell her later, “You made me a man.” June 16 was the sacred day that divided Stephen Dedalus, the insurgent youth, from Leopold Bloom, the complaisant husband.

Joyce's work is weighed down with so much critical blather, but at heart, he was a man with a sense of humor. How nice to see him being happy. 

On a related note, would it be too too cute to name a character in something Nora Barnacle? It's such an unbelievably wonderful name—I want to hear it every day.

Dammit, Maisie Dobbs, You Let Me Down Again

Few pieces of art stay mindblowing for long. A great TV show is only red hot for a season or two. A favorite band releases dud albums. Most novels sag in the middle; most great movies let us down in the end. And a play that's brilliant one night may be flabby the next. It's no surprise. Brilliance is a passing thing.

We live in an era of media glut. Hollywood may be making less movies than ever before, and the major publishing houses may be spewing out less fiction, but music, TV and small-scale theater is as fertile as a farmer's daughter in the springtime. (I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but it's an appealingly filthy image.) This means we don't have to be satisfied with anything less than brilliant entertainment. Once a piece of amusement becomes less than perfectly satisfying, we can discard it, and move on to something else, like a bored Roman emperor ordering a pair of gladiators killed so he can skip ahead to the next fight.

It's hedonistic. It's fun. And there's nothing sadder than having to move on to the next thing.

There is an acute sense of disappointment tha comes when we realize that, shit, this thing I like isn't perfect any more. I've written about it before as regards television, and this weekend I encountered it again, this time in print.

I'm in a dry stretch as far as fiction goes. My preferred vice is crime fiction, and aside from the relentless pleasure that comes from reading Ed McBain, I haven't read anything truly wonderful since I picked up Larry Block's When The Sacred Ginmill Closes last summer. This is partly a problem of genre. A devotee of a form that lends itself to formula can hardly be surprised when he goes months or years without stumbling over something original. But I'm not looking for a reinvention of the form. All I wanted was something well-written, amusing and fresh—something that didn't have to do with serial killers.

(As an aside, is there anything less interesting than a serial killer? I can enjoy it once in a while, but in general, they're just crackpots. Crazy people do crazy shit. Where's the fun in that? Stories about serial killers aren't even really murder mysteries—they're butchery, and it makes me yawn.)

On vacation this weekend, a book called Maisie Dobbs caught my eye. A mystery starring a plucky young woman in 1920's London, whose only weapon is keen observation and an empathetic sense forged in the trenches of World War I France? Might it possibly be a real detective novel, and not a suffocating cozy mystery? The praise quote on the front—from the New York Times, no less!—told me to "be prepared to be astonished." I decided to take the chance.

I'm coming quite late to this party. The first in a ten book (so far) series, Maisie Dobbs was published in 2003. Lots of people have heard of, read and loved this series—as my bookseller informed me, it's her mother in law's favorite. If Jacqueline Winspear's work had passed me by, it's just because I make a habit of avoiding mystery novels written by people with names like Jacqueline Winspear, for fear that I might be wandering into another Agatha Christie trap

Have I mentioned lately how much I hate cozy mysteries?

But Maisie Dobbs is no cozy, and it charmed me immediately. The hero is plucky, but not insufferably so—a battle-scarred nurse who has put every shilling she has into a detective agency, and spends much of the book's first hundred pages pinching pennies. (I like my detectives realistically broke. Every PI novel starts with a complaint about how little work the snoop is getting, and yet he never has trouble paying for his car, women, or booze.) Her first investigation is peppered with hints of a traumatic past—hints that make us interested in Maisie without slowing down the action. The book is quiet, mannered and grim, and I found myself getting my hopes up. "This is brilliant," I thought, "and there are nine more in the series!" And then, around the hundred page mark, the narrative comes to a howling halt.

As if not confident that her heroine was holding our attention, Winspear decides to dive into young Maisie's origin story, leaping back to the day of her mother's death, some decades before. Maisie is taken into service by a kindly, progressive London Lady, and what follows is chapter upon chapter of wheezing Upstairs, Downstairs action that is as deflating as one of the more predictable storylines in Downton Abbey. What was fresh turns sour, and the pages of my attractive little Penguin edition, I find, begin to turn much more slowly.

It was around the third chapter in Lady Rowan's London house that I began to feel it creeping in. Disappointment had returned. I'm still going to finish Maisie Dobbs, and if the ending is more Sherlock than Downton, I'll probably pick up the sequel, in hopes that it avoids dallying around the Christie-fied manner house that I loathe so much. But the balloon is popped. This isn't going to be My New Favorite Thing. I'll have to move on to the next bit of culture.

Help Me! Help Me Read More Plays!

I have a dirty secret. I'm a playwright. I write about theater. I like to watch theater. I like to talk about theater. I sometimes even have very tedious dreams about theater. But I don't read a lot of plays. And by that I mean, I never read plays.

I used to have all sorts of rationalizations about this, but the real explanations are simple. Plays are among the least exciting things to read. There are a few authors whose work leaps off the page—Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams, Martin McDonagh—but if a playwright isn't highly verbal, his writing can sag in print. If you're not in the mood to act it out, at least in your head, even a great play can put you straight to sleep.

And it can be hard to find great plays in print. Unless you're in a bookstore that specializes in carrying them, the drama section can be depressingly understocked. I don't need to buy another copy of Chekhov's plays, or the best of Eugene O'Neill. I'd like to buy something written in the last three decades by someone besides Tony Kushner, and I would like to pay less than $10 a play to do it. That can be a tricky thing to arrange.

But none of that is an excuse! I'm a playwright, dammit. I only have time to go see so many new plays—the ones that I can't see, I should read. There are plenty of classics I'm not familiar with—famous and less famous—that I need to cram into my mind-bucket. It will make my work better. It will make me sound smarter. It will make me a happier theater-dude, which is the kind of happy dude I want to be. 

Since January is the season of sweeping declarations of self-improvement, I have decided to start reading a play a week. That's not really that much, but I know myself. Trying to read a play a day would be rather overshooting the mark. If by the end of this year I've read 52 plays by people not named W.M. Akers, that's about 50 more than I read in 2012. To keep me on task—and to make sure I get something out of the plays, instead of just napping through them—I'll make a weekly feature out of it, writing about whatever I learned or failed to learn from whatever I've just read. I think that would be not-boring, and I think you might enjoy it.

But if I'm gonna do all that work to entertain you—for free, mind!—I'm going to need some help. After all, it's about time you started pulling your weight around here. You see, I have a bookshelf problem. My girlfriend and I own quite a lot of books, and every shelf in the house is full to overflowing. We're stacking them on the floor now—something I thought I had put behind me when I graduated from college. While I like the way that this gives our apartment the look of a Woody Allen movie, it means that if I announced that I was planning on buying a whole bunch of new books, she would hit me on the head with a spoon.

So, as much as is possible, I would like to read plays for free or electronically. I see that Samuel French has started offering e-books—are they any good? Although I do a lot of work for an e-book publishing company, I've always resisted buying a Kindle. This might be a reason to do so. If you know of any bookstores with a good supply of used plays, tell me and I'll go. Or—and imagine I'm whispering now—if you have an electronic copy of a play you'd like to share, email me and I'll read it.

For now, I'm going to see what they've got at my local library. That's right, baby. I've got a library card, and I'm not afraid to use it. That will get me through a few weeks, but I have a hunch it will quickly run dry. So please—post in the comments, email me, or tweet at me and tell me what to read. I've got no standards. Reading at all would be more than I'm reading now.