© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Book Review: Some Unfinished Chaos

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1928. (Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images)

Arthur Krystal, must be among the cleverest nonfiction writers around in crafting titles for his books and essay collections, does it again with Some Unfinished Chaos: The Lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald. More than clever, his biography presents an intelligent, sympathetic, witty, and personal rumination. It’s also a close-up consideration of how “unconfirmed” stories and speculations about Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, his friends, his enemies (including Hemingway, whom Fitzgerald idolized), and his work, at various times in his dazzling, self-destructive career became “wrapped” in so-called facts that adversely affected his reputation. Such as his alcoholic-infused cruelties and sometimes sentimental writing.

Timely in its reliance on a wide range of primary and secondary sources and historical treatises, Krystal’s book argues for a more nuanced evaluation of a complex author and man. It’s also significant in its appraisal of a determined writer who courted fame and lent his name to the term he coined: The Jazz Age. He was the first “Golden Boy of American letters” says Krystal and perhaps the first fiction writer to explore – in gorgeous prose, in The Great Gatsby and elsewhere - The American Dream for a country that hitherto had perceived itself as culturally sectional.

Some Unfinished Chaos is, by design, a work in progress, unfinished as the title puts it, the result of what Krystal thinks now, a scholarly, generous take on Fitzgerald’s various selves. His confident high living after his best-selling debut novel, This Side of Paradise. His belligerent, frustrated, self-denigration after rejection of work after The Great Gatsby, his third novel, not a commercial success.

Some Unfinished Chaos is a model of biography though – clear in its rationale and, as noted in Prefatory Remarks, aware of “pitfalls,” namely the lure to let the behavior of a moment harden into a defining thesis; to let contradictory parts of a life, admirable and not, fuse into a reductive overall impression.

As Krystal writes: “People disagree about Fitzgerald because Fitzgerald often disagreed with himself.” Like Keats, for whom beauty was truth and truth, beauty, Fitzgerald lived uneasily with an overriding sense that beauty and happiness would be lost. His fiction “evokes a nostalgia that no other prose writer of the English language has ever achieved,” Krystal writes – that sentiment haunts The Great Gatsby. “You can forgive a writer a lot of things for having the skill and sensibility” to write about nostalgia the way Fitzgerald did, Krystal says. Perhaps no novelist’s values have been subjected to as much critical scrutiny as have Fitzgerald’s. But sad to say, the more we know about the life, the more difficult it becomes to square the morality professed in the fiction with the behavior of its author.”

Ironically, too many negative comments about Fitzgerald, Krystal points out, come from the author’s own notebooks and the three essays he published in Esquire in 1936, 4 years before his death, that constitute The Crack-Up -- confessional, perceptive “tortured self-analysis” of his failures. He had wanted to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter – he had three major tries - but he didn’t and couldn’t. He was an alcoholic, a man who enjoyed spending money and also, a professional who persevered though he could not adjust to or deliver the screenplays.

Through it all, he looked after Zelda, who was in and out of asylums. He had lovers, but never abandoned Zelda or their daughter, Scottie. He didn’t so much “crack up,” as Krystal says, as “grow up.” But not in time for America, no longer young, and the world embarking on a chaos unimaginable in Fizgerald’s day.

Some Unfinished Chaos, rich in history and wistfulness, focuses on challenging oversimplified perceptions of literature, authors, and history.

As such it is an implicit invitation to read – or reread- Gatsby, the book said to be – still – THE great American novel. Moving anew today in its uneasy juxtaposition of idealism and cynicism and beautiful writing.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.