Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Literature is an attempt not to be boring. We start reading, most of us who pin our lives to the facts and fortunes of books, before we start living. Our formative experience is that of curling up with a book as a lonely kid, and escaping, escaping to a world where things happen. Literature is a how we reach toward event out of eventlessness. Perhaps it is for this reason that we demand authors be interesting. Writing is not necessarily the kind of thing that makes a person interesting or heroic, vivid or dynamic. One might make a good argument that it makes a person strange, but not more so than being a teacher or a doctor or a racecar driver or an astronaut. But the reading public has insisted on myths about authors. Hemingway and Byron and Hunter S. Thompson, bullfighters and athletes and drunks and womanizers.
Zelda Fitzgerald is among the most famous of these romantic literary mythologies. The infamous party girl, the beautiful debutante, flapper, and eventual mental patient wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a nearly a household name. The name "Zelda" itself is shorthand for "party girl" or "crazy woman," most often both. F. Scott pursued, married, and then immortalized her, with some help from the tabloids of their day. Despite having been a writer herself, the vast majority of those ideas of Zelda are ideas created and made popular by other people's descriptions of her. She is famous for her proximity to others, famous for being described. We all know Zelda's story but we know it from a limited perspective.
Therese Anne Fowler's objective in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is to at last grant Zelda herself agency in that description. The novel tells Zelda's story from Zelda's perspective, in close first-person point of view. It is based on extensive research into Zelda's life, particularly relying on the letters between her and Scott. In the acknowledgements Fowler tells us "I felt as if I had been dropped into a raging argument between what I'll call Team Zelda and Team Scott." Fowler is steadfastly on the former.
This granting of a voice to the voiceless is a noble and ever more popular category of writing. The silenced wives, the women in the attics, the madwomen put away out of sight and then memorialized sideways in tragic stories told always and only by the men who were their keepers, emerge to tell their stories. Kate Zambreno's recently published Heroines, for instance, takes on Zelda and women similar to her -- "the mad wives of modernism" -- in a larger scope, but essentially similar project. Heroines states explicitly what Z demonstrates implicitly: its project is also rescuing Zelda (among numerous other female writers and figures in literary history more famous for their relationships to famous men than for themselves) from their historically caricatured place as figures in men's stories. Fowler puts Zelda at last into Zelda's own words, posthumously granting her authorial omnipotence. Finally, Zelda can tell her own truths.
Emily Dickinson, the photo-negative-opposite myth to Zelda, advised, "tell all the truth but tell it slant." Well-known truths need to be told from an unexpected angle in order to be interrogated, but Fowler seems very, very intent on writing with no slant at all. Although the novel is a reclaiming and therefore cannot help being a radical project, it reads so straight ahead that only the first-person pronoun distinguishes it from a rather impersonal biography. The premise's interest rests on the fact that one expects it to surprise. Granted, at last, first person narrative agency, what will Zelda reveal about this story we only thought we knew? Unfortunately, in Z's case, the answer is "not very much."
It's a lofty goal to make a story that's been told hundreds of times captivating upon retelling. To do so requires that the author tell the story in a radical or experimental manner, deviating from the straightforward familiarity of a traditional novel. More needs to be done than to switch the same fights, the same drunken accidents, the same successes and failures and taxicabs and fountains and hotel rooms and crack-ups, into the first person pronoun. Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris got away with telling these same stories because it was a comedy, and therefore interested in punch line rather than narrative. The characters weren't supposed to be people; they existed purely as caricatures in an aspiring writer's mind (Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris is pretty much exactly the intended audience for Z). Fowler's book sets out to show that there's more to the character than the caricature. But it succeeds only in showing us that a much riskier and more shocking project would be needed to rescue Zelda from inside the healed-over skin of her own legend.
There is, after all, that old phrase about the master's tools and the master's house. If Fowler is writing against unjust or incomplete depictions of Zelda in fiction and biography, then doing so in a form indistinguishable from straightforward traditional literary biography only by the appearance of the first person pronoun is ineffective. If she isn't writing against those depictions, but seeking only to add them, then it raises the question: Why? Why add one more version of the same story to the pile? Zelda's own novel -- censored heavily by her husband -- Save Me the Waltz itself is a rewriting. The Zelda character lives out choices that Zelda the person was unable to make, leaving Scott, moving to Italy, and taking the role she was offered in a ballet company there. Fowler's book, although free from the interpersonal and psychological constraints placed on Zelda herself, doesn't go as far, in its first person narration, as its subject's own writing. Any book daring to take on this famous and maligned woman in the first person should speak out for her more strongly than she was allowed to speak for herself, not less. Instead, the book becomes an exercise in telling us what we already know.
Fowler's novel contains some intensely beautiful passages. She is clearly a writer of great skill; I only wish she had conceived of this project in a way that put that skill to better, more incisive use. Z delivers some heart-rending moments of both tenderness and cruelty, and many of its observations -- on marriage, on alcoholism, on family, on loneliness and ambition -- ring affectingly true. Fowler is particularly masterful when writing Scott as a vindictive alcoholic. These scenes are stunning in a sort of nausea-inducing way, and I wish she'd had the guts or the inclination to write the entire book at this pitch. I would love to have seen her give over completely with full-throated vitriol to "Team Zelda" and write a scathing indictment of Scott from Zelda's point of view. That book might have been historically inaccurate, immature, and overemotional. It probably would have been obnoxious, in the manner of listening to the woes of that one perpetually wronged friend who falls in love and breaks up with a new asshole every week. But it might also have been a hell of a lot of fun to read. (That wronged friend is, after all, a hell of a lot of fun to talk to, whether or not you admit it.)
Character assassination is unfortunately a lot more compelling than character resuscitation. Fowler is admirably devoted to her much-maligned protagonist. This devotion makes for greatly sympathetic prose, but it also dulls the knife and causes the story to feel like its author is driving with the brake on. Her project is to defend Zelda, but her form of defense seems to be to keep the character from doing anything offensive. This ends up seeming like a sort of apology, someone mumbling through conversation about the juicier and more blame-worthy exploits of a problematic friend. I think Zelda's better and more interesting than that -- I think everyone's better than that. At his most lucid, F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that in The Great Gatsby, a novel in which no one has clean hands, no one comes out lovable, and whose characters I still care about more than I care about most of the people I actually know. Wanting people to like a character may be the first step toward a certain and very boring death on the page, and Fowler's objective too often seems to make us like Zelda. We love people, after all, not for their best qualities but usually for their worst ones. The apologies and the excuses act counter to Fowler's intention, and distance the reader from the famous protagonist.
The men for the most part come off worse than the women here. But, aside from the truly heart-rending and murderously accurate depiction of Scott's alcoholism, even the most villainous characters fall flat. This, too, seems due to Fowler's saintly objectives, her goal of character resuscitation. Looking to argue against Hemingway's vilification of Zelda, she paints Hemingway broadly and without a single redeeming characteristic. But people up to and beginning with Hemingway himself have already told us that Hemingway was a foul-mouthed, self-concerned misogynist. The characterization is ineffective as a defense of Zelda because it isn't compelling, and therefore feels like a losing team offering bitter, weak excuses. Here, too, Fowler pulls her punches -- to really engage with Hemingway's character would have offered, perhaps, a nuanced defense of Zelda, a reason for his insistent hatred of Scott's flapper wife. But because Fowler doesn't engage deeper than the level of dismissal and villainy, Zelda comes away unsaved, our minds unchanged.
Much of the issue with the book is not Fowler's fault, but the fault of the material. Her insistence on telling the truth without any perceptible slant at all means she's tethered to an immutable narrative progression. The reason so many biographies are boring is that we are not skilled authors of our own lives. People living from one day to the next have little awareness of structure, of juxtaposition, of narrative arc. Novelists who make a life seem as though it obeys compelling dramatic structure, do so through artifice and writing slant. In reality, things move forward without changing, and years upon years pass without event. The same things happen over and over in the same ways, and little distinguishes a Monday in March from a Saturday in December, just as little distinguishes one great love from the next one, one day's heartbreak from the next year's crisis. Scott sculpted and molded the events of their lives, displacing action, turning the volume up here and down over here, refocusing the lights on the compelling and the tragic, and putting the banal and the repetitive into shadow. He had no necessary loyalty to the truth; he was using the events, not chronicling them. Fowler's project, however, is about being as loyal as possible to the events of history. But just because a situation is tragic doesn't mean that the situation is dynamic. Zelda and Scott seem only to age rather than to change. They drink and fight and spend money. They are briefly happy and then unhappy for a very long time. They seem to move laterally from one crack-up to another. No real tragedies, no acts of the gods, stir the continuous surface of their self-destruction. None of this is Fowler's fault -- she has put her plotting in the hands of history -- but it doesn't make for a compelling novel, as the events of the book feel exponentially unsurprising.
Much of Fowler's writing is gorgeous. The portrayal of the relationship between Scott and Zelda is at isolated moments deeply affecting. But I've read some beautiful, compelling fan fiction, too. In fan fiction, the author takes preexisting characters and writes about them without claiming them, without making them his or her own. To make something one's own, one must fictionalize it -- this is as true of fiction writing as it is of our sculpting romantic memories at the end of an affair. Fowler seems reluctant to claim Zelda, to pull her from the tangled pile of history and make her into a new fiction. The legend of Zelda, one certainly in need of disturbing, remains undisturbed.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin's Press