The problem with coming of age stories is that once you have come of age and look back at what may have been a small fraction of a life, it may seem just a pacing moment in the larger picture of a life. Moreover, it is such a specific event that others have no way to relate to those brief experiences. And explaining those moments to someone younger who has no idea of the little preoccupations that obsess one is at best a tepid history lesson. There are exceptions, of course, but the average coming of age novel will always seem so powerful to those who lived it and years latter just be a puzzle: did someone actually care about this?
This Side of Paradise as a coming of age story suffers from the specificity a lost moment. In reading it, one gets the feeling that the book meant something once, something earnest, but now, 80 years latter, it is a strange melange of Nietzschian philosophy and a writer longing to be a writer. It is almost a manifesto of what writing should be. Several times Fitzgerald lists authors that he thinks are worthy or are pointless. Most are unknown now and few stand up to scrutiny, although his attacks on some of them might have been brave at the time. It is the longing to be a novel of ideas that weighs down the novel. Every chance he gets, Fitzgerald works in some bit of philosophy amongst the goings on of the boys at Princeton or Harvard so that you end up with an elitist Nietzsche, or in American parlance, an anti-business philosophy lover.
Besides the tiresome speculations on philosophy and psychology the book never really says anything. Sure it is a rejection of the previous generation and part of it seems to fit within the Lost Generation literature, but nothing really happens. The protagonist leaves the university and goes on to life having one final showdown with a rich man in his limo. What is actually bothering the protagonist is lost in vague generalities. While the book does have a few Dreiserian moments of seediness, it never gets beyond the specifics of a boy in 1918.
Perhaps Fitzgerald was a writer who needed to experience what he was writing about. The themes of the era are only briefly mentioned at the expense of frat boy pranks and so he had to retreat to the philosophical, the only thing he may have known. Unfortunately, pop psychology or philosophy, even if it comes from Nietzsche reflects more about the fleeting preoccupations of youth than philosophy. Occasionally, his descriptions are worth the slog: when describing an overweight character he says he was ” a trifle too stout for symmetry;” when describing a friend he says he was “an occasion rather than a friend.”
Had Fitzgerald not written The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise would be just another of the forgotten books he listed in his own book.