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  • Sentimental Journeys
  • Philip McGowan (bio)
Tender Is the Night & F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sentimental Identities by Chris Messenger Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015. 281 pages

When James Watson and Francis Crick published news of their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in April 1953 they set in motion a sequence of scientific breakthroughs in molecular theory and genetic coding that have since revolutionized scientific inquiry. Working in counter-motion to each other, each of the strands of DNA is essential to its existence and contains replicated biological information that is key to an organism’s molecular possibility. The coding that each strand carries is an intricate array of data that informs and is simultaneously informed by the adjacent molecular structure, and which, in microcosm, carries all the information needed to understand how the organism exists. Despite their contrary flow, the two strands are complementary to each other and cannot exist in any other arrangement.

Such intricate and apparently opposed narrative motions have long been identified in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, a novel that has raised intense critical discussion about its own structure and arrangement. Assembled over nine years in three versions across seventeen drafts, it is Fitzgerald’s most challenging work. Dealing with a number of difficult and inter-related issues (war, PTSD, Prohibition, familial incest) that reflected both on the contemporary historical moment as well as on the disintegrating relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife, it has never offered itself as a novel for the faint-hearted. If its subject matter is complex, its structure of intercutting past and present insures temporal as well as narrative uncertainty. Scholars may disagree over the degree to which Fitzgerald successfully carries off the experimental ambitions of the novel, but it is clear that it remains one of his most significant achievements.

Chris Messenger would certainly agree with that sentiment in his latest work. Not so much one book as a sequence of critical studies, it examines Fitzgerald’s oft-discussed and never settled novel under a range of interconnected lenses to open its double helix nature to the world. For Messenger, Tender Is the Night “is a Fitzgerald masterwork that is key to his body of fiction” (2). Moreover, his [End Page 270] delineations of sentiment “through its many guises” in the novel demonstrate its role as “both a cultural formation and a temperamental imperative that helps unlock both Fitzgerald’s major novel and career” (2). He argues for a nuanced and multivalent conception of sentiment in the novel that simultaneously operates back in time in relation to the nineteenth-century authors Fitzgerald admired as well as forward to connect it to the new potentials offered by postmodern identity politics (via feminist critics such as Butler and Sedgwick or Žižek’s updated digressions on Lacan and Freud). In addition, Messenger is alive to the valences of Fitzgerald’s contemporary moment and plots an absorbing and sophisticated matrix of coded referents, symbolic encounters, and significant elisions from drafts of the novel-in-progress. This is literary criticism with forensic laboratory gloves donned and with an eye for both textual and intertextual detail that revivifies Fitzgerald’s already challenging work.

Whether offering sentiment as a structure of feeling, as aesthetic resonator, or as a perspective on and reflection of the self, Messenger moves his readers around the architecture of Tender Is the Night to highlight moments of particular interest or heightened critical importance. For Messenger the novel is assembled in ways similar to a work like Moby-Dick (1851): it exists on multiple levels, some symbolic, some autobiographical, others a fused combination of gathered influences and affects. He references in particular Fredric Jameson’s The Prisonhouse of Language (1972) and Jameson’s understanding of, as Messenger refers to it, “the double movement of analysis and synthesis” (72) as a key mode in understanding Fitzgerald’s novel. The pivotal site of sentiment is Dick Diver, and Messenger’s analysis of his variegated role in the novel is as meticulous as it is rewarding. Moreover, Messenger offers Fitzgerald scholars old and new ample room to extend his theoretical template and apply it to analyses of other Fitzgerald works...


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pp. 270-273
Launched on MUSE
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