- Hollywood Nights
Where biography and literary criticism fail (because they must, by definition, fail) is in the confident explication of their subjects’ unrecorded thoughts. Any biographer or critic who dares opine on the precise thought process that caused a crucial decision to be made (or not to be made) at a particular juncture is stepping over the line of propriety. And that thought process is often the thing we wonder about most. We know, for example, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was deeply conflicted in his feelings about his estranged wife Zelda in the late 1930s: he felt loyalty toward her; he felt sorry for her; he felt sad about her; he felt love for her; he felt frustration, anger, affection, attraction, guilt, and empathy, usually [End Page 273] in a mélange of proportions that varied from day to day. But how to tell which emotion he felt, and how strongly, on a particular hour of a particular day?
Over a period of years, we know he felt all these emotions, and more, because of the changing tones of his letters to her, mostly addressed to the North Carolina sanitarium in which she was residing, in letters to the mental-health staff caring for her there, in the letters he wrote to his friends about his difficult marriage and the high cost (emotional and otherwise) of maintaining Zelda’s care, and in letters to their daughter Scottie, protecting her against her mother’s outbursts and inappropriate behavior while, at the same time, trying to keep some sort of peace between his wife and his daughter. And of course, apart from his letters, we have other bases for knowing how Fitzgerald thought about Zelda: the observations of his contemporaries, extrapolations from his published and unpublished writing, and the judgments of writers since Fitzgerald’s time who have tried to convey what he must have, or might have, been thinking. But on this, as on so many other subjects, no writer of non-fiction can really speculate with any authority, and most sensible ones decline to do so.
But not so fiction writers! As Stewart O’Nan displays in his tour-de-force novel West of Sunset, entering Fitzgerald’s mind is his challenge and his triumph. Other successful writers of historical fiction about literary figures in recent years have elevated this subgenre to stellar heights. (David Lodge and Colm Toibin eerily, both in 2004, wrote novels that delved into the inscrutable mind of Henry James; Michael Cunningham on Virginia Woolf and Martha Cooley on T. S. Eliot have done likewise.) The subgenre, also known as bio-fiction, is able to illustrate what no biographer can do more than hint at: the inner workings of their subjects’ minds. It must be a great temptation to try to imitate, as well, the patterns in these thoughts of their subjects’ singular prose styles, but this temptation is neatly sidestepped here. What emerges instead is a plausible rendition of Fitzgerald’s brain, shorn of the thoughtful, excited style of his published words. We can perhaps guess at the internal rhythms of his mind by looking through his notebooks, but O’Nan’s inventiveness goes much further, yielding a version of Fitzgerald that is both familiar and fresh, and always plausible.
The scope of West of Sunset is surprising, both for the incidents it includes and those it excludes. The novel begins with Fitzgerald about to travel from North Carolina out to Hollywood, and it ends with Fitzgerald’s death on the West Coast nearly four years later, but the main focus is on the months immediately following his arrival in California. (Very little in this novel is dated precisely, keeping the casual reader from realizing how much of the plot is [End Page 274] concentrated into that first year.) The first 200 pages take us from Fitzgerald’s arrival in Hollywood in the summer of 1937 through the release of Three Comrades, the movie made from his only credited screenplay, which premiered in early June 1938; the remaining eighty-eight pages cover the two-and-a-half years...