- - Friday, May 17, 2013

Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD
By Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 384 pages

The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald story is well-known. As writer Budd Schulberg observed, its romantic legend is so uniquely American in all its strengths and weaknesses that it is little wonder that the life and work became mythologized. But there is something worrisome about the exploitation of the Fitzgerald mystique, which includes director Baz Luhrmann’s infantile film rendition of “The Great Gatsby” and a trio of less-than-mediocre novels: “Call Me Zelda” by Erika Robuck, “Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald” by R. Clifton Spargo and “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler.

Call it Fitzgerald Lite. This thin gruel seems tailor-made for an 18- to 34-year-old demographic, for a public accustomed to a steady diet of random ephemera, collected in flashing bytes through a vast network of email, mobile apps and social media. When you are accustomed to graze on tweets, to view the past by simply clicking on photos and videos posted online and think in terms of 140-character chunks, there is no opportunity, let alone curiosity, to consider various points of view, context or depth. It would seem the purveyors of film and fiction are following such a road map when pulling together their stereotypical creations.

Consider “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.” In this rewriting of history, the author stresses the emotional journey of her characters, but what are we left with?

Ms. Fowler’s fictional Zelda clunks through a series of shopping sprees and endless parties in New York City, Hollywood, Paris and the French Riviera, a forgettable lump that easily could be played by Reese Witherspoon. Missing is Zelda’s grace, defiant courage, devastating wit, any hint of “the gleam of derision that flickered beneath the black edge of her eyelashes,” as her friend, writer Sara Haardt, observed. Missing, too, is any deep sense of the beauty and tragedy of the South, ingrained into the DNA of a certain generation — a mixture of gaiety and sadness that ran, like a steady current, beneath the surface. There is a faint inkling of Zelda’s talent and reckless capers, but none of the desperate yearning for attention that drove them. When Zelda suffers from nervous breakdowns at the end of the novel, her situation is not even poignant; it is a yawn.

That F. Scott Fitzgerald was an embarrassing, nasty alcoholic is well-known. That he filched lines and scenarios from the writings of his gifted wife (and some friends), passing them off as his own, has been brilliantly explored in Nancy Milford’s 1970 biography “Zelda” and more recently in Sally Cline’s “Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise.” That he was, in H.L. Mencken’s words, “so handsome that he might even have been called beautiful” is ruthlessly exploited by Ms. Fowler, who culminates her tale in a tawdry scenario where, detectivelike, she explains the sudden animosity between Zelda and Scott’s best pal, homophobic Ernest Hemingway.

Missing from this novel are any of the virtues that tipped the scale in Fitzgerald’s favor: his professional generosity, friendliness and enormous talent — which, despite all his flaws, made him so well-liked, admired and loved. Instead, he flits in and out of the pages, a bad-tempered, shallow twit, relentlessly scribbling scraps of conversations into a tiny notebook.

As for childhood friend Sara Haardt, she was never the hardened feminist that Ms. Fowler makes her out to be, nor was she ever particularly close to Zelda. Ms. Fowler’s Mencken lacks any of the supercharged energy that made him personally so magnetic or attracted so many disciples; here, he is portrayed as a dour crank. Hemingway is bellicose, oversexed and a stereotypical jerk. Sara and Gerald Murphy, Gertrude Stein and George Jean Nathan appear and disappear, like images on Flickr.

But this is fiction, you say. Yes, and so did the author, in a well-written afterword. Even so, one has the impression that this is a novel written by someone who has inhaled vast quantities of biographical information, too much, too fast, without any real understanding of the many dimensions that formed the times or the characters involved.

This is true of the entire pantheon of the bland, homogenized products on display. One worries that its consumers, not used to a steady nutrition of solid, original sources, without any notion of what goes into the contemplation of a variety of perspectives and points of view, will confuse fiction and fact. Unless, of course, they are driven back to the real thing. We can only hope.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of various books, among them “Mencken & Sara: A Life in Letters” (Anchor, 1992).