THE BLOG
03/29/2013 05:49 pm ET Updated May 29, 2013

A Financial Asset -- Debunking Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald once wrote, both wryly and proudly, "It was gratifying to feel that one might be a financial asset." Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald seeks to make her so.

A disclaimer, first. I love historical fiction. Give me imagined Tudor machinations, Sir Walter Scott, Gone With the Wind, and the insubstantial glory of Georgette Heyer any day of the week, and I'll be happy. However, I don't like fiction that attaches itself like a limpet to the rock of biography, purporting to tell a "version" of the "true story" that isn't really a version, or true. There's a type of writing about Zelda Fitzgerald that I think of as hysterical fiction: Zelda is the tormented artist and proto-feminist icon driven mad by Scott's drunken bullying and theft of her writings. Z is, alas, too close to this genre for comfort or pleasure.

Therese Fowler says she's tried to "adhere as much as possible to the established particulars" of Scott and Zelda's lives, but whose established the particulars she's following are largely mysterious to me. Z would be far better served by flat-out calling itself fiction. In her acknowledgements, though, Fowler cites Nancy Milford, Sally Cline, Matt Bruccoli, and other biographers and literary critics. I was floored by the language "[s]pecial recognition goes to Frances Scott 'Scottie' Fitzgerald for working with Scribner's to create The Romantic Egoists," as if Scottie doesn't merit a first or second or third place, but can be given a little special-recognition ribbon for making a book so important to the making of Z.

There's far too much of Zelda's own novel Save Me the Waltz in Z, from the child in Montgomery parts to the young marrieds and the Riviera, not to note its use much more clearly. The Fitzgeralds' letters are almost parodied in Fowler's own imagined versions. The novel begins with one of these made-up letters from Zelda to Scott, dated Dec. 20, 1941 (the day before his death), praising him and encouraging him with his new novel. Z ends not with Zelda's death, but with Scott's. For a book that is meant to be the real-imagined story of Zelda, here we go again: It's all around-about Scott.

That Zelda was the true artist, the creator, the supporter, the inspiration, while Scott was chiefly a user and a loser is fiction indeed, and so sadly reductive no one should touch it with a bargepole. The opposing construction that he was the genius, and she a talentless madwoman, should similarly be avoided. Alas, Z can only create a heroine by making the hero a failure, and finds little middle ground. Zelda's sympathy for Scott in Z, her recognition that as her mental difficulties increased he "was in the river too," serve less to help him out as a character than to make her look forgiving and admirable.

Z insists on a one-on-one correspondence between Zelda and Scott's heroines. It makes, yet again, the point of his use of her in his work, to which both Fitzgeralds admitted and which they both often enjoyed, but Scott turned his searing critical and artistic eyes upon himself much more than he did upon anyone else, including Zelda. Fitzgerald treated the characters in his fiction -- even Dick, even Gatsby -- better than he's treated in this novel. Just one example will suffice, in terms of fiction presented as fact, though there are far too many. In 1927, the Fitzgeralds went to Hollywood, where Scott worked on a screenplay that wasn't produced. Fowler has him leave Hollywood in a drunken rage, reported in Zelda's voice:

"In the morning, I woke to find that he'd piled up all the living-room furniture in the center of the room. At the very top of the pile, tacked onto the leg of an upturned chair, was the Ambassador's bill for all the charges we'd accrued during our stay. In big red letters Scott had written, C/O UNITED ARTISTS."

I've held that bill from the Ambassador in my hands. On it are charges for meals in the restaurant, shoe service, smokes, and a few telephone calls. The lion's share of charges are tips to the hotel staff. The Fitzgeralds left the hotel with a credit of $66.30 to be returned to United Artists. The bill is stamped "paid." The book jacket's claim that this novel is "magnificently researched" is unfortunate in details both small and large.

Some of the fictional moments imagined here capture the playful, deeply loving, sexy relationship between the young Fitzgeralds; their own contrived public performances (which were not always born of jealousy, as Fowler has them); and the relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For Fowler to have Scott drunkenly insist in bed to Zelda that "Ern" stop touching him, and for Zelda to decide that "Probably Scott loved Hemingway truly but Platonically. Probably, he couldn't see that Hemingway's feelings weren't so clean" is all mock-epic. It's been said before that Hemingway was so vicious to Fitzgerald not just because of envy but because of a crush on him. For Fitzgerald's part, he admired Hemingway's writing from the start, though he often didn't like the man -- or have reason to. He was unfailingly kind to Hemingway and supported his work vociferously when Hemingway was starting out, and suffered much for that kindness during his lifetime, and posthumously. I can't read this as a bromance at all: I believe that they were both talented writers; that Fitzgerald, though notoriously beautiful and fond of his close male friends, was straight; and that Hemingway didn't want Fitzgerald, but wanted, in the 1920s, to be Fitzgerald.

Particularly jarring in Z is the constant use of modern phrases -- not Modern, but modern. "Sexier than the truth," "way more," "and then some," "oh shit," "when he does shit like that," "you've got moves" -- careless, all this, and very disconcerting. One doesn't "do prep," one "preps." It's not Edna Millay, it's Vincent. I tripped over many small moments like these. There were so many terrific words and phrases in the '20s, why not use them? If you're claiming your novel strives for verisimilitude with the lives, and if you cite to the biographies and letters and critical studies, then make the language real, too.

Some of the imagined "writerly" moments in Z I really couldn't bear: Fowler's Zelda wants to introduce Scott to Joseph Conrad and Nostromo; she chooses the title for Gatsby; she helps him with many of his best-known lines or comes up with them herself. Now that's fiction. Zelda once gave Scott a copy of Conrad's Arrow of Gold, and she did provide Scott with inspiration and dialogue -- in her personal conversations, material from her early diaries, and in the few stories they wrote together. Most famously, under the influence of ether after Scottie was born, Zelda spoke the "beautiful little fool" line he put into Daisy's mouth in Gatsby.

However, when you're constructing a novel in which the thwarted wife is the heroine, and the husband alternately a sad unconfident failure and a bully, the eradicated literary preeminence of the wife must be your theme. In Z, Scott's the one who's the drunk, who won't shape up and write, who talks about his work all the time but doesn't get it done, who wants a large family of boys but can't support the one family and child he has. Fowler's Zelda doesn't keep Scott from writing in Great Neck, she encourages him. She doesn't torment him with Edouard Jozan while he's trying to finish Gatsby, but loves and gives up Jozan because he's "a symbol... a symptom." She mourns the loss of her ovary and her inability to have more children; Scott, who's been relieved when she's decided to abort their second child, then weeps over Hemingway's sons: "He slid to the floor and put his hands over his head as he cried. 'You've ruined my life! I'm a goddam eunuch compared to Ernest. Three sons! Bulls and blood... '" Bulls. More bulls.

And now to conclude, as Z does, with the use of Scott as a professional writer, and with his most famous novel. Z, published by St. Martin's Press, announces on its advance reader's copy a publication "just in time for Summer 2013's blockbuster movie: The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann." Says the author's biographical note, "When Z first sold to a publisher in London on April 10th, the same date The Great Gatsby was published, [the author] had to think it was fate." The last words in the book before the acknowledgements are, in all capitals: "SO WE BEAT ON, BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT, BORNE BACK CEASELESSLY INTO THE PAST[.]" So much for Z being a book about Zelda. Scott is the moneymaker here. Scott's words, the conclusion of the great American novel itself - and his own epitaph -- conclude Z. Fitzgerald and his work are used, yet again, for someone else's purposes and without creative respect. More than any other American writer, he has suffered such acts. I hope never to see another.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.