Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up
This is Francis Scott Fitzgerald bearing his very public soul not for absolution, but utter and ornery disdain, in the February 1936 issue of Esquire.
It’s a profound thesis from a literary giant imploding under Ozymandian hubris he no longer controlled or even knew he constructed. His future grows bleaker by each finger of whiskey he balefully imbibes. Fitzgerald announced a “clean break” from the predictable denouement his critics expected him to handle with grace and decorum. His diminished persona would now resemble a cracked plate “that will not be brought out for company” but instead “will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left overs.”
Postmodern French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari expounded on Fitzgerald’s crack-up; heralding it as the epitome of what they call “lines of flight”—tangents that enable forces to escape the structures containing them (societies, organizations, families). It’s thinking outside the box … with unabashed velocity and myopic determination. Once someone escapes the abstract “apparatus of capture,” he or she can forge new connections, and consciousness, that can only arise from spontaneous deviation. In the sanguine words of Jeff Tweedy, “a ghost is born.”
Jonathan Dee has always lent his luminous prose to the dissolution of once mighty cultural institutions. He also allows intensely human characters, replete with questionable scruples and frivolous foibles, to break those institutions down and reconstruct them in their own imperfect images. The Privileges, his 2010 contemporary morality tale that earned nomination as a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, pulled at the seams of marriage (and ostensibly family life) until it ripped into two diametrically opposed yet seemingly interdependent paths. Dee revels in characters’ lives that become unbearably strained with caprice. The societal pillars that barely sustain them are bound to crack.
Ben, Helen and Sara Armstead mirror the suburban propriety of their quaint New England suburb. Ben takes the train to Manhattan every morning to a pre-eminent law firm where he’s just been named junior partner. Helen is a dedicated homemaker who actively participates in their small community when not micro-managing their 12-year-old adopted Chinese daughter Sara. They are thoroughly asphyxiated by the tedium of civility.
Ben and Helen’s marriage cracks up. “Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified?” Ben confesses to their banal marriage counselor. “It all frightens the shit out of me.”
No vintage convertible, hot assistant or Cialis prescription will remedy Ben’s festering desire to irrevocably reset, or more appropriately jettison, his hijacked life narrative. Ben fixates on a line of flight—a pathetic dalliance with a young intern at his law firm who tries “to figure out in this new adult context what consequences of her own allure she was or wasn’t in control of—struggle with womanhood, in a way—was intoxicating.”
Their tryst escalates to the edge of inappropriateness…and careens off it, launching Ben and his disgraced family into free fall. Helen hemorrhages their savings into Ben’s rehab while raising Sara alone, with no income of her own. Desperate, Helen goes to Manhattan to interview for an entry-level position at a listless public relations agency badly in need of new blood. She has no experience in the field but feels enticed when the winsome patriarch of the firm tells her what they actually do—“We tell stories. Why? Because when they were little, they had devoted, beautiful mothers like you, who told them stories, and stories are how they first learned to make sense of the whole big, confusing world.”
Helen quickly discovers she has an innate and very valuable talent—she can persuade proud men to admit their mistakes and atone for their perceived sins. She enables them to disarm crisis by taking away the tribe’s main weapon—blame. Condemn the scapegoat and guide it back into the fold once the insatiable appetite for blood has been filled. She can instinctively pilot anyone toward the optimal line of flight—she just can’t find her own.
Daughter Sara navigates the turgid waters of her parents’ imminent divorce by stoking her own rebellion. She wages psychological warfare against an estranged Tiger Mom oblivious to what she really needs, against an erratic boyfriend she can’t trust and against a hapless father she can’t help but love.
It becomes increasingly evident that all three family members will embark on their own solo tours. Ben’s masochism is his only respite. Helen concludes that their marriage resembles “parentheses that came closest at the very beginning and very end of every day” … if at all. Sara? A “one-girl sleeper cell.”
Dee then drops Hollywood mega-star Hamilton Barth into the frame—disparate parts The Dude, River Runs Through It-era Brad Pitt and late-night-talk-show Harrison Ford. Helen actually grew up with Barth in upstate New York before he uprooted and embarked on his own misguided quest for immortality. There’s just enough of a lingering connection to allow for an unlikely occurrence, an event that finally forces Helen to embrace her own salvation instead of engineering it for someone else.
Throughout the novel Dee subtly and overtly reminds the reader how true lines of flight are hard to come by in our increasingly ephemeral digital society.
Helen recounts how 25 years earlier, she and a friend concocted a fool-proof fictitious story to avoid telling their parents they had been pulled over by the cops. She laments that such an escape would evaporate with minor probing today, since cell phones can now be tracked even when they’re turned off.
Sara feels constantly barraged with Facebook posts and random texts from her delinquent boyfriend and reeling father. Hamilton recoils at the sight of security cameras being installed on his cattle ranch. Is it possible to take an existential detour when the barriers to it loom invisible, omnipresent and silent all-at-once?
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up
In this respect, Dee embodies a schizophrenic Fitzgerald. It is human nature to weather despair with illogical alacrity…to have everything you ever wanted without recognizing any of it…to emerge from the rubble with a clean slate. We can bridge the vast gulf between loss and recovery without even knowing it.
Dee elegantly imbues each character with dignity that can only come from true rebirth … the type any of us can attain once we surrender to the inertia of life and roll with the serendipitous punches.
Patrick McGinn is a writer who hails from the Holy City, but now lives in the Chicken Capital of the World. He has contributed to Pretty Much Amazing, Flagpole Magazine, Charleston City Paper and In Your Speakers.