Form: Narrative Essay
Written: August 2013
Commissioned by: Indiana Wesleyan University English and Writing Department
When I was a freshman in college, I had nothing better to do on a Saturday than to drive off campus, far and away to Purdue University, where my sister Sam was a junior. It was January, maybe February, not long after we had found ourselves in the middle of holiday drama—aunts complaining about cousins, moms mad at dads for their imperfect gifts. And Sam and I had realized once again that we liked each other, so much so that I drove the snowy two hours from Marion to West Lafayette, just to spend an evening with my big sis.
Sam gave me a taste of her college life: we spent our lazy Saturday shopping at cute boutiques and big chain stores, trying on clothes neither of us could afford. She showed me where she worked, her favorite places to eat. At night we stayed up late, curled up together on the couch like we used to as kids, and made fun of the Miss America Pageant, throwing words like sexist and degrading at the screen.
After dinner that evening I had had an itch to buy a book at the Borders across from our restaurant. I found myself in the fiction section, then the F’s, fishing to find the book I wanted to read, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. I had read Fitzgerald of the Gatsby fame before but was intrigued by the author’s first novel, the semi-autobiographical story of one Amory Blaine, who came of age during World War I. I started the book there in West Lafayette; I’m not sure what Sam was doing while I, in my imagination, traveled to 1910’s Minnesota.
There was glamor in that book I knew I was missing in my life. Amory went to these impressive prep schools with high towers and gargoyles overlooking the lawn. (Where were IWU’s spires?) He had long, pretentious conversations with the wise ex-Catholic, Monsignor Darcy, who encouraged the boy in his pursuit of self-knowledge. And Amory loved reading George Bernard Shaw, and he wrote for Princeton’s newspaper, and he skipped class one day to drive to the coast and steal meals with his buddies. My adventure, I knew, went no further than this Saturday, driving across the state to spend 24 hours with someone I had known my whole life.
The next afternoon I drove back to Indiana Wesleyan in the snow. I remember being eager to get back to campus, but now I’m not sure why. I had so much fun with my older sister, and I knew I was coming back to a (hopefully) empty dorm room and an eventless Sunday evening.
Already I had become dis-illusioned by college life. I had arrived in the fall, believing that everyone around me would have the same interests as me, would care about the same causes, and would want to be my friend. By second semester, I had no friends (or very few), and it seemed that everyone around me was fake. Fake smiles, fake hands-in-the-air worship. I knew my options were to either adapt, to play a role that was not truly me, or to opt out and therefore be alone.
I chose to be alone. I worked my way through This Side of Paradise slowly, reading when the rest of campus socialized between classes, during lunch and dinner. As Amory ages in the book, I formed a kinship with him and adopted his sentiment. He prides himself in his narcissism. He is the star of his own story. And if someone does not like him, does not find him as “damn debonair” as he knows himself to be—well, who needs them (Fitzgerald 54)?
To his friend Tom, Amory describes himself as a “cynical idealist,” adding that he is not sure if that means anything (Fitzgerald 94). To me, that meant everything. It meant you were an idealist maybe at heart, that you wanted so much for the world to piece together for the good of all. But you also knew it would not and could not if people were the way they were. Roommates could but won’t ever invite you to hang out. Classmates could but won’t care about the project as much as you do. You could but won’t change the world. For those first few months of the spring semester, I let myself become Amory Blaine, the cynical idealist.
One time I remember walking from my residence hall to the campus coffee shop with this air of egotism, chin high and hands in my pockets. I was shaky for some reason, maybe clinically anxious, my heart ached, but I ordered a latte as if it were the hard liquor the flapper version of me thought she needed.
“One vanilla Cuban latte,” I said coolly to the barista-turned-bartender, “with skim.” Waiting for my drink to be called, I sized up and labeled those around me the way Amory had as a student. Prep. Jerk. Hipster. When I finally got my drink, I sat at a table alone, with my book turned open, shakily bringing the cup to my lips. I read one of my favorite, and sadly most relatable, sections of the book: “[Amory] sat in the train, and thought about himself for thirty-six hours” (Fitzgerald 66).
These were hard times for me, particularly lonely. But I am convinced that reading This Side of Paradise brought me to the other side in one piece. Living vicariously through this character gave me the space to work though all my frustrations about college life. In being Amory, my loneliness wasn’t quite as weighty. In being Amory, my disillusionment wasn’t quite so jaded. Amory carried the brunt of my troubles; all I had to do is follow along.
I didn’t finish This Side of Paradise until the spring semester was over and I was back at home. By the time I got to the final pages, when Amory becomes disillusioned by his own disillusionment—I didn’t need him anymore. I had survived the final days of the school year. I had made friends, girls who were slightly less cynical than I was, but definitely not fake. That book had led me from the frustration and pain of being disillusioned, of knowing that my expectations were not met, to a place of hope. I began to see that calling someone or something fake was pointless if I could not define real. I began to see that cynicism was only worthwhile if it provoked change. Amory taught me that if all I did was complain and look inwardly, name myself a god and everyone else peons, I could end up like him: selfish, alone, knowing myself well—but nothing more.