Purity in a Pandemic – The Crack Up (End of Part One)

F. Scott Fitzgerald has this essay I come back to every so often to remind myself that being an adult has been difficult regardless of generation. It’s called “The Crack Up.”

It contains the now overused line, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is to see two opposing opinions simultaneously.”

But most people do not see the wealth of knowledge tucked away in later passages. Haruki Murakami is always shocked, and I agree, about the maturity and wisdom that came from Fitzgerald, who was a young writer starting out, and here is no exception. Possibly my favorite passage is here:

That is the real end of this story. What was to be done about it will have to rest in what used to be called the “womb of time.” Suffice to say that after about an hour of solitary pillow-hugging, I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. What was the small gift of life given back in comparison to that?—when there had once been a pride of direction and a confidence in enduring independence.

This is the ultimate feeling as I finish the first part, and what appears to be Pip’s opening story to set off the novel. Franzen enjoys multiple perspectives in the third person, enjoys skipping forward in time, and then retracing steps in flashback (like he did with Freedom and The Corrections), in such a way as to give us the inciting moment, only to go back and bring us to the breaking point.

And Pip is having a crack up.

In my previous blog post, I discussed Pip’s horrible exchanges between first Jason, then Annegrette. Now it has multiplied to Stephen, Marie, and her boss Igor. While she is seeing other possibilities abroad, as Chip did going to Eastern Europe in The Corrections, Pip is slowly flattered by Andreas Wolff and the Sunlight Project in Bolivia. Normally, such an offer would be ridiculous, even dangerous, as Pip’s mother explains. But Pip has been living on borrowed time, working for a job she clearly does not value, falling for a married man who does not love her back (at least, not in the way she wants to), and loving and caring for Ramon, who is heartbroken for a family now ending.

Suddenly the prospect of a paid internship where Pip is at least valued for her inability to maintain trusting relationships seems the right thing to do.

Which is so dangerous.

Imagine taking the most destructive elements of your life and capitalizing on them. Like an alcoholic becoming a bartender, Pip seems to believe in the concept of transparency if only to shortcut relationships and “cut to the chase” when resolving them soon. She wants to burn bridges so she does not have to cross them. As I make my way into the novel, we’ll have to see how Pip’s encounter with globalized internet sleuths like the Sunlight Project either awaken a devil or reincarnate a saint.

Back to the crack up. When my girlfriend left me in Memphis, I very much felt like Pip does here. I had very little money, and although the cost of living in the city was relatively low, I only had enough money to pay six to eight months rent. Suddenly the small world I had created for myself felt very large. Writing was all but impossible, lending credit to that idea by John Updike, that a writer must embed themselves like a tick into suburban living. I ate taco bell and played Dark Souls and somehow all of that was exactly what I needed.

But like many other millenials (fully a third in the early 2010s), I went home to live with my parents in Houston. The fourteen hour drive back in my 1994 Ford Ranger was something I won’t forget.

Now that I am here in such a dramatically different state, I can say that my life has been mended, despite all the terror that goes on around us. Unlike Pip, I am much more comfortable with the concept of suffering. Perhaps that is another lesson I can learn about moving from the early twenties: I am glad that not everything has to be about me. I would actually prefer to embed myself into the hearts of others, and I am finding that the more I remove my notion of the self, the happier I become.

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