Don’t wake the Tarkington ghosts. This line has been in my head for years. My copy of The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s final novel, is dated November 2nd, 1996, in the inside cover. So I guess I’ve been worrying on and off about the Tarkington ghosts for the best part of 25 years. I have never woken them! Fitzgerald would be proud. But still, those ghosts are always with me, always slumbering.
The Last Tycoon is my favourite Fitzgerald. It’s set in Hollywood and narrated by Cecilia, a girl who has “never been in pictures” but grew up in the business. Her father is a studio bigwig. Valentino came to her fifth birthday. So: “Even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go round.” Cecilia is the Carraway of this book, then, but with slight alterations. Still, Cecilia is largely there to watch in the book’s first parts, and the person she watches the most in Monroe Stahr.
Stahr is a brilliant studio guy – he’s got a knack with making movies. I gather he’s loosely based on Irving Thalberg, but because I came to The Last Tycoon first and worked back from there, in my head, Thalberg is always based on Stahr. Stahr’s looking for a particular woman – so far, so Gatsby. But whereas Gatsby’s business affairs are one of his book’s deeper secrets, we get to see Stahr working, and for me it’s this stuff that overpowers the main plots.
I love books about people doing their jobs. Skyfaring: a Journey with a Pilot. There’s a book for you. Just you, a Boeing 747 captain, and beautiful prose about what he does and where he goes. The Last Tycoon’s middle section follows Stahr through the ins and outs of his job, negotiating with difficult actors, dealing with unions, coaching an English novelist who thinks they’re a bit too good to write for pictures. There’s a wonderful scene where Stahr’s just spitballing, trying to jog loose movie ideas while playing a game that involves tossing change into a lampshade. There’s a real sense of accuracy to all this, too. Fitzgerald worked in Hollywood in his later years. You’re getting both an inside account and a bit of imagination – Fitzgerald never flew as high as Stahr.
I can’t read this book now without wishing I could play it. The Last Tycoon Tycoon! There are plenty of Tycoon games, and I imagine The Movies would get me pretty close. But there’s something about the setting, about Fitzgerald and those sentences of his. I want a tycoon game with the soul of a poet, a tycoon game that contains the same mystery, that maybe has room for Stahr’s love, and for Cecilia too.
And there’s this big reason I think it would work so beautifully as a game. The Last Tycoon isn’t just Fitzgerald’s last book, it’s unfinished. You get about half the plot and then the rest is just notes, because Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. (In a William Gibson novel, I’m pretty sure I read that the site of his death was a Virgin Megastore in the 1990s. I want to say he died in the World Music section?)
For me, the last part of the book, the inchoate lines and notes and personal reminders, are my favourite parts. Here are Fitzgerald’s brilliant sentences truly unmoored. Girl like a record with a blank on the other side. Wily plagiarists. He makes observations about characters. He writes down warnings to himself: ACTION IS CHARACTER. He tells himself not to wake the Tarkington ghosts.
This is what games could give you, I think. Games are different from movies and books in many ways, but here’s a biggy: they don’t have to end. Sometimes, when they do end, we don’t really believe it anyway. We play past it. The Last Tycoon could continue forever as a game, and nobody would wake those ghosts.