Friday, January 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I crossed another item off my Bucket List--admittedly an easy one, because all I had to do was buy a copy of The Great Gatsby, sit down and read it. It still took me longer than it should've, with a couple of months passing between the buying and the reading. Still: done. Check.

Gatsby was one of my gaps. We've all got gaps: something you should have experienced or learned along the way and just never quite did. I'm reminded that William F. Buckley, one of the better-read men of letters, didn't get around to Moby-Dick until he was 50 and exclaimed to a friend, "to think I might have died without reading it!" I didn't want to have that regret with F. Scott Fitzgerald so I figured I'd start with what many critics consider his best work and one of the four or five greatest novels of the 20th Century.

I'm also reminded of a series of reviews I recently read in which a young woman who'd never seen any "Star Wars" movies sat down to watch them through virginal adult eyes. All she knew was what she'd absorbed through popular culture, and she was surprised by how many touchstones she unearthed ("These aren't the droids you're looking for" suddenly made sense). Her verdict: pretty good, although she didn't quite get what the fuss was about. Maybe you had to be there.

I was in a similar boat with Gatsby. Although I'd never read the book or seen any of the movies, I came to it with the understanding that it was set in the Jazz Age and had something to do with lost innocence and the American ability to reinvent oneself. I thought it was a love story about shallow rich people. I'd heard of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and Tom, but didn't know how they fit together. I also knew the famous last few paragraphs of the book--the green light at the end of the dock, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"--in the same way people who've never read Moby-Dick know "Call me Ishmael" and all of Khan's best lines from "Star Trek II."

So my observations are in the spirit of the "Star Wars" reviewer: I expect they'll be obvious, laughable or flat-out wrong to those who know the story, but are honest impressions born from innocence and ignorance. Credit me for the courage to admit it.

First, I was surprised by what a short, quick read Gatsby is. My paperback is 180 pages and I read most of it in an afternoon. I have clear memories of a giant hardcover edition when the Redford movie came out in 1974, so I really expected an epic. I actually checked my copy to be sure I hadn't accidentally picked up an abridged version.

I'd expected something big and sprawling, maybe covering continents and decades. Nope. It's an intimate story with a few characters moving through a few settings, mostly Long Island and Manhattan, during one summer. Fitzgerald's not Michener (who was contractually obligated to begin all of his books with the Earth cooling) and I'm grateful.

For a novel written in 1925, Gatsby struck me as quite modern in style. The prose is lean and snappy. It flows. Hardly turgid or difficult at all. It reminded me of Hemingway with the edges sanded off.

Without spoiling anything, for some reason I'd always assumed that the novel's end, with the green light and boats against the current, was told from Gatsby's perspective. It was therefore a shock to realize a few chapters before the climax, as Fitzgerald's expertly wound plot uncoiled with terrible momentum, that it wouldn't be. Did not see that coming.

A niggling, puzzling annoyance: Fitzgerald consistently wrote "of" when he should've used "have": he could of, she would of. First, I was surprised to find that in a book from 1925 because it strikes me as a more modern error. Second, Fitzgerald's too good a writer (and I presume had too good an editor) to do it accidentally. But if it served a purpose, such as revealing a character or their voice, I didn't get it.

Who am I to criticize? Nobody.

Mostly I was struck by the lyricism of Fitzgerald's language, his perfect graceful metaphors and knack for capturing a scene, character or mood with a short dash of color. "A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling...." The lovely Daisy had "the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” When Nick first meets Gatsby, Gatsby's smile "understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

Not that Fitzgerald's aching for my approval, but gee that's terrific stuff.

Do I think The Great Gatsby is a Great Book? Well, yeah. Probably. Sure. It delivered unique insights into complex relationships and human nature. If you want to search it for metaphors about society, class and the American Dream, they're there too (although I think it's important to remember that Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby before the Depression revealed the emptiness at the heart of livin' large, which nevertheless fits his theme nicely). I'll need to let my reading experience reconcile with my expectations and then revisit it.

I find that the best books haunt me, nagging at the back of my brain. The Great Gatsby is one of those.

If you're interested in some supplemental reading, I recommend this essay by film critic Roger Ebert in which he rages against a bowdlerized Gatsby meant for "Intermediate Readers" in schools. He writes, "There is no purpose in 'reading' The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all."

I think that's true enough that it should be a universal rule. Don't bother starting the journey if you're just going to take a short cut.


Jim O'Kane said...

Great essay. Haven't touched Gatsby since... my mid-20's? Now, I'm going to have to re-read and see if I've missed insights. It's one of my son's favorite books -- so much so, he wanted to open a bar and call it "West Egg."

I'm sure you know the Valley of Ashes is what's now Corona Park, site of the '39 and '64 Fairs we both obsess upon. Did that cross your mind while you were immersed in the story?

Brian Fies said...

Yes it did! In fact, I paused to look it up:

Marion said...

I haven't read Gatsby in a couple of decades. I think I should read it again; people think Gatsby is the main character the way they think *Wuthering Heights* is a love story. Thanks for the great reminder, Brian.

Anonymous said...

Nice writeup old sport.