Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
First published: 1925
Another Classically Lacking, another Great American Novel which I have never read. Well, I had never read. I’ve read it now. That’s the point.
My main problem when writing about these extraordinarily well-read books is finding an angle to approach them from. What else can be said about Gatsby? What else can be said about, I don’t know, apple pie? It is what it is. What is to be said, has already been said. What is to be known, is mostly well known. The only angle I can come at it from is ignorance. It has taken me 24 years on Earth to get around to reading this book, and it’s not even that much of a challenge. It reads very comfortably, feels modern, and is a breezy length. I don’t know why I’ve never read it before. I think maybe its fame put me off, I think when I was perusing the shelves of a book shop my eye may have been drawn to it, and I may have thought:
‘Ah yes, The Great Gatsby. Don’t need to read that. It’s been read so often it’s been done for me.’
It’s as if I had absorbed its lessons, its quality, through some kind of literary osmosis.
The classic tag is not always a kind one, I don’t think. It suggests a fustiness, a scholastic quality which is off-putting outside of an academic setting, and since it was never thrust upon me in such a setting it just never happened.
No matter, I’m here now, developing my galaxy brain by tackling as many of those missed “classics” as I can, and now Gatsby joins the other greats I’ve taken down over the first half of this fast disappearing year in my bulging bag of old gold.
So what do I have to say about it?
About a contender of that prestigious, ridiculous label…
…The Great American Novel?
I really don’t know. I closed the pages on my tidy little Wordsworth Classic edition and put it down and really didn’t think very much at all. If I wasn’t all prepped and ready to write about Gatsby for Some Words On… I probably wouldn’t have leased much mind-space to it at all, perhaps none. Which is not to say it is bad. A bad thing tends to take up some room, linger a little in the air like something which has died in a vent on a hot summers day. No, Gatsby is not bad, not at all, in fact I’d probably say it’s rather good.
The phrase over-rated, although it naturally springs to mind, is unkind. The status of its over-rated-ness depends more on how incredibly highly rated it is, rather than the quality of the book itself, and my goodness The Great Gatsby is highly rated. The Great American Novel is one of the most bizarre and vague declarations of supposed quality that I have ever heard, and it is repeated frequently. No nation at any one time can be concisely and perfectly summarised or skewered by any single author, even across the entire breadth of their catalogue, let alone a single book. Let alone a single book which is novella sized. Such a label burdens a work of art with a terrible weight of expectation that cannot be shaken.
So let’s break it down, climb down from the heavens and look at The Great Gatsby on a more granular level. It’s narrator is Nick Carraway. He moves from west to east across the United States to work in New York and manages to snag himself a snug bungalow in West Egg, sandwiched between decadent mansions. One of his neighbours is in the business of wild, communal parties, where guests are not necessarily invited but nonetheless arrive with astonishing regularity. This neighbour is Jay Gatsby, the Great Gatsby to you and me. Nick gets to know Gatsby as well as anyone can and finds him to be courteous but mysterious. Rumours swirl about the origins of his wealth, about a dark and deadly past. But the only thing out of Gatsby’s past that matters is a lover of yesteryear, Daisy Buchanan, who lives across the water in East Egg, her presence signified by a blinking green light at the end of her own mansion’s dock which Gatsby watches, aims at, longs for.
It is a story about the dreams of a man of complete and utter focus. Daisy is the object of his desire, the focus of his longing. All he does and all he has revolves around her, about getting her. The lavish parties are designed as so that one day she might walk through his door and spot her old flame and see him, as wealthy as can be, the embodiment of the American Dream, and fall into his arms and tell him that she loves him and has always loved him and has never loved anyone else.
It is an impossible dream. Daisy is married. The wealth, the flash, is all pretence. It teeters on the edge of a cliff. The Jazz Age, the 1920s, was the prelude to the Great Depression. Fitzgerald couldn’t have known that for sure, but he certainly saw that something was wrong, and he poured it into Gatsby.
The writing is excellent. It is sharp, socially aware, and sardonic. Although we now look back on this book and see the big picture, all the grandest and most culturally significant ideas which it has to offer, I feel as if Fitzgerald smartly focuses on the small stuff. The lessons we can claim to have learned from this book come from the intricacies of character, the detail in the desires of those whom the story revolves around, not from grand Godly statements from the author.
This does lead to a common issue I have seen repeated amongst the book’s detractors:
The characters are shallow. Unlikeable. Inexcusable.
This is not untrue. Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, is predictably terrible. He would have to be! How else would we come to will Gatsby and Daisy together? He is a sorry figure, a football prodigy peaked at 21, resorting now to committing his will into reading and believing the writings of ill-conceived racist genealogies which put the unabashed success of America – all of it’s cultural, artistic, and technological achievements – in the hands of ‘Nordics.’ Read: white folk. It makes Tom feel as if he has actually done something, although to society he has clearly contributed nothing, regardless of race.
Also, as if it would come as any surprise, he is deep in an affair.
Perhaps more surprisingly Daisy is also not the most endearing figure. She lounges about, tittering and murmuring, and most certainly not being a mother to her daughter. But Gatsby sees something in her, something that has maybe been lost amongst the glamour. Gatsby sees it, even if we cannot, because it is all he can see.
In one moment Gatsby describes her voice as ‘full of money’ and Nick realises that he is absolutely right, although he would never himself have been able to muster up such an apt description. Gatsby believes he knows Daisy better than anyone, and why would he not? She is his dream, and he has been chasing that dream for years with utter commitment. Yet, when that dream comes close the reality appears differently, and eventually the dream slips away from Gatsby completely. He is a fool. A dreamer, romantic.
The Great Gatsby is the perfect title for this book. Jay Gatsby is a conjuror, an illusionist. He makes other’s dreams of affluence appear in the champagne flutes and the fireworks which glimmer around his mansion, but his own dream is a deadly mirage, one that consumes him and destroys him. It is no leap to suggest that Gatsby’s fate represents the entire age, the entire country, so lost in its own illusions, in its own Platonic ideal of the American Life that it desiccates reality and tips over into the Depression.
But I’m not saying anything new. I’m climbing back up into the heavens, getting grand and sweeping in my statements. It is a book from which a lot can be said, but it is not a book which I felt. It didn’t grab me by the heart or punch me in the gut. Like I said, it is not untrue to say the characters are unlikeable, and I can see why they should be unlikeable, but it doesn’t make it easy to connect with them, to care about their fates, or to think about them long after I turn over the final page.
I think the best thing to say about The Great Gatsby is that I appreciate it. I see what it is, enjoy its sheer quality and its historic value, but would I read it again? Would I recommend anyone who hasn’t read it before picking it up?
For me, its one and done. For everyone else…well it depends. Clearly some people do click with the characters more than I do, and if you’re into the glitz of the era it is here in full and beautiful force, even if Fitzgerald casts a disapproving eye over it all he still describes Gatsby’s parties wonderfully. Again, it is no wonder filmmakers return to this story frequently. The visual inspiration for those scenes is there on the page in flamboyant detail. Although saying that the only adaptation I have seen myself is Baz Luhrmann’s effort in 2013 and…
No. Not for me.
But let’s finish on what’s important: the damn book. It’s a book which is more than a book in many ways, but it still reads like one, feels like one. Because hey what do you know? It is one. So if you’re going to give it a go for the first time, shake away those chains of expectation because they can do nothing but hinder your experience and then, maybe, you’ll love it.
Maybe you’ll hate it.
Maybe you’ll be like me and fall somewhere in between.
Either way, to end on one fantastic, objective fact about The Great Gatsby that I absolutely adore:
It’s bloody short, so it’s worth a go. Isn’t it?
On to the next one!