Alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t read the book and want to be surprised by its plot.
Now then, to begin.
A disclaimer: I am not a Fitzgerald acolyte; the saga of F. Scott and Zelda bores me utterly. Nor am I one who thinks that The Great Gatsby is the greatest American novel of the twentieth-century. I didn’t read the novel in high school, so I have no fond or ridiculous teenage associations with the tale of summer misery, nor did I ever have the misapprehension that the book is somehow about “the American dream.” I find the famous last line overwrought.
Melodrama and pretentiousness (and not just on the part of the characters) pop up at inopportune times (for example: “So we drove on toward death in the cooling twilight”). Fitzgerald’s occasional attempts to be funny fall flat. And the casual racism, classism, and sexism the novel presents are difficult to stomach eighty-eight years after its original publication.
But then, there’s this:
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—”
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.
The episode of domestic violence is nothing to celebrate, but look at that sentence. It is the punch. It’s short and violent, and deft. Preceded as it is by less than ten pages in Mrs. Wilson’s presence, we still know that Tom will suffer no repercussions for his abuse; Myrtle, undereducated (“I got to call up my sister too”) and out of her milieu, has signed on to play by his rules.
I found, as I re-read the novel, that what I appreciate more than the plot or the atmosphere of the novel is the crafting of it. The narrative spins out in unusual ways, and sometimes the lyricism for which Fitzgerald is so often celebrated serves a perfect purpose, like a sorbet cleansing the palate between courses (or so I’ve been told; I’ve never been to that type of dinner). The characterization is often gracefully accomplished — Jordan Baker balancing something on the tip of her nose, or Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, for example. And certainly, Fitzgerald gives the reader a feel for the dissolute post-war, pre-crash golden days of New York and Long Island; to me, it rather feels like a documentary parading a host of sad and lonely people whose access to great wealth only makes them hideous.
[An exception is Gatsby’s father, who appears with his son’s itemized self-improvement list to humanize a dead man whose very dreams were a facade. Gatsby’s father is merely sad and lonely, an afterthought in his son’s calculations.]
Despite its technical successes, the novel is about unpleasant people who do unpleasant things and occasionally veer off into unconscionable acts, and thus I do not find it to be a particularly pleasant reading experience.