Just In Case I See the Movie Version: Another Look at The Great Gatsby

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.

Recommended Reading: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

My copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh includes an interview with Michael Chabon, in which he talks about the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Philip Roth on this, Mr. Chabon’s first published novel. While I haven’t read enough Roth to comment on the connection (truly, one of his novels was quite enough for me, though you may, if you choose, think me a Philistine), The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, without being at all similar in plot or setting, did indeed seem caught up in the summer-long wave of events that is The Great Gatsby; the last page of the novel, especially, savored strongly of the green light.

Art Bechstein, the narrator, spends his first post-collegiate summer in Pittsburgh looking for adventures and answers with a new, wildly interesting set of friends.

That’s not a great summary, but really, how do you summarize a novel? I’ve always found it tremendously difficult, and the stress that results from worrying about what to leave out and what to highlight makes me thirst for a tall gin and tonic.

But I digress.

This is my third Chabon novel. I very much enjoyed Wonder Boys, which I like to read in conjunction with Straight Man, by Richard Russo, my number-one contemporary lit-fic squeeze, and I recommend Mr. Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to just about everyone. It was the first-year summer reading at Ohio State (Go Bucks!) when I was a freshman (lo these many years ago), and it was an awesome pick.

Reading a first novel after reading those polished, longer pieces was delightful; I saw later characters germinating, saw the beginnings of Mr. Chabon’s wit and breadth of view. It wasn’t jarring (the way that reading The Comedy of Errors after reading King Lear is almost terrifying), but rather gave me a chance to appreciate the author’s mature prose in light of his youthful exuberance, without denigrating either.

A few other stray thoughts: I’m a sucker for kind but clear-eyed descriptions of north-easternly cities that aren’t New York (hailing as I do from Cleveland by way of Buffalo), and Mr. Chabon’s Pittsburgh is a character in this novel. The first-person narration works, and the slight departure from it in the penultimate chapter made me sit up and take notice of what was happening, without fanfare or fireworks.

It’s a fine bildungsroman with charm and verve, and it comes highly recommended.

By the way, I hear there’s a film version, and that you shouldn’t see it.