Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book review: The Great Gatsby

As I noted back when I began this trip through the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby was the only one of his novels I had previously read. And thus, it's the only one for whom this read was a re-read. Since it's also Fitzgerald's best-known novel, I'll keep my plot-recounting even slimmer than usual, and focus instead on some thoughts I had about The Great Gatsby.
Unlike either This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful & Damned, The Great Gatsby is told in the first person, and this removes the slightly distant feel of the two earlier novels. Yet Nick Carraway is still something of a cipher - his character is not the central one of the book (or, at least, of the plot of the book), and even his relationships are relatively insignificant. His romantic relationship with Jordan Baker is never all that important - either to Nick, I suspect, or to us. And even his relationship with Jay Gatsby is oddly unimportant - I had remembered their friendship as being a focus of the book, but it's kept in the background, almost unnoticed - it doesn't seem to matter all that much to Gatsby, and doesn't really change Nick all that much either.

In fact, one of the notable things about The Great Gatsby as a novel is how short it is. In the edition I read, under 200 pages. And Jay Gatsby, although discussed earlier, doesn't appear until page 50. Somehow this seems wrong - when you think of the ideal of The Great American Novel, the sort of thing that comes to mind is something big, sprawling, vastly populated. Most of the other contenders for that (entirely arbitrary, subjective, frustrating) title do fall more or less into that category. Yet Gatsby is short, has only a handful of significant characters, takes place over a short period and is chiefly marked by containing a plot which serves much the same role as it does in Fitzgerald's other novels: as a frame for him to hang some characters and moods. There is a plot, of course, but it's not really Gatsby's selling point.

Instead, as always with Fitzgerald, we get characters and scenes painted with incredible vividness. Jordan Baker, for instance, is pegged in our minds the whole time: we know from the first time Nick meets her that there's something slightly dubious about her, and never quite shake the impression that a long-term relationship between her & Nick is neither plausible nor advisable. Yet we are never hit over the head with this - it's just something Fitzgerald sneaks into our consciousness. And, indeed, when she & Nick break up (er, spoiler!), it makes very little difference to the story or the characters. This is, again, Fitzgerald's slight coolness towards his characters. Other authors would have made a much bigger deal of both this relationship and its end, yet in doing so would have derailed the book, not to mention changed the character of Nick so much as to completely alter everything else. Nick Carraway is one of fiction's most passive narrators: skimming past his own life, providing only enough detail so we can understand what he wants to tell us about. Fitzgerald as author and Nick as narrator also make the interesting structural choice to let us know about Gatsby's past earlier in the book than Nick knows it in the story - clearly saying, 'people in this story are interested in this background. you shouldn't be, or at least no more than I want you to be'.

In the end, the theme here is pretty straightforward, if no less profound for that. We can't escape the past. As the famous final lines have it:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Or, as D'Angelo Barksdale would say:

The past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it: all that shit matters.

And that is why people still read The Great Gatsby, and still consider it one of the greatest American (or anywhere) novels of the 20th century.

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