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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like all right-thinking people I've reread this book in anticipation of the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation that's coming out this year. I'm pretty sure I've read it twice before, but it has never made any lasting impression on me, perhaps because the copy I have (bought used in college) is randomly marked with inane underlinings and marginal notes. Or maybe I always get confused by the non-linear way that Fitzgerald tells the story, weaving back and forth in time to create a portrait of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan that never seems to add up to anything for me.

I suppose the fascination of Gatsby is that he's that great American type: a con man. A pretender. Like Alien in Spring Breakers he's a kind of gangster who dragged himself up from nowhere by his bootstraps and is living the American Dream. But that's almost by-the-way to the novel, revealed in inert flashbacks that don't have much drama, while what sizzles and pops is the fantasy life he creates in his Long Island mansion and in his dream of love with Daisy. Yet I think a problem I have with the novel is that Daisy herself is such an elusive, uninteresting character.

What's Daisy's story? She's a society girl from old money who has a fling with a young soldier before he leaves for war and then loses interest in him after he's gone. She marries somebody from a moneyed family, has a child with him, and lives an empty life of hedonism. When her old flame re-appears, newly enriched by bootlegging, she flirts with abandoning her boredom (and cheating husband) but then chooses stability and boredom over an unreal dream of romantic happiness.

Well, that's a real enough story, but it's mostly told from the point of view of Nick (the narrator) and Gatsby, and Daisy's allure never really comes alive for me. She just seems a vapid parasite, which is pretty much the way Nick seems to see her. What bite the novel has is in its view (which is Nick's) of Tom and Daisy as adulterers and murderers who get away with it because of wealth and social status. The point is that the American Dream of making a ton of money and living on Easy Street is an illusion, because what matters is not money but social class. I suppose that Gatsby's ultra-romanticism when it comes to Daisy is meant to seem delusional and pathetic and ultimately self-destructive.

Now that I think of it, Gatsby's delusions of romance are contrasted by Nick's own cynicism about his affection for the tennis star, Jordan. Are we supposed to admire Nick? Nick comes from money, but he's trying to work his own way in the world by starting out at a brokerage firm far from home, albeit bankrolled for the first year by his father. He is fleeing a relationship with a girl in the Midwest that everybody had assumed was going to turn into a marriage. He has feelings for Jordan, but he also knows that she's no different than Daisy. Ultimately he rejects the unworthy woman, unlike Gatsby, although he feels torn about it. At the end of the novel he returns to the quiet life of the Midwest, but has he given up on love entirely? Is he in fact incapable of love?

Perhaps my real problem with the book is that Nick is such a cypher himself. What's *his* story?

I think I've also had a hard time connecting to the romanticism (and anti-romanticism) of this book, but it looks like prime territory for Baz Luhrmann to play with. If anybody can sell Gatsby's infatuation with Daisy as something epic and tragic, Baz can. He should also do well with the desperate fun that the parasite class use to distract themselves from their moral vacuity. We'll see how well he captures the criminal tawdriness that underlies all the sparkle.

One interesting thing I noticed for the first time this time is Tom Buchanan's racism. He's basically a paranoid white supremacist of the grand old American type, and his racism is portrayed as something lunatic and hypocritical. Tom is clearly shown to project his own moral failings onto what he considers the lower races. Not that the novel is very concerned with race in general, but Fitzgerald at least seems to disapprove of racism at a time when segregation was still the law of the land.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 11th, 2013 12:42 am (UTC)
I found the book to be pretentious gittery about repulsive and uninteresting people. I don't generally do well with Great Novels, and this was a typical example. I will say about the movie, though, that DiCaprio, as he now is, should be well-cast as Gatsby.
Apr. 11th, 2013 01:30 am (UTC)
They are an unlikable lot, that's for sure. I'm curious to see what Luhrmann makes of them.
Apr. 11th, 2013 05:44 am (UTC)
The one and only time i read Gatsby in college, the professor told us briefly about a paper he'd seen presented that positioned Daisy as a queen of a fairy court (her maiden name is Fay). It's certainly a tantalizing interpretation, considering how everything goes to shit for people who get involved with them yet the Buchanans seem to come out unscathed.
Apr. 11th, 2013 03:05 pm (UTC)
Interesting thesis, although my immediate reaction is that Daisy is too passive and cowardly a character to be a Faerie Queen.

I watched the 1974 film adaptation last night on Netflix -- the one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I saw it when it first came out, but at age 13 I would've disliked it simply because it was a romance. I'd forgotten that the screenplay was by Francis Ford Coppola. The screenplay is very true to the book, with almost all of the dialogue and most of the incidents straight off the page, although there's some rearranging and some things are cut.

It helped to have the characters embodied for me to understand better why I have such a hard time with them. For example, Gatsby's insistence that Daisy has never loved anybody but himself just doesn't feel real to me. It doesn't seem admirable, and yet Nick seems to admire him for it. And maybe Nick is the key figure. He is someone who is apparently incapable of love himself, and so he admires the fact that everything Gatsby has done he has done for love. He admires Gatsby's foolish romanticism because it isn't corrupt or selfish, unlike the Buchanans or Jordan. Yet I've never been able to share the admiration. All I can see is someone throwing his life away for a vain, selfish, vapid fool. Maybe the Faerie Queen explanation make sense of this conundrum: it's ensorcelment.

On the other hand, Daisy recognizes herself for what she is, and she even says she wants her daughter to be exactly the same kind of fool she is. Self-loathing, FTW!
Apr. 11th, 2013 06:02 pm (UTC)
I loved the Redford film which I saw on tv at c 15, probably the right age for a girl and that will always be my conception of the characters. I agree Daisy is vapid but isn't that the point? Love is love even if the object of affection isn't objectively up to much. I too kinda admire Gatsbys passion. I agree Nick is a cipher and that probably is the point, he is neutral to their excesses.
Unpleasant they may be but I preferred them to the cast of On The Road..
Once deCaprio would have been perfect ; but he is a bit thickset these days, not as pretty as he was :-(
Apr. 11th, 2013 06:47 pm (UTC)
Even this time around, and having become a fan of tragic romances in the meantime, I found the Redford film curiously inert. The cast is actually really good, but there was no dramatic tension for me. The one moment that gave me a jolt was when Myrtle Wilson (played by Karen Black) smashes a window with her hand and then sticks her bloody fingers in her mouth. Now *that* wasn't in the book! But in general it felt way too mannered and safe -- which may actually be true to the book too.

In the book, by the way, Nick makes a big deal at the beginning about how he reserves judgment on people, and yet he comes across as not so much reserved as torn about everything. What we know about his past is very similar to Fitzgerald's life.

On the Road is a book I've never been interested in whatsoever, and I haven't heard anything good about the recent film adaptation.

Edited at 2013-04-11 09:11 pm (UTC)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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