The attack has already begun.
“Why I despise The Great Gatsby” is an essay by Kathryn Schulz at New York Magazine in which Schulz notes that she’s read it five times without deriving any pleasure from it, it’s too polished, it contains no live people whatsoever, it exists solely on the surface, it has all the flaws of a fairy tale, its author was seduced by the very excesses he tried to denounce and failed to admit it, and, furthermore, F. Scott Fitzgerald once pointedly spilled a drink on her at a dinner party.
Is there merit in this line of argument? Should we downgrade it from “The Great Gatsby” to “The Gatsby”?
The easiest thing to say about a Great Book is that you liked it. If you breathe a breath of dissent, everyone comes barrelling in to crow that you didn’t understand it. The emperor’s suit looks marvelous.
Any book that for decades we’ve been told is great acquires dozens of mysterious new ways to be great. With every essay by a high-schooler and every book club that knuckles down to it, it takes on new layers of meaning. And “Gatsby” welcomes it — meticulously constructed, with its symbols literally staring at you from every side. And 3-D might just barely be unsubtle enough for it. It’s been lovingly remixed before (here’s comic artist Kate Beaton’s hilarious take) and its last line is one of those few literary totems that pretty much everyone still carries around and can produce at will.
But how good is it? Is it still possible to say?
The movie seems to be suffering (it’s at 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) from the most vigorous The Book Was Better Backlash in months. (“Fitzgerald would have frowned on that zebra.” “Too many dimensions.”) This is one of the last books we are all sure of having read, or at least of having vigorously SparkNotes’ed, and Yes, It Was Better.
I’ve read all of Fitzgerald’s novels, and the only one I actively disliked was “Tender is the Night.” His first, “This Side of Paradise” has the same flaw as Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” — it wants to be an ironic, distant picture of the fool that the author used to be when he was a Youth At School, but it cannot help admiring its old reflection. Reading it, you suspect that Fitzgerald would stand proudly behind the essay he used to apply to college. The people in “The Beautiful and Damned,” his next, also semi-autobiographical novel, are unattractive, but the author seems only to realize this in flashes and hands them long sections of Deep Profound Thoughts He’s Had About The Universe that he expects them to share with us.
Gatsby doesn’t have this problem. By the time Fitzgerald got to “Gatsby,” he had attained a discipline the other novels lack. “The Great Gatsby” is almost alarmingly short. His contempt for the gold-hatted, high-bouncing milieu had caught up with his ability. There are no stray speeches. The people in “Gatsby” are never asked to sound like more than what they are.
Alone of Fitzgerald’s completed novels, it’s in the first person, and that makes all the difference. Nick’s unreliability covers for Fitzgerald’s own unreliability. Nick is both in love with and disgusted by his milieu. He is a moth. Gatsby is a candle. Moths make better narrators than candles. They are simply more interested in candles than the candles are themselves. Fitzgerald himself was a candle, dying at forty-four with the mystique of the Early Success still mantled around his shoulders.
The novel itself is both sordid and lovely, like all great literature. It’s tawdry. It’s melodrama. And it’s some of the most gorgeous prose in English. This description of a throwaway character is one of my favorites — “The sister, Catherine, was a slender, worldly girl of about thirty with a solid sticky bob of red hair and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face.”
But beyond waxing lyrical about East Egg and West Egg, the light at the end of the dock — what can one say to prove that the novel is good? Anyone who read it for high school would have to admit that the thing is a long succession of images. It practically jumps off the page at you waving a COMMENTARY flag. Start to write anything about it and it all becomes painfully evident (The Valley of Ashes, anyone?) Beautiful, it was. Subtle, it was not.
“If F. Scott and Zelda are class,” Dorothy Parker wrote, “Cellini made things out of brass. Dacron’s just like fur/AirWick smells like myrrh, and plastic’s as good as stained glass.”
It’s one of those books that shaped a generation of Great American Novels in its image. This, it turned out, was what the Great American Novel was supposed to look like. It’s a peculiarly American tragedy: rags to dubious riches, all for love, and, it turns out, there’s a class system to contend with after all. Gatsby wins. He gets the beautiful shirts, and, for a while, the girl. But then he loses and keeps losing. It’s the revelation that certain gaudy sorts of happiness only exist when glimpsed from without. The life you could have had is always perfect. Gatsby has it, for a moment. Then he pays. The light at the end of the other dock is always greener.
The trouble with writing about “The Great Gatsby” is that inevitably at some point it starts to sound like what you wrote in high school about it.
It always stuns me that it was first published in 1925. The shadow of the stock market crash and the Depression seem to dog every word. The novel is addressed to the skull beneath the painted skin.
For a depiction of idleness and carelessness, it’s one of the most disciplined of books. As Fitzgerald wrote in a later preface to a Modern Library reissue, “What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel!” But not a novel so fine as “The Great Gatsby.” In order to give it what its critics say it lacks — subtlety, characters about whom you cared as people, not because of their plights, you would have to pile on and collapse the whole cake.
Is it a fairy tale, in the worst way? Are there no people in it? No people worth caring about? Is it “detached from human struggle,” as Schulz suggests? Of course. But it’s that detachment that gives it its power. Who wants to read about human struggle when you can read “The Great Gatsby”?
If anything, the kind of people in it have only become more common. No wonder the soundtrack was such a cinch to come up with. In our aspirational music, the party don’t stop. The champagne flows. We are famous and adventurous and drunk. The quest to become something completely ridiculous, some parody dreamed up by a seventeen year-old — Jay Gatsby, who hunts tigers and owns every possible color of shirt — is the new American dream. To appear to be having fun all the time. To have a movie about you and a zebra in your pool. We are all rooting for Gatsby. He’s hollow on purpose.
Oscar Wilde said that “In life there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.” That’s “The Great Gatsby” in a nutshell. In the tide of “Gatsby” appreciation, I’d rather beat with the current.
Quibbles, qualms, bones to pick? I’m @petridishes!