Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Really, Really Great Gatsby

For all the weight it's carried around over the years, it's a relatively thin novel.  Less than 200 pages in most paperback versions, it is nonetheless obese with style and panache and highly-charged conflict and morality and all the other ingredients that put one novel on a pedestal above all others.  As the years pass, our recollection of The Great Gatsby grows heavier and heavier, until finally we think of it in such general terms (Wealth and Decadence!  Jazz Age!  Robert Redford!) that we sometimes forget the specifics--at the sentence- and paragraph-level--that made F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel one of the thickest pillars holding up our American literary mansion.

Or maybe you were one of those who thought Gatsby sucked.  Over the years, perhaps you've only grown more and more bitter toward the English teacher who made you write a particularly wretched term paper which, if memory serves, had something to do with the symbolism of green lights and fog.  Maybe you thought Daisy Buchanan was as limp as a wet tissue and Jay Gatsby was an insufferable bore.  That's cool.  Different strokes for different folks.  I, for one, can't fathom all the fuss over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

On the other hand, if you were one of those who got completely absorbed in the West Egg society--such fabulous lawn parties! such a tragic love affair!--you might want to check out Sonya Chung's re-appreciation of "the impeccably wrought" novel at The Millions.

I especially like how Chung spotlights Fitzgerald's talent at the lowest level of the sentence.  She cites one as an example of the book's luminosity:  Two o’clock and the whole corner of the peninsula was blazing with light, which fell unreal on the shrubbery and made thin elongating glints upon the roadside wires.  Leafing back through the early pages of the novel, I find this one: And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.  There's something about those "great bursts of leaves" which really appeals to my writer's sensibility.  As Chung observes: "Describing why a sentence is beautiful is a little like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like.  For me, Fitzgerald’s sentences are somehow both profoundly weighted and soaring, confident in their matter-of-factness and indulgent in their romanticism."

I feel the same way about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom which, if you'll indulge me the word, is epic in its scope and telling.  Not only does Franzen paint a portrait of our post-post-post Jazz Age society in smart, broad strokes, he is equally spot-on at the sentence level.  Here are just a few of my favorites which I've highlighted so far on my Kindle:
Eliza was exactly half pretty.  Her head started out gorgeous on top and got steadily worse-looking the lower down you looked.  She had wonderfully thick and curly brown hair and amazing huge eyes, and then a cute enough little button nose, but then around her mouth her face got smooshed up and miniature in a disturbing sort of preemie way, and she had very little chin.

....there are few things harder to imagine than other people's conversations about yourself.

There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning: it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.  The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals.  Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.
I suppose, in a gun-to-head situation, if I had to name one thing that keeps drawing me back to fiction, it would be the music found in sentences, the clever jangly juxtaposition of words that might otherwise seem at odds to each other, the surprising "leaf-bursts" of details which make me see (and hear and taste and feel) the world anew.  That's what brings me back to novels.  You can take all your clever plots and quirky characters and deep ponderous thought, but if there's not excitement at the lowest linguistic level, then my eyes will glaze over and I'll struggle to get all the way to the final page.  This is why I love Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, John Irving, and--good Lord, yes!--Flannery O'Connor.  They flicker and burn in nearly every sentence.  As does Franzen.  As did Fitzgerald.

Proof of The Great Gatsby's enduring appeal can be found in the news that the American Reportory Theater is staging an innovative production called Gatz.  Here's the theater's synopsis:
One morning in the low-rent office of a mysterious small business, an employee finds a copy of The Great Gatsby in the clutter of his desk.  He starts to read it out loud, and doesn’t stop.   At first his coworkers hardly notice.  But after a series of strange coincidences, it’s no longer clear whether he’s reading the book or the book is doing something to him.
In its glowing review, The New York Times called Gatz "one of the most exciting and improbable accomplishments in theater in recent years" and said that "the relationship between what is read and its context keeps shifting, with the real world finally giving way entirely to the fictive one."  In the course of the play, the main character reads every word of the novel with no text added and none removed.  As a result, Gatz is more than six hours long.  Audience members get a merciful one-hour meal break midway through the production.  There's no word on whether or not the actors are supplied with throat lozenges.


  1. i never minded being assigned "The Great Gatsby" in college. as a lit. major, i had at least three classes where it was assigned. unfortunately, the best instructor was an unrepentant (sp?) alcoholic. i also had "The Sun Also Rises" assigned in his class, too... for the ump-teenth time. but he was by far the best lecturer on these.

  2. I love Fitzgerald's sly use of POV. First person, yet he gets away with telling stories in a sort of third-person style about Gatsby's background. You don't even notice. Plus the list of the parties that summer! Oh, he conveys that whole world in a paragraph or two just by listing who attends the parties.

  3. I didn't even think to read it until someone told me that where I lived was very "Great Gatsby." I wondered what the heck it meant and so I read the book. I've been enamored ever since.