Although I haven’t read it in years, in honor of the newest movie version, today’s Saturday book review will be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
If you haven’t read it, must you?
If you read it only once a long time ago, should you read it again?
Why not just see the movie?
Gatsby is not only a great book, it’s one of the most accessible “classics” ever written. It’s a short novel, practically a novella, not only in length but in the simplicity of its structure. The plot is straightforward, and the prose beautiful, polished and as smooth as one of those expensive shirts Daisy rolls around in from Gatsby’s closet. Gatsby’s Closet – now that would make a great name for a men’s shop, or a section in Barneys.
You could just see the movie, but you’d be missing a lot. This is a first person story told by a narrator, Nick, who is always just a bit removed from the action. There’s a difference between “seeing” through Nick’s eyes, where the truth emerges slowly, and seeing explicitly through a camera. Movies are a visual medium. Books are about the words, and Gatsby is filled with asides, descriptions and phrases that are gems, which won’t easily translate to visuals. (347 of them have been contributed to a list on Goodreads.) It would be like seeing a ballet of a Shakespeare work. It might be worthwhile, in and of itself, but it’s not the same.
The New York State English Language Arts Regents Exam, required for high school graduation, has an essay question where the student is asked to elaborate on a statement, using two works he or she has read. Back when I taught high school, in practice session, young men often chose Gatsby as one of the works. Most of the statements are general and often involve themes like loyalty, friendship, love or values, and Gatsby is about all of these, but mostly it’s a story about a man who loved a woman and remade his whole life to win her, and won her, and ultimately died for her and she wasn’t worth it. This seemed to resonate with young men, mostly poor, who have grown up in a world where people meet violent ends and the ability to have tons of stuff is valued above all else. They would write about the book with passion, and honesty. They weren’t parroting something they’d heard a teacher say. They got it.
It amazes me that there has been no modern day hip-hop version of the story, with cocaine or marijuana as the bootlegged substance on which Gatsby builds his empire.
Given that Fitzgerald came from the “haves,” his ability to create this romantic, rough-edged striver is remarkable. At least one, academic somewhere has found hints that Gatsby may have been a black man passing. Others have speculated that Gatsby might have been Jewish. Certainly, the book is filled with Tom Buchanan’s obsessions on racial purity for a reason (prescient, in that it was written before the Nazis took power, but not historically inaccurate, as many of those ideas were popular in certain American circles.) Whatever and whoever Gatsby is, he is definitely, “other.”
Gatsby is a above all an American novel, one that is both set firmly in its time, but also timeless. Here is a shrewd analysis of the hidden meaning of class in America, the yearning to achieve and error of mistaking the acquisition for accomplishment. It was written in the 1920’s, after the Great War, which shook up the existing order, but before the depression and World War II would change the world in ways Fitzgerald could not have foreseen.
You could go to Wikipedia or Sparknotes or just about anywhere for a synopsis if you don’t know the story, but it’s easy enough to just read the book. It’s available new or used at most places, including Amazon, for less than the price of popcorn at the movies. You can get it on Kindle for $4.99.
(How can you ever thank me for spending every Saturday morning writing about books worth reading? You could at least take a look at my work.)