On Reading The Great Gatsby Now

No one was more surprised than me, probably, when I began reading The Great Gatsby as an adult, first out of curiosity–what was that book I read as a child?–and then for pleasure–hey that book I didn’t understand as a child…there’s something in there–and then lastly, for structure, because I was very curious as to the way the novel seemed so natural–and this is the trick a realist novel aims for, to seem as if it just happens.

And so I’m sticking my head out later today to discuss it online on Twitter, 4PM ET, for #classicschat with @weegee and @janiceharayda.

I’ve been trying to think of what questions to ask or issues to bring up. I’ve been arguing in my head this week with Kathryn Schulz’s excellent condemnation of the book at Vulture/NYMag, also known, to me, as “thinking about it”. She attacks it precisely because it is a classic–and part of her animosity is that she hates that she feels she is supposed to love it–she even feels ‘commanded’ to love it–and she doesn’t. And this strikes me as exactly what is wrong about the conventional way classics are taught. No novel should be presented that way, it just starts the reader off in a bog of resentment. So I begin this in a sympathetic position to hers. Like her, I don’t think any novel should be sacrosanct–that strikes me as a mistake in thinking about novels, actually. I’ve always believed classics must prove their worth to each age as time moves on–it’s always a literary death match, as it were–does this novel speak to us anymore? Posterity doesn’t care about what we think is sacred now. The question I ask of novels that are classics is why does this story still find readers? And lovers, say, like Haruki Murakami, whose astonishing love for the novel resulted in his translating it, and he details why gloriously. The thoughts I have on this novel are probably found between these two poles.

But I also don’t recognize the novel in her evaluation of the novel’s qualities. And as her post goes on, it becomes more of an attack on Fitzgerald than an attack on the novel’s merits–the novel as bad novel because the writer is a bad person–soon, it feels like she’s piling on, and is talking about the likable character issue, is the author a good person, couldn’t he write better female characters, and that… seems to misunderstand the stakes. He was writing about shallow people, and this includes shallow women. He was fascinated by them and the way they fascinate others. If he’d set out to write something deep about a deep woman, that would be different. Was he a sexist? Sure. Was he a man of low morals? Probably. Was he a bad person? Probably. Not very smart? Probably.

It doesn’t matter, though. As my friend, the playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas said to me, the hardest part of having a social justice background and being an artist is that art is not fair.

And the hardest truth about writers, of all the ones I’ve learned in my time as a teacher of writing and as a writer, is that one does not need to be a good person to write a compelling story. One does not even need to be a terrifically smart one. How often have you seen a brilliant person, and a brilliant good one, haunted by their inability to write a novel? This is because you only have to have a grasp for low cunning, for fascination and engagement, and detail. Every addict I know is an amazing storyteller, and many, I don’t doubt, if they weren’t so busy getting their fix, could be on bestseller lists. This is because Fiction is never very far from a con, the lie that keeps going as long as it can to see what it can get. How often have we seen a writer in an interview surprised by the depths contained in what they wrote? That’s because in telling a story well, we necessarily reach past the grasp of ourselves as a person, out into a larger sphere that is beyond us. And how else does one learn of moral failings up front and personal unless one has committed them?

If anything commands me now that I resent, I think it is the idea of the likable character and the honorable writer, more than Gatsby. Over the last decade, these have become two of our culture’s sacred cows, more than any particular novel, because no novel and no writer really lives up to these standards. The idea that a writer must also be a good consistent person, and the character too, or the book is a failure, stalks nearly every review. Schulz calls Fitzgerald a failed moralist as a way of criticizing him, accuses him of writing “the fable of the fox and the grapes, a story of people who criticize exactly what they covet”, but I can’t fault him there. Doesn’t that hypocrisy, as it were, make a fable complicated enough to be a novel? That irony is precisely what is interesting to me. We all feel like hypocrites sometime–that may be the most universal topic of all. And it’s hard enough to write a good novel without also having to be a good person and to only write about good people in the bargain. Are we really going to try to stake our claim there as a culture? Perhaps all novelists are failed moralists. Perhaps that is what drives people to write a novel, or enables the vision requisite to do it.

What I read for and what I teach my students to write for is situations that are sympathetic, even if the characters–and writers for that matter–are not. In a good literary novel, everyone takes turns being the monster, I think–it teaches that none of us are exempt from being evil, or having evil thoughts, or wrongdoing. The evil are not different from us, and neither are the hypocrites. No one is a race apart. And that is the reason why someone like me, at least, attaches to the narrative here.

When I think about Gatsby, I begin somewhere near the racial anxiety that is often thought of as a leitmotif, but that strikes me as the novel’s unconscious theme: Gatsby, to me, is about how hard it is to succeed in America, even if you’re white and American, because America was built for Tom Buchanans, not for Daisy Buchanans, and not for Gatsbys. This is maybe more true than it was during the time Fitzgerald wrote it. American social mobility has not been so low in almost a century. With Gatsby, we see him trying to pass himself off as a member of Tom’s untouchable class–as like or even better than Tom–success just dripping off his every move plus a war hero to boot–precisely because he has been given to expect that to some extent. He’s been told he can have anything he wants in America, and what he wants is money, prestige, and Daisy. But more than that, he wants the moment he lost back, the moment she was there, waiting for him, lost to his time in the service. And his crass overproduced life is a mirror for his self-loathing.

As for Tom, this world that loves a Tom Buchanan allows his decadent exhaustion with his privilege–it is in fact one of the privileges of his class, that he can hate what he has at times, and rebel against it, and return to it. He and his kind have built the world to be this way. Part of that deal is the scam that lets people like Gatsby think they can get in on it–he and his kind have profited for generations on the idea that someone can rise to their level from nothing. Tom allows Gatsby in a little so he can teach Gatsby where the line is that he can’t cross. He can’t come all the way in–no one but a Tom Buchanan can.

In his world, he can have a mistress and still be jealous of Gatsby and Daisy, and that is his right. I don’t see him as someone who fears losing Daisy, as much as I see him as someone who doesn’t want Gatsby to have Daisy, even when he doesn’t desire her anymore, because it will mean his world, the one that protects his privilege, is coming apart. Tom’s almost too banal to hate or even resent, but even he is at times sympathetic, or his situation is. To my mind, it’s still one of the most honest books about how life in America actually is, for all its shortcomings, and all of Fitzgerald’s. And that’s why I read it.

I’ll write more about the structure later.

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5 comments

  1. Yvonne Osborne

    You know what…..you’ve just explained to me better than anyone ever could why The Great Gatsby is a classic, and so I thank you for that. I have the book and maybe now I’ll read it again, and with the help of your insight, come away with more than I did the first time. In a country where we like to think everyone can exceed, the line in the sand which most cannot cross is more entrenched than ever.

  2. Nancy

    I’m looking especially forward to your comments on Gatsby’s structure. I’m not exactly sure how to read a novel for structure and Gatsby is short. With your notes, my copy of the book, and a pen, I’m betting I’ll learn something. Thanks in advance!

  3. shannray

    that was powerful, profound, and loving. you give Gatsby, and Fitzgerald, and all of us, the right to be humble, to notice our own hypocrisies, and to see if we might discern in our social context the beauty of great art, and how the force of a single idea, like Gatsby, can undo us and bring us to a deeper place with one another. thank you, Alexander. here’s to you, with gratitude for this evocative and personally meaningful essay

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