Eff the Jazz Age, Old Sport: Re-Reading to Watch the Great Ghastly

Warning: This post speaks freely about shit that happens in The Great Gatsby (the 1925 novel AND the 2013 film) without a plot summary.

I’m still reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (almost 25% through!) but rather than let this whole project fall victim to the fact that house-hunting and moving have taken over my life, I decided to write about something I actually re-read this year, old sport: The Great Gatsby. (Cue jazz music.)

I admit with a healthy amount of English Major Snob Shame that I re-read in preparation for the movie to come out. I feel like I was brainwashed into seeing the movie because I had to watch that goddamn trailer for like 18 months in every movie I went to. (I saw all nine nominees for Best Picture this year, too, so that’s at least nine times too many.) It seemed like the whole world was going apeshit for Gatsby. I remained skeptical because I just don’t care for Baz Luhrmann that much. He may have given us teenage Leonardo DiCaprio brooding to Radiohead, he also gave us men in top hats line-dancing to Nirvana in a terrible medley.

I read The Great Gatsby in the tenth grade, old sport. I remember a lot of talk about money, that dumb green light, and a random smattering of other stuff. I flipped through the copy I bought when I was sixteen and found not a single underline or margin note. I remember having the vague feeling as I watched people get glitter-bombed to Florence + the Machine: “Isn’t the whole point of The Great Gatsby that rich people are shitty?” The trailer looked like it was setting up Leo for the love story of the twentieth century (which, Sorry Baz, but Titanic still holds the title) and I had the feeling: “Isn’t Daisy like the worst human being ever?” But my book held no notes, I didn’t quite remember, and it was only 200 pages long so what the hell?

First of all, I remember our reading of The Great Gatsby to be a Significant Tenth Grade Event. It felt like we spent forever dissecting the symbolism and plot points. We talked about the American Dream, old sport, and unlike The Crucible not everybody hated it. Turns out there’s not really a lot to The Great Gatsby from a plot perspective. All the major plot points you probably remember from high school are pretty much the plot points. For example, Myrtle Wilson and Meyer Wolfsheim barely appear in the novel despite the fact that they’re pretty major figures. It feels like you don’t really spend a lot of time with any of the characters before suddenly Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are having the most awkward tug-o’-war ever over Daisy in a hotel room. All of a sudden, Myrtle’s dead, Gatsby’s dead, and Nick is still like having feelings or whatever he does.

And those epiphanies you had about the symbolism in tenth grade? You may be confusing them with the fact that Nick beats you over the head with redundant exposition and actually tells the reader what stuff means (like the green light).

My reaction to this book surprised me. Literature didn’t start to affect me until eleventh grade (have a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in and worries she’s mentally ill read Frankenstein, The Metamorphosis, Hamlet, and the poetry of Sylvia Plath and then dare her not to feel). Since college graduation, I’ve found myself openly weeping at books and I felt very strong emotions while re-reading The Great Gatsby. Maybe it’s because my heart grew three sizes that year. Or maybe it’s because I went to private college and became aware of the phenomenon of privilege—both mine and others’. Who knows. But The Great Gatsby kind of punched me in the solar plexus. But not really in a good way, old sport.

This book shocked me completely. Where I may have raised my hand in tenth grade English and said, “I think, like, Fitzgerald thinks that, like, rich people suck,” now I was like, “OH MY GOD these are the most HORRIBLE FICTIONAL PEOPLE I’VE EVER ENCOUNTERED.” (Of course, at this point I not yet read Wuthering Heights.)

My feelings on the novel as a whole were complex and divergent. Primarily, I was struck by the fact that all of the characters were horrible people. All of them. I could empathize with NONE of them. I kind of pitied Gatsby, but mostly I wanted to shake him for loving Daisy in a way that makes him kind of an asshole. I felt sorry for Daisy that men who proclaimed to love her put her in such a shitty situation, but then she’d open her mouth and say something like, “‘I’m glad [my baby] is a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool'” (21). (Note, all quotes from this Scribner edition.)

Daisy boggles my feminist inclinations. On the one hand, it makes me so sad that she’s so dependent on her cheating husband that she probably couldn’t choose Gatsby even if she wanted to (and it totally sucks that both men just make her into a trophy). On the other hand, she is exactly the type of female character that makes me want to go back in time and punch F. Scott Fitzgerald in the penis (from my cursory research, he was also a total dick to his wife). Not that anyone in The Great Gatsby is so complex they’re coming off the page (and that’s the way it should be for the novel to pack as much of a wallop as it does). But for some reason Daisy and her proto-MPDG-ness seemed flatter and more vapid than the others.

Other elements of the text made me oscillate between “wow” and “wtf?” I’m going to talk about the “wtf?” first so I can end on the high note. On the WTF side, we have the mode of storytelling. The timeline is wonky. I mean, I’m someone who enjoys Faulkner, but the handling of Gatsby’s backstory is straight-up clunky. At some point, the reader gets reminded of a flashback they were already told. Part of that, I know, has to do with Nick as a kind of unreliable and overbearing narrator—which he very much is. I found myself often wondering, “How does Nick know how this person feels?” But it annoys me nonetheless, even as a literary device that probably serves a greater purpose.

And Fitzgerald can’t always tell when to put the brakes on the drama. For instance, the reason those discussions in tenth grade were so boring was probably because Fitzgerald often tells the reader what the symbols mean. What really got me is after the huge dramatic conflict in the hotel room between everyone else, Nick takes a giant dump on the action by suddenly realizing and then complaining about the fact that he forgot his own thirtieth birthday. And then: “Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade” (143). I almost had to laugh. Just…what?

All that being said, I found it easy to lose myself in some of Fitzgerald’s gorgeous descriptions.

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor. (158)

Holy alliteration, Batman! Part of me tried to to break apart the components of these descriptions to try to analyze them further, but I realized that reading not-for-class means I don’t have to. I’m not confident descriptions like this make sense entirely, but I had to indulge myself and float away on of lush, dense diction. Moments like this made reading the text really enjoyable, and I really give it a lot of credit to keeping me from tossing this book as yet another piece of classic literature I think is completely overrated. Instead, it’s probably mostly overrated. At most.

So I finished the novel and I started to really give that trailer the side-eye. I mean, sometimes trailers aren’t accurate portrayals of the tone of a film. For example, Ruby Sparks looks like it’s advertising the exact type of MPDG-fueled rom-com it’s actually trying to deconstruct.

Turns out I was giving Baz Luhrmann too much credit. He botched this movie so badly I even stopped griping that Ryan Gosling and JGL should have been the leads (though I love Leo). But he’s not the only one who misinterprets that The Great Gatsby is all about denouncing total decadence. Okay, sure, maybe I should lighten up a little and just enjoy the party as though I were not a member of the main cast of the novel. Rouge my knees, roll my stockings down, and…well I’m not going to say it.

But the film and many people on the internet also talk about Daisy/Gatsby as some kind of great love story. There’s even a Lana Del Rey song called “Young and Beautiful” that plays over the scene in the film where Gatsby and Daisy frolic around and rediscover their long-lost love. The chorus lyric? “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Um…no. If we’re supposed to take the song to be from Gatsby’s perspective, maybe he’ll love Daisy when she’s no longer young and beautiful, but maybe not because he pretty much only loves an idea of Daisy as the young and beautiful woman he fell in love with anyway. And if it’s from Daisy’s perspective, maybe she’ll still love him when he’s no longer young and beautiful, but even if she does he’ll never know because she’ll just let him take the heat for a hit-and-run and not go to his funeral when her action directly leads to his death. You can’t believe that “happily ever after” crap with these characters. They’re too vapid, old sport.

Some of the choices made by the scriptwriters I just don’t get. For example, there’s some bizarre-o framing device where Nick is not just writing his memoirs but in a sanatorium/sanatarium/whatever. You don’t need that; we all took tenth grade English. The narration (which is included in the film, by the way) is enough.

One thing that really made me mad is the fact that we have time for this weirdo framing device, but the film skipped over perhaps one of the most important (albeit heavy-handed) pieces of foreshadowing in the novel: after Nick attends his first Gatsby party, there is a car accident right outside. It’s a scary moment that really casts a dark shadow over Gatsby’s affairs. And they cut it in lieu of Tobey Maguire whining to his doctor and glitter bombs. All style, no substance—and not enough commentary on “all style, no substance,” which seems to be something that is all over The Great Gatsby thematically.

Bottom line: I really need to read more Fitzgerald to get a better feel for him as a writer. I can’t believe I have SO MANY conflicting feelings on one novel that I’ve read before. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, but it gripped me and I respect it. I really feel like a lot of its fans are missing the point. But first—after forcing myself to relive The Great Ghatsly film, that is—I need to watch some Boardwalk Empire. Now that’s my kind of Lost Generation.

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