Vintage Classics: paperback published 2010: 148 pages
Jay Gatsby is a self-made man famed for his decadent, champagne-drenched parties. Despite being surrounded by Long Island’s bright and beautiful, he longs only for Daisy Buchanan. In shimmering prose, Fitzgerald shows Gatsby pursue his dream it its tragic conclusion.
There is no angle at which I can attack this prose. The Great Gatsby, if nothing else, is an astoundingly well-written book. Hailed as the Great American Novel, not a word goes to waste, and not a scene falls by the wayside. I can easily see why it has been given the “Great” accolade.
For various reasons, I never read this as a child – through school or choice – but it does mean that I have reached my mid-twenties having let it pass me by. What has not passed me by, however, is some of the major plot points. I knew the basic premise of the novel, the big events, and ultimately what happens to Gatsby.
Did this take away from some of the enjoyment? Perhaps. I knew what was coming and therefore almost reading ahead of myself. I didn’t allow myself time to wallow in the language because I was simply wondering how this point got to that point and how many pages it was between. The tension, which the writing should have evoked with such brilliance, simply wasn’t there for me.
Set in post-WWI America – more specifically, 1920s New York – The Great Gatsby is a snapshot of an era. It feels authentic, and you begin to understand the excess of the time, its restlessness, and its underlying stagnation. Gatsby is the symbol of all that’s fashionable – his lavish parties, his wardrobe, even the fact that no one quite knows what he does is glamorous and desirable.
The scarcity of the dialogue and the caution with which this book is written simply adds to the emotion of the prose. But I can’t help but feel the spark missing from the ending. It felt like that deflating balloon at the end of the party; to some extent, I think this was the intention, but another part of me can’t help but feel that if I hadn’t known what was coming, would I have enjoyed it more?
Daisy as a character was wistful and indefinite, and our narrator – Nick Carraway – is almost absent from the reader’s consciousness. Gatsby, as mysterious as he’s meant to be, felt the most real of the characters. Should I have fallen in love with him, or been scared of him? I could never decide – was he doing this for love, and thus being terribly romantic; or obsession, and thus needed a court order and some therapy sessions?
I felt there were places this novel could have gone – I understood the reasons why they didn’t, just as I understood why it was written from Carraway’s perspective as opposed to Gatsby’s or Daisy’s – but the ending seemed to be too abrupt for the kind of book it could have been.
It’s seen as terribly heathen to dislike the book (which I don’t), or to suggest changes to it, but I think that’s the advantage of having the freedom of having opinions. Some feel it is perfect. Others, myself included, find themselves creating further stories around it in their head. Those characters are simply so brilliant, I want to see more of them, to imagine more. And that’s what I mean by what the book “could have been”. Not improvement, expansion.
This is the kind of book every writer should aspire to write, in terms of prose and slickness – and in many respects, brevity (too many novels suffer from length). My writing self feels richer from reading it. But mindblown? Perhaps not.
Next book: This is a lovely Christmas present from Ana! Another classic – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (which, oddly enough, I didn’t realise was a comedy until I read the blurb…)