So I re-read The Great Gatsby, while reading Strange Pilgrims, mainly because I started on Gatsby and then realised if I want to avoid a fine I had to have Strange Pilgrims back at the library by Wednesday.
I read the book for the first time when I was fourteen, a year ahead of when we were supposed to read it in school, because most of my friends were a year above me at school and I had to keep up. I think it's kind of fucked-up to make kids in the middle of puberty read a book about the reinvention of identity and the grasping of adults after adolescent pleasures, but it's a short fast read about a historical era so I suppose that's why they do it.
The book utterly perplexed me at fourteen, in part because there's a lot that slips by you if you aren't looking for it, or if you're fourteen and have very little experience of life. It confuses me less, now, but I still find myself a little adrift, because I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to take away from it.
The internet has suggested to me that Gatsby is about the glamour of the jazz age and/or the power and myth of reinvention. I think that's why I don't connect fully to it -- I don't have any particular passion for the parties and the excess. And while I do love a good mask, most literature concerning social masks (Gatsby included) is about the pathetic nature of the attempt. I find that quite limiting and boring; I'm much more interested in the ways in which reinventions happen, and how fascinating they can be. I don't see people who create new identities for themselves as being sad or narcissistic, as these things always seem to imply; often their new identities are much more interesting, and if they sustain them, more fun, than their old ones.
I wrote about this inadvertently with Nameless -- Lucas is desperate to make a mask that will help him present himself to the world without flinching, and when he finally finds one he wears it proudly and unapologetically. He takes off the mask for the people he's most intimate with, but that's not a dismissal of his identity, just an additional level of closeness. I think most people do that with their loved ones, holding something back in reserve for when they're out of the public eye.
I do like Nick Carraway, and I remember intensely identifying with him because of the incredibly awkward situations he kept ending up in by dint of being less completely insane than everyone around him. I like Gatsby too, but I have a hard time getting past the fact that everything he does is motivated by his passionate adulation of an idiot. It's fairly obvious we're not meant to like Daisy, and yet I can't shake the feeling that we sort of are. I don't judge her, I get how she was as trapped in society as any of them, perhaps more than all the rest of them, but god. I can't stand her.
"You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow," she went on in a convinced way. "Everybody thinks so -- the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything." Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. "Sophisticated -- God, I’m sophisticated!"
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged. -- Ch.2
I also get that it's supposed to be about Gatsby grasping for a past he can never have, and how that's tied into nostalgia for a time before the horrors of WWI traumatised an entire generation, and it does do that, it's just hard to get any kind of emotional punch over Daisy Buchanan.
The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people -- with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe. --ch.5
Though I can appreciate the irony of Gatsby the hard-rollin' gangsta finally meeting his end in a case of mistaken identity over an extramarital affair he wasn't even a part of.
In the end what I found the most interesting about the book was its prescience. It was published in 1925, four years before the Depression hit and ten years before Hitler became Fuhrer, but it predicts both in a general, emotional sense. Tom's "scientific" racism prefigures the Holocaust in a way that's kind of eerie.
"This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and -- " After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. " -- And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?" -- Ch. 1
The death of Gatsby is the basic death of the jazz age, the final result of desperate grasping for happiness, culminating in a sad, empty funeral and a return for Nick Carraway to a deeper reality than the parties of New York. It took America four years longer for it to happen, but I guess Fitzgerald knew we were going to come to smash.
So in the end it's not that I don't like The Great Gatsby. I do. I just don't understand about two thirds of its layers. And there's so much more I could say, but I'm going to leave you with Kate Beaton's excellent critique instead.
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