Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Starting a new year with Jay Gatsby

Image from here
I am not sure how I made it out of high school not having read The Great Gatsby. I remember seeing the book in classrooms and carried by friends into other classes. The great thing about being in Honors all through high school was we read and discussed some amazing books. The worst thing was a lot of those classic high school texts never crossed my desk. I thought perhaps being an English major in college might help me go back and pick up texts I should have read by then. However, my marked loathing for any book published after 1920 and my research interests made sure certain books have remained strangers. Hence my reading challenge for the year. Begun with Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird and now continuing on with F. Scott Fitzgerald's tragic tale.

I of course haven't gotten this far without hearing things about The Great Gatsby. I have vague inclinations of the Roaring '20s in all its sordid detail, a main character tragically in love with a woman who could not love him back and, somewhere along the way I picked up, a swimming pool was very important. I was also warned I wouldn't like the characters, a major worry of mine going into Gatsby. Often if I don't like the characters, a book becomes torture.

I can happily report that was not the case with this book. Oh, I loathed Tom Buchanan, held Daisy in utter contempt, and wouldn't trust Gatsby or Nick as far as I could throw them but heavens if I didn't adore them all anyway. There is something to be said about an author who can make you care about the villain. Here, Fitzgerald only gives you villains in one shape or another and he makes them interesting, compelling even while keeping them deliciously vague and remote. I cared about them all but honestly, I couldn't tell you why. You know so little of all of them (except perhaps Gatsby). We don't know why Daisy married Tom, though we can guess. We don't know why Jordan hangs around as she does. And I would kill to know why Nick didn't feel the need to tell everybody everything that he knew (or supposedly knew, like I said, I really didn't trust him as a narrator). We eventually hear two sides of the story, both moderated by Nick,  but lord I would love to hear Daisy's version of that summer, or even Jordan's. Did it hurt Daisy at all to not even cable when Gatsby was finally gone or was she really that shallow, that afraid, that cruel? Sadly, I fear she was all of that and more. The world she moved in required it of her.

Sigh, that world. There is something fascinating about the world described in The Great Gatsby. The language used to describe it is genius; I read the descriptions of Gatsby's parties and would see whirls of color and sparks, the craziness of a camera filming the scene as it moved from one drunken flapper to another, from the gorgeous tents to the illuminated  house and always, Gatsby watching from the sidelines, enjoying the view and yet seemingly unable to enjoy himself. The feel of the book was really quite impressive.

And yes, if I had read this in high school Jay Gatsby very well may have given Sidney Carton a run for his money in my heart for my favorite fictional man. True, Gatsby never made me laugh but there is a childlike quality to him in a sense that I adored. A belief that if he really did work hard enough and believe long enough, all he ever wanted would be granted him. What sort of work that was didn't matter as long as the end result was what he wanted. The character is the portrait of the American Dream gone wrong in a sense and he is a fascinating character. A rogue it's true, but a rogue with a heart of gold...Who I am kidding, even at this old age of mine, I am a little in love with Jay Gatsby but apparently everyone is so I don't feel so bad about that.

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