Friday, November 10, 2006

A Revaluation (The Great Gatsby)

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and don’t remember thinking anything in particular about it. I went to Fitzgerald’s grave around then (it was just across from my high school); the book’s lovely last sentence is carved on his tombstone, and I’ve never forgotten it. During college, I would occasionally come across passages from Gatsby quoted in other books to make various points about America and the American dream; the scene with Daisy and the shirts was quoted in a book about consumerism. The green light and the ash heap showed up in various essays.

Eventually, the consensus about the profundity of this book – along with, I’m sure, an attraction to Fitzgerald’s life – started to make me think that I must have missed something in high school (god knows I missed plenty) and just needed to pick the book up again. A professor of mine recommended Babylon Revisited, which was supposed to be Fitzgerald’s best short story. I finished it and remember thinking, a little puzzled, Wow, this is bad.

Well, no matter, I thought: his masterpiece is Gatsby, and his almost-masterpiece (as everyone knows) is Tender is the Night. The latter was assigned for another class college, and I was a little shocked to find myself thinking, after the first twenty pages or so, Wow, this is actually awful. Then it got a little better, and ended so beautifully that I forgot about how lame so much of it was. It might not even have been the entire ending; I remember being extraordinarily moved by just the last paragraph. I don’t much remember the rest.

So now, after all these years, I decided it was time to take up Gatsby again. The only serious candidate for the great American novel other than Moby Dick, right? Glorious prose? Trenchant insights into America, money, love, and how they are all wrapped up together? I was excited. Pretty soon – I would say again within twenty pages – I started to get worried. The book begins well enough, but as soon as the first chapter ends, there is a huge, dry stretch: predictable, toothless satire; stilted dialogue based purely on one or two catch phrases; and characters that are basically patched together from one personality trait and a physical feature.

Even the famous passages that would show up now and then – Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, the shirts on the bed – seemed false and unconvincing in context. The premise of the novel is a great one, but the actual plot is so full of ludicrous coincidences and melodrama that it’s hard to remember how moving the central situation is. Again, the book ends well, but the rest was so mediocre that it didn’t change my basic disappointment.

Fitzgerald’s limitations as a writer are never clearer than the section when he assumes the voice of Jordan Baker, the young “cool, insolent” lady golfer. Here’s a piece of his attempt, as she narrates a story to Nick: “I was walking along from one place to another half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground.”

“Bit into the soft ground.” A better writer would have passed on that phrase if he had any interest in plausibility -- which is closely related to respect for a character. But Fitzgerald is incapable of capturing another person’s voice; when he tries, the person sounds exactly like him. So he has to give people little tics to animate them somehow: Gatsby with his “old sport,” Meyer Rothstein with his inability to pronounced the letter x. He describes a person’s personality instead of capturing it on the page; he has no knack for creating interesting people, so his usual method is just to insist that they are very special indeed. Occasionally it works. Here’s my favorite passage in the book, about Gatsby’s smile:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
The book never gets this good again. In addition to the things I mentioned above, the actual prose takes a nosedive too. For someone known for the quality of his sentences, it is astonishing how unedited most of the book seems. Fitzgerald is continually using words whose meaning he appears to only half-understand. His sentences are full of redundancies (“clever, shrewd men”) and he is a master of the ill-considered adverb (“he found her excitingly desirable”). Edmund Wilson wrote an essay about him where he pretty much took his measure. Wilson is writing about This Side of Paradise, which Fitzgerald is supposed to have transcended completely in writing Gatsby, but I think this passage could easily apply to every work of his I’ve read:
The story itself, furthermore, is very immaturely imaged: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published (a fault which the publisher’s proofreader seems to have made no effort to remedy.) Not only is it ornamented with bogus ideas and faked literary references, but it is full of literary words tossed about with the most reckless inaccuracy.
Wilson goes on to say that Fitzgerald does not commit the unpardonable sin for a novelist; that is, his book does not fail to live. And it’s true, several scenes from Gatsby do stay alive in the mind, and appear to have worked their way into the American literary consciousness. However, as “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” proves, simply being memorable is not necessary a sign of any deeper merit. In any case, something bothers me more than everything I’ve mentioned so far, and that is that there is something very phony about a lot of Fitzgerald’s writing. Even in his most beautiful passages, there is some element of false bombast -— some disastrous faux-poetic choice, usually -- that continually makes me think: He’s lying.

Let me give you an example. This passage ends the chapter when Gatsby tells Nick about kissing Daisy. “Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.”

Something important has apparently happened here; Nick has grazed the edge of a profound mystery. And I don’t believe it; I don’t believe that a man feeling anything deeply is going to write something like “wisp of startled air.” Because that is nonsense.

I always feel like Fitzgerald is wrapping his phrases around unfelt emotions. Even that famous last passage—read the sentence before it, the one everyone forgets: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There it is again in “orgastic future,” a little voice that says (to me at least) “bullshit.”

Compare the end of My Àntonia to The Great Gatsby. The two books are written just a few years apart; both end on the same word—“past”—both have the same elegiac tone. But there is nothing false about Cather’s last passage. Every word is written with sincerity and authority. It is the work of an artist. Fitzgerald’s is the work of a good writer who has struck upon a pretty phrase.

I suppose Fitzgerald’s life has something to do with this book’s popularity, along with the fact that it deals with the big American themes, and is therefore suitable for classroom discussion and scholarly analysis. But it also isn’t that great, and it’s odd that America – which has produced so many genuine works of genius – has decided to hold it up as one of the premier achievements of its culture.


Random said...

Excellent review. The characters in "Gatsby" had always seemed a little bit flat to me, but before reading your post I chalked it up to the limitations of my high school mind. I never expected to find such a well-articulated argument about that, or anyone else who thought Fitzgerald built his ending around a pretty phrase.

Anonymous said...

I wish he had just written the last chapter because I still hold the belief that it is a work of art. But I know exactly what you mean when you say the rest of the book felt like he was lying. I love the themes and the message of the book but I think there have been so many other books that convey the same idea more honestly.

Anonymous said...

While I can't say I agree with the concept that the novel is a work of art, I can't completely condemn it either. I think the confused nonsense in his phrases add some sort of finesse to the rest of the story. It seems like The Great Gatsby's overwhelming induction into the classics isn't because of how well it enables the reader to sympathize with the characters, but how well the message he is attempting to convey is understood. The dishonest quality of his writing is so obvious I can't help doubting that that wasn't done on purpose, and so feel, for this reason only, that Fitzgerald deserves his infamy. It is a unique combination of "utter crap" to "insightful"--the fact that it forces the reader to actually think about the point of it all makes it worthwhile. Other than that, I can understand why its inherent "flatness" is off-putting.