If I had to do the Desert Island Discs thing and be stranded on a desert island with just a single book for the rest of my life I think it would have to be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (that or Anasi Boys, I haven’t decided yet…) It’s not the largest book in the world, my rather battered copy is about 150 pages long, but it packs a lot into a very slim package, tackling some of the biggest themes possible all while enchanting the reader in it’s magnificent prose. The book is narrated by young twenty-something Nick Carraway, who has recently moved from somewhere in the Mid-West to New York to become a bonds salesman, and details the meteoric rise and fall of the titular Gatsby as he tries to win the affection of his teenage crush and neighbour Daisy Buchanan. In previous posts I’ve described something as Gatsby-esque, if I really liked it so I’ve decided to give my thoughts on The Great Gatsby proper.
Something very noticeable about the Great Gatsby right off the bat is how Nick describes things. It’s this beautiful, flowing, prose that verges on the edge of purple occasionally but always shows just enough restraint to keep things from becoming ridiculous. A great example of this is the description of the first of Gatsby’s many famous parties that Nick goes to: “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” It’s a really engaging style and immediately gets across how charming, hyperactive and ultimately quite hollow high society is.
Not that Nick Carraway would notice the final point. He is possibly the most interesting protagonist of any novel I’ve ever read. For all his wonderful descriptions he’s completely contradictory. He’s effortlessly charming, an gives off the impression of being able to keep a clear head and analyse other people’s actions, but it soon becomes clear that he’s little better then the menagerie of scarred, barely functioning people that surround him. He says he hates Tom’s brutal and misogynistic behaviour towards Daisy and yet he himself is a serial womaniser; casting off the unnamed ‘Girl Back West’ in pursuit of the glamorous Jordan Baker. Strangely of all he dismisses Gatsby as “representing everything for which I have scorn,” and yet Gatsby is the person Nick idolises most and one of the most likeable characters in the story.
It might be Nick’s narrative but it’s Gatsby’s novel. For much of the novel he’s half-seen, swathed in a mist of drunken fantasises and rumours provided by his guests, but when the layers of myth are stripped away near the end of the novel the Great Gatsby is revealed to be just another normal man; helped along in life by a little bit of luck and a portfolio of dubious dealings. Unknown by many of his ‘friends’ and barely trusted by many of his colleagues Gatsby is the eponymous figure of the American Dream’s failures: All of his wealth, property and social connections are merely an after thought compared to Daisy but to him she was, is and will always be just out of reach. She will always choose her openly unfaithful husband simply because he’s ‘better bred’ than Gatsby.
The anger at the American Dream doesn’t stop with Gatsby either. One memorable section of the novel is Nick’s first narrated journey to mainland New York, passing over an ash wasteland created by the refuse of the city which effortlessly melds into one of the poorer districts of New York, presided over by the gigantic eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, an opticians advertisement turned God. The story also covers two some-what minor characters; Myrtle Wilson, Daisy’s Husband’s mistress and her husband George. Both of these characters attempt to better their lowly position in life and both ultimately, tragically, fail.
I’m sure you’re wondering what’s my opinion of the upcoming film adaptation starring Leonardo Di Caprio aren’t you? Well frankly I’m not that hopeful. I’ve recently decided to try to avoid becoming hyped for things until they come out and reviewers whose opinions I respect begin talking about it, but I don’t particularly like Director Baz Lurhmann’s previous films and it’s being advertised as a 3D movie, which can only be a bad thing. Some of the shoots certainly look pretty but just look to last year’s Prometheus for proof that strong visuals cannot carry a rubbish film. Also there’s the casting: I think Carey Mulligan could make a good Daisy; from what I’ve seen in Drive she has the right balance of fragility and drawing power needed for the part and Toby Miguire certainly have the out-off-his depth fascination that Nick has towards Gatsby’s lifestyle down to a tee. My biggest problem with the casting is Di Caprio himself. I just feel that the man just a little to commanding and, well, Hollywood for my interpretation of Gatsby as a man that doesn’t live up to the myths that surround him. I also have a problem believing that he, Miguire and Mulligan are all the same age. I also hate the score of the film, which seemed to be a modern pop soundtrack rather than anything period-based. Quentin Tarantino has licence to do that kind of stuff because of the movies he makes, that doesn’t mean everyone should be able to do the same.
Anyway rant over. I haven’t covered everything I wanted to talk about, Gatsby’s diary say, but if I did that I’d be here forever and there wouldn’t be much point in you reading the novel, would there? Anyway I really really really really recommend The Great Gatsby, it’s a truly fantastic book, one of the greatest American novels ever and just about perfect in every way. As a budding writer myself if I ever wrote something one-hundredth as good as The Great Gatsby I’d die a very happy man. Now go away and read the bloody thing!