(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Great Gatsby (1925)
By F Scott Fitzgerald
Book #3 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Considered by many to be the best American novel ever written, The Great Gatsby is set in the years immediately following World War I (known as the Great War to his generation, in that World War II hadn't happened yet); it was an era known as the "Jazz Age," from a term that Fitzgerald himself coined in an earlier novel, a time of great moral confusion and upheaval around the world. And in fact, that's an important thing to know going into this novel, that it is as much an examination of a period in history as it is the unique story of certain fictional characters; the main reason to read the book, in fact, is to not only follow along with the potboilerish plot on display, but to indeed understand an entire generation of Americans and how they got to the point that they did. Because the fact is that the Great War left an entire generation in numb shock after it was over; turns out that no one quite realized the kind of carnage that could be caused by adding Industrial-Age machines to organized warfare, not to mention the millions upon millions of fresh victims who could be easily shipped to the front now via modernized rail, leaving a nihilistic shell of a generation behind in its blood-soaked wake. The youth that emerged from that war were very quick to discard the Victorian/Edwardian morality and mannerisms of previous generations, simply from seeing what it got them all; instead, this generation was the first to embrace free jazz, experimental poetry, pornography and more, done through a haze of illegal booze and drugs and with none of them really expecting to live past the age of 40.
It's among such a backdrop, then, that we meet a series of individuals from the Jazz Age, all of them connected in one way or another to a ritzy section of New York borough Long Island: there is Jordan, for example, the haughty pro golfer who's also a pathological liar; Daisy, a preternaturally jaded young wife and alcoholic; Tom, her blustery and frat-boyish husband; Myrtle, the swarthy mechanic's wife who Tom is having an affair with; Nick, the middle-class midwesterner everyman narrator of our tale; and a lot more, emphasizing Fitzgerald's point that such people tend to become interchangeable when met under the blurry lights of an endless series of cocktail parties. All of these people, however, hinge around the mystery man in the center, the charming and attractive Jay Gatsby (Nick's next-door neighbor, through a strange series of circumstances), who has so many rumors swirling about him that they are like an industry unto themselves: that he is a bootlegger, that he is a war profiteer, that he is a relative of the deposed Kaiser, that he was a secret agent, that he actually lives on a giant yacht that never pulls ashore.
What's the real story? And why does Gatsby go to so much trouble to cloud the issue? Well, to understand that is to understand an entire mysterious generation, Fitzgerald argues here, an entire group of people currently having a hard time defining themselves; are they the harbingers of a clean, Modernist future, or the amoral slaughterers that the Great War showed them they could be? And the answer in The Great Gatsby seems to be a little of both; just witness the various ways you end up rooting for the various characters in question, even as you cringe at the various awful, awful things they're all capable of. The storyline of the manuscript itself is slight and preposterous, which of course is Fitzgerald's entire symbolic point; that his entire generation is a slight and preposterous one, a million shell-shocked people in their twenties who want nothing more than to get blotto and talk about meaningless trivialities. That they can't do this, that the sadness and anger and melancholy of past events keep slipping into their lives at unexpected moments, is what haunted Fitzgerald's generation in general, the point that the author is ultimately trying to make here.
The argument for it being a classic:
Fans of The Great Gatsby argue that the book is the absolute perfect combination of the three things most important in a novel, not coincidentally the same three criteria by which I base CCLaP's reviews: it is a strong and well-paced story, featuring complex and deeply-drawn characters, written in an engaging and highly readable style. (It was because of this exact book, after all, that we even got the overused term "Great American Novel.") But not only that, its fans say, but it also tells two completely different kinds of stories at once too; not only a very intimate and unique story about an intriguing set of individuals, but also a grand story about an entire generation, something left behind by Fitzgerald so that those like us will always remember what those years were like. And not only that, your high-school English teacher would argue, but it contains things like a fine attention to color-based symbolism, and other barely perceptible things that snooty academes care about, which of course is what precisely ruins The Great Gatsby for a certain amount of people in each generation as well.
The argument against:
Not much, to tell you the truth; in fact, this is why I wanted this to be one of the first books reviewed in this essay series, so that I'd have an example of an inarguable classic that I can then compare future books in the series to. If you can find me a serious and well-thought-out argument online for why this book shouldn't be considered a classic, you let me know and I'd be happy to go check it out with an open mind.
Not only do I whole-heartedly agree with all of the above, I'll go so far as to say I was shocked by just how good this novel turned out to still be, given its eternally crappy reputation among a certain amount of permanently pissed-off former American Lit students. And that's the thing, that you really owe it to yourself to approach this book away from a traditional academic environment, and to simply sit down and read it for pleasure like you would any other novel; to forget about the symbolism, stop hunting for the freaking color of every dress, and simply get caught up in the pace and rhythm of what Fitzgerald is trying to say here. If you do, you'll see that in actuality The Great Gatsby creates the blueprint for virtually every story and film that's come afterwards regarding the jaded, morally ambiguous subset of any generation, from the Beats in the '50s to the hippies of the '60s, to the slackers of the '90s and now the skaters of the 'aughts. Any tale you come across these days featuring a likable everyman peeking in on decadence and casual criminality is likely to be derivative in one way or another to Gatsby, and you do yourself a favor by reading the original and seeing how it was done by the master.
Is it a classic? Oh my, yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
In two Fridays: The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton
In three Fridays: The Ripley Trilogy, by Patricia Highsmith
In four Fridays: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain