The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) 144 p.

One of the great American novels – or more accurately, novellas – The Great Gatsby is a book that belongs on anybody’s TBR pile, but which came to the top of mine when the film adaptation was released, in case anybody tried to drag me to go see it and thus ruined the plot. That never ended up happening, though, so I’ve only just now got around to reading it.

Taking place in the fictional wealthy neighbourhood of West Egg, Long Island, The Great Gatsby takes place over the summer of 1922, in which the narrator, Nick Carraway, moves into a modest home next door to the much larger mansion of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Nick’s wealthy cousin Daisy and her insufferable husband Tom also live nearby, and Nick learns that Gatsby has a mysterious obsession with Daisy.

There are a couple of lavish parties held at Gatsby’s mansion, which I suppose was the reason Baz Luhrmann was drawn to adapting it to film. (Recently I discovered that Lurhmann is apparently straight. Sure, mate.) Most of The Great Gatsby does take place in and around great wealth – mansion parties, fine restaurants, antique dining rooms – and the novel has been called a critique of the jazz age and cautionary tale about the American dream. But I didn’t find the characters’ wealth (apart from Gatsby’s new money) to be particularly relevant to the novel’s overall theme, which is about infatuation, disillusionment and attempting to recapture the promise of the past. (It reminded me quite a bit of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in that sense, in a very different sort of way.)

A lot of American readers apparently remember this book from high school, and dislike it, and I can understand why. It’s a short book rich in symbolism and metaphor, so I can see why it would appeal to English teachers, but teenagers have yet to suffer the disappointments and lost dreams which make a book like The Great Gatsby relatable. The novel has one of the most famous closing lines in fiction…

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”

…but to sixteen-year-olds who have their entire lives stretching ahead of them – who perhaps, like the teenagers in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, are waiting until graduation so their “real” lives can begin – these words are meaningless.

So I’m glad I read The Great Gatsby at this stage in my life. It has a power and a tone to it I would have been unable to appreciate when I was younger. Having said that, the plot does unfold rather oddly; Gatsby’s final fate has little to do with his own confidence that he can “repeat the past,” and more to do with a series of crazy coincidences. So the structure of the book is a little shaky, perhaps, but it’s held up by the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s writing. I could immediately see why he is considered one of the finest writers of the 20th century; his prose has a clear, lyrical quality to it which never actually reads like writing. In particular, I noticed that he was one of those lucky writers who can clearly and egregiously break some of the most fundamental rules of writing without suffering the consequences.

The Great Gatsby is an excellent novel, and for its historical context it certainly deserves to be mentioned among the greatest American novels of the 20th century. It’s a shame that it’s force-fed to so many understandably unwilling American high school students.

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