A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more echeerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday.
- pages 68-69
I’m not going to write an actual review of The Great Gatsby, because what’s the point? There are acknowledged all-time classics that can be still be given a real review because, classic as they are, we may not know whether they would actually be worth our time. But, for Americans at least, we’ve pretty much all already read Gatsby, or avoided reading it but heard all about it. All the fuck about it. About every piece of SYMBOLISM and every representation of the American this or that and every everything that lazy high school teachers have been saying about it for decades.
I didn’t read Gatsby in high school. We had a Gatsby section, with all the normal touchstones involved (Modernism, Roaring 20s, American Dream, fucking giant God glasses or whatever) and I think I wrote a paper about Gatsby, but I didn’t actually read the thing. A page here, a page there, a lot of grabbing random passages – I had getting decent grades while not reading the books down to a science.[*]
My own laziness aside, I think the way this book is always foisted upon high schoolers, with the same basic approach every time, really does a disservice to them and the book itself. After all, it was only now, a decade after I graduated from high school, that I was even tempted to give the damn thing a read. Then someone randomly gave me a copy and I did. Naturally, it is great.
So what can I say that isn’t always said about the book? Hmm.
Well, it’s funnier than I expected! Like, laugh-out-loud-regularly funny. My favorite parts were generally those that either drove home how disconnected from the normal world our rich characters were (like in the quote above), or the bits that did one of my favorite literary things: explore the bizarre happiness and melancholy that comes with a party. I also greatly appreciated its economy — in part because it knew how to get out before I got sick of the characters (which I would have).
I must say, though, maybe these are old high school insecurities about not being smart enough talking, but I wonder if I still didn’t get the book, because I just don’t seem to get symbolism. There were many fascinating, gripping, and arresting images, yes, but nothing that made me think, “oh well the green light is this and the glasses are that and Gatsby and Nick are sort of the same man because those,” etc. I got feelings and moods but I never got clear meanings — and I pretty much never do — but because we all learned about the same set of symbols in high sschool, and other people still talk about it, this made me feel like I was an idiot, missing something that was right in front of my face.
See, what really grabbed me about the book wasn’t the imagery, vivid as some of it was, it was the, for lack of a better word, truth. The truth of hearing about that guy who peaked in high school and doesn’t know what to do with himself, for example. Those sorts of small truths that we can’t always put a finger on, but which Fitzgerald’s narration describes beautifully, and which his dialogue fleshes out perfectly, making a rich and glamorous (but not really all that glamorous, let’s be honest, Baz) world still feel like something I can understand, and also something kinda weird and sad. This was what grabbed me, what made me go, “Oh. Yeah. No wonder this is a classic, huh?” I didn’t catch any symbolism, and maybe if I hadn’t been taught to absolutely see that the giant glasses are the eyes of God and this is the only way to read it I wouldn’t have felt like I was missing something to enjoy the book the way I did.
What I got out of the book being so dependent on the narration is also why I now get that it won’t make a very good movie (uh, again). I often joked that I was only reading it so that I could start complaining about the upcoming movie from personal experience, instead of re-heating what others had said, and I do have to add my voice to the chorus. Luhrmann’s Gatsby movie will be very pretty, I’m sure,[**] but that’s kinda not the point? To me, at least.
Clearly, there are many different ways one can approach the story. I mostly got a strong sense of mood and a very harsh look at how damaging it can be to idealize and desire one’s own past (a very familiar issue for me). In this, and in Jay Gatsby’s own success story, The Great Gatsby ended up like a weird, twisted mirror version of another great novel, a favorite of mine.
If you guessed The Count of Monte Cristo, you’re not wrong.
* Real talk: The only assigned books that I read all the way through in four years of high school? Animal Farm and All Quiet On the Western Front.
** someone on Twitter whose name I now can’t find said that Luhrmann is the Michael Bay of costume movies