The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I just finished "The Great Gatsby" and it may be the most boring book I have ever read. I decided to give the book a chance because of the recent Baz Luhrman movie. I usually like Baz Luhrman's movies but didn't want to check it out until I'd read the original source material. Several reviews of the movie talked about how "Gatsby" was an engrossing read that takes only a few hours . I cracked that thing open and was instantly . . . not transported magically to the 1920s. In fact, I stayed rooted right there in my chair in the 21st century, agog at how long-winded our narrator is.
Clearly "The Great Gatsby" was written before "show, don't tell" became a watchword in the training of writers. "Gatsby" starts out with a long passage about how good a listener our narrator is and how this makes people open up to him -- a trait that I do not recall actually seeing him ever display. The book then goes on to an extended lecture on his family and personal history.
There is also some nonsense about how indistinguishable the "new money" West Egg and "old money" East Egg peninsulas that stick out into Long Island Sound are from one another and how seagulls would be confused. After stopping to consider it, I think that the point might be about the value of money or meaning of wealth or something along those lines. All money is green no matter how old it is, maybe, or that money spends the same regardless of its source. Or that there is no real reason for a social gulf between the two except for the way human priorities and tribalism screw things up. As I was reading, however, rather than thinking, "what profound ideas about wealth and human nature this man has," I found my mind wandering to the question of whether the seagulls would, in fact, be confused. For what it's worth, I think that the seagulls would have no such problem, and not just because birds can tell direction. "Old money" becomes old money by its owners not being wasteful. Therefore, the residents of East Egg probably do not throw much food away. The seagulls would find much better scraps on West Egg, where they are having too much fun enjoying their money to watch every penny. They certainly would remember which peninsula provides them with better stuff, and so they would be able to tell the two apart quite easily.
On the few occasions when the plot actually gets moving, things come to a halt periodically so that we can drink from the exposition fire hose. One of the most memorable, to me, at least, is we get the background of how Jay met his first benefactor, Dan Cody. Fitzgerald spends what must be over a thousand words in twelve paragraphs of unbroken exposition, ending with (in part) "He told me all this very much later . . . .at a time of confusion when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him." Frankly, it would have been much more entertaining, and better reading, if we had seen the time when Nick had reached that point (which we don't) and gotten to see Gatsby telling Nick the story in his own words.
And let's not even go into the seven paragraphs Fitzgerald spent listing the people who attended Gatsby's parties.
Then there is the plot, such as it is. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, has recently graduated from Yale and has moved to New York City to become a bond trader. He rents a small house on West Egg, right next door to Jay Gatsby, whose money comes from unknown sources. Nick's cousin Daisy married into "old money" (leaving aside for the moment the fact that there really is no such thing as "old money" in the United States, just "new money" and "newer money") and she, her husband, and their daughter live on East Egg.
Daisy's husband, Tom, is having an affair with a married woman and somehow Nick ends up attending a party that Tom and Myrtle (the girlfriend) are having at their place in New York City. This scene is exciting in pretty much exactly the same way as watching paint dry is exciting. I am not sure if Fitzgerald was trying to make the party lifestyle look really boring, but if he was, he succeeded admirably. Maybe I just don't drink enough, either at parties or while reading this book.
At some point we get the infodump that Gatsby and Daisy had something of a romance just before Gatsby shipped out for World War I. They kept in touch for a few years. When Daisy married Tom, the marriage was such a shock to Gatsby that he dropped out of Oxford University to return to the United States to stalk -- I mean, pursue Daisy.
Nick, as cousin to one and neighbor to the other, ends up with the unenviable task of reintroducing them. At one of his parties, Gatsby manages to convince Nick to invite Daisy over for tea. Gatsby "just happens" to be there at the same time and sparks fly.
It all comes to a head in the middle of summer, in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Then, of course, it all goes to hell.
The book ends with Nick finding out some of how Gatsby made his money (in a very slightly less infodumpy way than we've had information given to us on prior occasions). We also find out who Gatsby's true friends are. Then Nick realizes that everyone he knows in New York is unpleasant and he leaves New York City to return to Minnesota.
To answer those who think that Daisy and Gatsby had some kind of great romance (and I know there are a few out there -- I've read articles by them) the central pairings of this book are Gatsby/his fantasy of Daisy and Daisy/herself. Some, from what I have read, say that Daisy's true love was money, but I think that Daisy's need for money was simply because when you love someone you want the best for him or her. And for Daisy, that meant that she needed to ensure that the financial needs of the only person she has ever loved were taken care of.
Additionally, "Gatsby" doesn't connect for me because I am interrogating the text from what is perhaps the wrong perspective, to borrow a phrase from Anne Rice. I am certainly interrogating the text from a different perspective. Apparently the point of "The Great Gatsby" is to mourn the end of the American dream and the possibility that hard work will bring you financial independence. Instead, materialism and organized crime were on the rise for what Fitzgerald apparently believed was the first time ever. They weren't real big on teaching history since the beginning of the industrial revolution during Fitzgerald's school years, apparently.
For some perspective, Fitzgerald's maternal grandfather owned a chain of grocery stores. The stores were profitable enough that the Fitzgeralds were able to keep an upper-middle-class lifestyle on his mother's inheritance. No one in their family apparently needed to work at all, and the Fitzgeralds had enough left over after covering their expenses to send Scott to private schools.
My own family did not have that kind of assurance during those years. My maternal grandfather, for example, was only four years younger than Fitzgerald. However, while Fitzgerald was attending private schools in St. Paul and then going to Yale, my grandfather dropped out of school around his seventh grade year to go to work to help support his family -- his father, his mother, and his younger sister. At one point, he worked in the steel mills of Northwest Indiana, which, he always told us, was why he was hard of hearing. A few years after he dropped out, his mother remarried and the family moved to a small town in a rural area, but since people didn't drop back into school back then, my grandfather continued to work.
And my family weren't the only ones. Just the little research that I have done into the subject over the years indicates that at the end of the 19th century, many of the people of the United States worked for a small amount of money to make the rich even richer. There wasn't the "social safety net" that we take for granted nowadays. Do you know who provided most of the social services during the "Gilded Age"? Organized crime. So, yeah. Greed, corruption and organized crime were totally inventions of the 1920s.
Maybe some day in the future I will look back on this book as a one of the wonders of American literature. However, it is more likely that I will continue for the rest of my life to see it as I see it now -- as the work of someone with a very narrow experience of the world.