At the bookstore the other day, people were talking about the new movie version of The Great Gatsby. They’d seen the trailer and were certain Hollywood had made something slick and unseemly of their beloved story – something to avoid.
“I’ll just read the book again,” a woman said, sighing.
The fact that they care nearly nine decades after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was published is what’s remarkable here, and what seems to baffle and discomfit Globe Books Editor Jared Bland. In his piece last Saturday, Bland called Gatsby “not an especially good novel.” He finds the book riddled with “flaws,” notably its “flabby, imprecise prose,” and attributes its longevity to the fact that it seems “custom-fitted to each passing era.” People love it because they don’t understand it, he opines.
Now, I have no problem with literary contrarianism; assessing fiction is a subjective business, after all, and challenging conventional wisdom is part of the job. I never did make it through Ulysses, for instance, though I’m told it’s worth the slog, and don’t get me started on Underworld, which unfortunately I did finish. And that’s just the U’s.
But Gatsby, for many of us, is hallowed ground. Not because we don’t get it – yes, the corrupt, striving American dreamer ends up dead in the pool, his grand schemes dashed – but because we (appreciative readers, not crass moviemakers) do get it and happily surrender to the rhythms of this Jazz Age tale.
That’s what Bland misses: how, unlike the dense, overblown head-scratchers often touted as great literature, Gatsby is a compact, accessible book that’s still rich with intrigue and insight, and lovely to behold. It is tragic, romantic without being cheesy – the green light on Daisy’s dock is a potent symbol – and it isn’t fitted to the passing eras; it transcends them.
Yes, sometimes Fitzgerald strains for effect – one wishes editor Maxwell Perkins had saved him from “amorphous trees” and “ghosts, breathing dreams like air.” But mostly the author earns his flights of lyricism, and the prose, far from flabby, is often economical and precise, as when rich girl Daisy jilts Gatsby for Tom Buchanan.
“There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and his position, and Daisy was flattered. Doubtless there was a certain struggle and a certain relief. The letter reached Gatsby while he was still at Oxford.”
Or narrator Nick Carraway’s recollection of returning by train to the “frosty dark” of his Midwest hometown: “I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.”
Lovely stuff, and keep in mind: Aloof Gatsby is the title character, but likeable Nick is our guide. Nick is cautious, loyal, judgmental, even caustic, and he skewers the glittering excess around him even as he’s inexorably drawn to it. He’s good company – another reason for the book’s enduring appeal.
Does Gatsby have other flaws? Sure. Not the least of them, my high-school English teacher argued long ago, is that the dramatic climax hinges to some extent on a too-convenient plot point about who’s driving Gatsby’s yellow roadster that fateful day. Maybe so.
But such manipulations are easily forgiven when the language is evocative, the characters compelling and Gatsby’s unlikely rise and inevitable fall movingly rendered. Reinvention – that’s the quintessentially American theme that Jay Gatsby embodies, and perhaps the most persuasive reason, amid our successive eras of empty opulence, that this classic novel lives on.
The new movie? Not to worry. Another reinvention, one that may offend the faithful, but won’t dim the green light’s glow.
Bob Levin is an editor at The Globe and Mail.