The Great Gatsby is often called a novel of yearning, which for me has always meant a yearning for it to be a better book. It is not an especially good novel, but it is good at being relevant. Which is why we’re still here, almost 90 years after its publication, reading, discussing and arguing over what director Baz Luhrmann is going to make of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most celebrated tale. For all its flaws – and the book has as many flaws as Jay Gatsby has shirts – it endures.
But it’s more than mere endurance: The story somehow seems evergreen, custom-fitted to each passing era. It is taken up again and again as a shining example of … well, of what exactly depends on whom you ask.
Some say it’s our great tale of possibility, of what can be made from a life. Others more accurately read it as a cautionary fable, even an indictment of American empire and arrogance. And many of these people will be only too happy to tell you that it’s the most beautiful book ever written, that its soaring prose is enlivened by the very spirit of its age, that its famous green light is one of the most profound symbols in all of fiction. That it is – as I’ve heard more than once – a perfect book.
It’s at least perfectly popular: The New York Times recently reported that the book sells around 500,000 copies a year in the U.S. alone. This year, it has already moved 280,000 print versions, and 125,000 e-books have sold, too. So why do we keep caring? Why did Jay-Z, who can presumably do what he wants these days, sign up to score the film? Why do we keep staring off into the hazily symbolic eyes of T.J. Eckleburg?
We care because for the most part we have it all wrong.
No novel is more widely misread by our culture, so much so that the culture’s misreading has in effect replaced the book itself. It is beloved because of the ease with which it’s misunderstood as an idealized story of the “American dream.”
The new film version’s first trailer, which opens with the pulsing thump of No Church in the Wild by Jay-Z and Kanye West, venerates fast cars and stylish dresses above cynical lessons about the dangers of excess. Luhrmann has said that, for Jay-Z, “the book is very aspirational, the idea being that in American you can pursue a dream.” Never mind that (spoiler alert!) the dream ends up dead in the pool. Each generation drinks deeply from Gatsby. But in the morning we remember only the roar of the party, not the ugliness toward the evening’s end.
But it’s not really our fault. The book’s greatest weakness – its flabby, imprecise prose, those sentences that have had one too many coupes of cold Champagne – is precisely what determines its lasting success.
Consider the following passage from the novel’s closing pages: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” This isn’t simply a question of taste. It’s a question of emptiness. Amorphous trees? Ghosts breathing dreams like air? Scarcely created grass?
None of these things actually means anything, just as there’s really no such thing as “riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” just as “the full bellows of the earth” don’t really blow “frogs full of life.” This is all lyricism, all metaphor, yes. But it is void lyricism, hollow metaphor.
These sentences make us feel complimented, comfortable and elegant. They make us feel part of something beautiful, and we quite naturally want to feel part of something beautiful. The result is superficial, a sort of aesthetic Ponzi scheme: a pile of sound that, because of our will, starts to signify something. Each meaningless abstraction becomes memorably pretty because we by now know to expect its beauty; we allow each one to stand because we need the next one to make sense. Or, as Hemingway more succinctly put it at the end of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
But maybe that’s what makes it perfect for our age. For who among us doesn’t at some point take great pleasure in the creation of beauty? Especially when it feels as though “civilization is going to pieces,” as Tom Buchanan says early in the book. Who could fault craving it, particularly when we so often feel, as Daisy does, that “everything’s terrible anyhow.” So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the multiplex.
Jared Bland is the Books Editor of The Globe and Mail.