Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Pretty Good Gatsby

As usual, my review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will be highly opinionated and minimally educated. ;)

Plot: Loud parties, fast cars, blatant infidelity, homicide, murder…all in under 200 pages.
Motto: Having it all means nothing at all.

I think the biggest strength of this book is its brevity.* Which is not to say I didn’t like it. But I think Fitzgerald does a good job of getting all his plot points & character development out without dragging on unnecessarily. His prose is rather more florid than I generally like, and I’m not particularly interested in the Jazz era, so most of the literary merit is lost on me. I really couldn’t see why this book is considered the quintessential Great American Novel. In my book both Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind are far superior books… but this post is not about those books.

The characters are well developed, considering the point was that they were shallow, self absorbed, and amoral. I’m all for giving your characters flaws, that’s human, but they lack pretty much any redeeming qualities. Nick is the ‘innocent bystander’ but the only noble (for lack of a better word) thing he does in the whole book is to take care of the funeral arrangements at the end. Tom is a stereotype, the brash, racist, two timing jock – just past his glory days. Jordan is also rich, spoiled, bored, and well, a liar… but beautiful, so that makes it all better. I dislike Daisy the most I think. Not so much because she married Tom rather than wait for Gatsby to come home from the war (although that did not endear her to me), but for her indecision. She loves Gatsby… until he’s been gone too long, then she loves Tom… until Gatsby comes back, then she wants to be with him… but she doesn’t really want to leave Tom because she still kinda sorta loves him. I most empathize with Jay Gatsby, as I’ve carried more than one torch for someone much much longer than would be considered healthy. But even I know when to give up the ghost – namely when the object of your affections gets married and has kids. Time to move on! Furthermore, if you have to sell your soul to be considered worthy by the person you love, you’ve got to ask yourself if they’re worthy of the sacrifice… and nothing about Daisy indicates that she is. As I’m sure it was Fitzgerald’s intention that these be unlikable characters, I give him full marks on that score.

One of the reasons this book has been called a Great American Novel is that it is a window into life in the Jazz Age. And I’m sure it is… to some degree. It could be argued, though, that the life of the young, rich, beautiful New Yorkers is not necessarily representative of life in general at that time. But it is interesting to think of this as the calm between the storms of two world wars. I found the descriptions of the parties to be insightful (and timeless); start with hordes of shallow strangers, add alcohol, turn up the music and everyone’s having a great time! No one really knows anyone, no one knows anything about the host, and no one cares at all. My favorite line is when Jordan says

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

I think it just points out the lack of genuine intimacy in their lives.

Overall, I think this was a very good book, far from my favorite, but absolutely worth a read. There’s a lot of food for thought in this very short book. On Jenn’s advice though, I don’t think I’ll read The Beautiful and the Damned.

*The other thing I love about this book is the author’s name F. Scott Fitzgerald, he gets points not only for having a three-name name, which is cool in and of itself (Mario Vargas Llosa is another one I like) but for using a single bold initial as his first name, and also for having a ‘z’ in his last name. Pretty awesome. Tons better than Herman Melville… what kind of a name is that??


Olga said...

I could never get through that book, nor the ghastly movie they made of it. But I do give Fitsgerald a point cuz he married a woman named ZELDA.

Chicklit said...

I love this book, but I admit, it may have been the second or third time through, during my MFA years when I really started to appreciate it.

Yes, the characters are vapid and shallow, but there is a lot of skill that goes into creating characters like that. And I think the characters serve as more of a philosophical warning against the "American Dream" than as a slice of life from it.

Actually, Gatsby differs from most of Fitzgerald's other work. Even if you didn't like this, you might try giving the Basil and Josephine stories a read.

Phineas said...

Full name: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. He's a nephew, I believe.

atet said...

You might want to try my favorite Fitzgerald book (and one woefully overlooked in my opinion) Tender is the Night. Some of the same issues, but, well, better than Gatsby for my money.

Rebel said...

Olga & Phineas... that makes me love him all the more!!

Chicklit - I think I appreciate the novel more now than when I was in HS, maybe third time is the charm?

Chicklit & atet, others have suggested I read Tender is the Night... I'll take it under consideration, but I've got quite a few books to get through first.

Bezzie said...

I never read that one and it's one I'm OK with not having read.

Dude, you must think I'm super cool! Due to the whole Rebecca/Becky thing, I dropped my first name and many people know me as R. Kaye Bez-----. AND I've got a Z in my last name too. ;-)

Rebel said...

Bezzie... I already thought you were super cool, but now I might have to be your groupie. ;) =P

Magatha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael5000 said...

How dare you trash a classic novel with such an opinionated, uninformed.... oh, never mind.

Magatha said...

I deleted my other comment because I sound like a snot, which, let's face it, sometimes I am. ;)
I totally agree with your review.

Rebel said...

You didn't sound like a snot! (well, any more than normal ;) which is why I love you) I feel the same way about the characters in novels... if I don't like the protagonist, I often don't get into the book. With the exception of Scarlet O'Hara... she's just downright horrible - but I love her!

Batty said...

Just because it's a classic doesn't mean you, personally, have to think it's amazing. I hated The Catcher in the Rye, I loathed The Tin Drum and felt like strangling the author (all that misogynistic nonsense and yucky stuff in one book, plus, that's already been done, it's not the only picaresque novel out there... oh, wait, I'm ranting, sorry!). We all have a right to our opinions, and I happen to agree with yours on this one.

IamSusie said...

What can we do? We can't control our gut reactions! I did love this book back in the tenth grade. It is a classic motif to show the vapid shallowness of rich people. Here it's the American Dream gone wrong. Gatsby idealizes all the wrong things.

And you have to read "100 Years of Solitude" by a great author with three names: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That magical book is my personal all time favorite.