Getting Gatsby Wrong

The reviews are in, and it looks as if Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is something of a disappointment. As a friend at church this morning explained, it’s really a cartoon. The characters and their environs are animated and exaggerated well beyond the proportions of the book. Is this, a la Moulin Rouge, a fantasia on a theme of Fitzgerald’s?

My interest today is not really in the film. But I’ve been impressed with recent efforts to reengage with the book itself, to examine its place within American literature (an effort, I should add, that now seems rather quaint after being disparaged or simply neglected by the academy). NPR’s Studio 360, for instance, devoted an entire episode to the book in its “American Icons” series. It is well worth a listen.

During the otherwise-excellent, hour-long program, I got a kick out of hearing Jonathan Frantzen, the darling of contemporary fiction, fawn over the book. He reports that he read the book in high school and then “six more times,” which has made him “a disciple of the book,” “a true deep fan.”

According to Frantzen, Gatsby has the “mark of a really good novel” because of “its ability to hide gems in plain sight,” because of “its lightness of touch,” and because, in the end, the reader is left to feel as if he’s been “nourished by whipped cream.”

That’s interesting. It sounds as if Frantzen and Lurhmann may have something in common in that. Then comes the kicker. He reports:

I almost go to [the novel] for moral instruction at this point. Part of the great thing about the early pages is that you immediately like Nick Carroway’s father, giving what was essentially the primary lesson from my own youth: ‘Don’t judge anybody else. Have an open mind. Nobody’s better than you; you are not any better than anybody else.’ That’s as good a stab at what it feels like to grow up in the midwest as any other concept.

The only problem with this approach is that utterly fails to acknowledge the central irony of the book, that Nick is, in fact, an unreliable narrator. While he insists that he shouldn’t judge, judgement, and snap judgements at that, are all we get from Nick. And that simple observation, Fitzgerald’s slight of hand in recounting the story, should be obvious to careful readers—no less savvy than somebody like Frantzen—after a chapter or two.

But Frantzen doesn’t really believe in this midwestern wisdom any more than Carroway or Fitzgerald do. It’s a lie, a platitude (aren’t all platitudes lies?), that we moderns tell ourselves, which conveniently distances us from the moral tragedies unfolding all around us. Surely, Frantzen knows that there is no “view from nowhere.” (I’ll let Jay Rosen explain that further, his use of media being very fitting for the novel.) Good novelists are the ones who have a perspective, and that perspective illuminates our experience in a deeper or richer way than we were able to see for ourselves.

Like Frantzen, New York Magazine’s Kathryn Schulz has also read Gatsby five times, but it’s “the only book I have read so often despite failing—in the face of real effort and sincere intentions—to derive almost any pleasure at all from the experience.” Her withering review follows. While I found the review at turns both amusing and edifying, I think it errs too far in the other direction. Like Frantzen, she misses the layers that Nick’s narration, which contains its own hypocrisies and self-deceptions, impose on the story. We are never allowed to see the tragic tale through anyone else’s eyes. Our view of Gatsby and everyone else in the novel is embellished, restricted, romanticized, and distorted through that lens. Nick’s subjectivity is everywhere present. And that artful and inextricable melding of the medium and the message—its quintessential modernity—is what gives the story its greatness, its distinction as literature.

Recognizing the work as such, though, requires us to consider the source, ask deeper questions about his motives and worldview, before we can begin to understand the object of his fascination, who may, after all our “real effort and sincere intentions,” remain just beyond our grasp.

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