Must a sub-par novel — and novelist — perpetually be revered?
The Great Gatsby has sold 25 million copies. It has spent 403 weeks — slightly under eight years — on the bestseller list maintained by USA Today, a newspaper founded 42 years after F. Scott Fitzgerald died. In 2013 alone, it sold 185,000 copies. Every year, thousands of high school English teachers flog their students through The Book.
Wait! There’s more! There have been at least five Hollywood movie versions of The Book. Gatsby himself has been portrayed on screen by Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford, Alan Ladd, Toby Stephens (?), and Warner Baxter in a silent 1926 version. Maureen Corrigan, a fine writer, has just written a book about The Book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.
For the love of Mike, Why?
I read the bloody thing years ago and shrugged. Pleasing sentences. A bit slight. Lots better stuff out there.
Over the intervening decades, the world’s infatuation with Gatsby only grew. A couple of years ago, I tried again. I had become a more mature reader. I would “get” it this time, right?
Nope. Still a bit slight.
Nick Carraway’s a cipher. Daisy’s a vapid star-fucker. Tom Buchanan is a lout who stirs a bit of interest, but the mysterious Gatsby left me cold, again. Of course he’s an arriviste bootlegger. In the 1920s, America had thousands of them. Tragic? He packs all the dramatic impact of a postage stamp. I didn’t care about any of them.
(I’ll give you the last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That’s good work. Don’t read the rest of the book.)
My frustration with The Fitzgerald Infatuation has returned this month as I plowed through F. Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. The wound was again, I admit, self-inflicted. In trying to write historical fiction about the 1920s, I’ve been reading novels from the era to get a better sense of the people, the feeling of the time, the language people used. I’ve read some John Dos Passos and some Willa Cather and some Hemingway. Good stuff all around. Then I got to This Side.
Fairness disclaimer: Fitzgerald was only 23 when he wrote This Side, so perhaps some allowances are due. But, wow, what a dog.
The story focuses on Amory Blaine, an egotistical child of privilege who attends prep school and Princeton and chooses not to work for filthy lucre even after the family money peters out. He dashes off poems, lists books he’s read, and tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to deduce which qualities make him the truly superior being he knows he is. He has a variety of empty flirtations and then a passionate romance that has all the emotional resonance of your relationship with your pharmacist.
Fitzgerald sends his hero off to World War I and then skips the whole war. That would have been too interesting, perhaps an occasion on which this supercilious twit might have confronted something like life. Was Fitzgerald being ironic, holding up Amory Blaine for our contempt? Maybe. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t care enough to pursue the thought.
The best thing about the book is that it inspired me to take another look at Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch, which I highly recommend.
The worst? A toss-up between the following quotes from the pen of F. Scott: “He wanted people to like his mind again — after a while it might be such a nice place in which to live.”
Beam me up, Scottie! I’m trapped in a wasteland!
Or, when the hero says, “I’m trés old and trés bored, Tom.”
Moi, aussi, Scottie, old shoe. Moi aussi.
David O. Stewart, president of the Washington Independent Review of Books, writes history and fiction. His character study of James Madison, Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, comes out in February 2015. His next novel, The Wilson Deception, set at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, will be released in October 2015.