If you’re studying this at college and want something to plagiarise for an essay, be warned: I failed Lit at 16, so what do I know? Go read the Spark Notes or something. But anyway:
I possess just one of those “how to write a novel books”. It’s called “How to write a novel” and it’s by the British novelist, John Braine (Room at the top, Crying Game). Like all Braine’s novels it’s beautifully written. It’s also full of fairly useless advice for anyone writing today. I bought it in 1979, thinking it would help me to get a novel published. It didn’t work, but as anyone who’s tried it knows, writing a novel is one thing, publishing is quite another. Anyway, John urges us to learn from the best, and it’s hard to disagree with him on that one, and one of the novels he quotes from is The Great Gatsby.
Sad to say I didn’t take John’s advice until recently, but that’s okay because reading the Great Gatsby won’t help you get published either because the publishing world has changed a lot since 1925. What it will do, however, is show you how good a novel can be, yet it’s also one that’s impossible to ape because few of us can write as well as this, even when we’ve been shown how.
The story became popular again around 2013, on release of the movie adaptation starring Leonardo De Caprio and Carey Mulligan, as no doubt it became popular around 1974 on release of the previous movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I’ve not seen either film, but came across the novel in a charity shop while scrabbling about for another title to make up the two-for-a pound-offer. Thus the Great Gatsby rose from the bargain bin, and spoke to me.
It’s not a long novel. I read it one lazy Sunday afternoon while waiting for a computer to rebuild after a dose of Malware. (You’re right, none of this is relevant) Focus Michael. Stop waffling. Your reader has other things vying for their attention.
And that’s the first point: Fitzgerald does not waffle. There is a pared back, austere beauty to the prose, not a single wasted word, not one superfluous comma. And there’s a crispness to the dialogue that wakes you up, makes you listen. It lends a focus that shames my own work, shames our own times, waffling and smudging and blurring our way to dimly grasped conclusions.
So, here it is, says Fitzgerald with a clap of his hands: Let’s get to it.
In the opening of the story our narrator rents one of the last remaining “modest” properties on Long Island (NY), which just happens to be next door to a mansion owned by the titular Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire whose doors are always open to riotous, celebrity studded parties – parties he seems to take only a peripheral interest in. The rich and the famous flock to Gatsby’s mansion and there they adulate him to his face while whispering dark things behind his back, making up stories of a shady past to fill in the blanks. At first we know little of Gatsby. Instead we are shown how the high society Gatsby entertains is rotten, built on money, greed, and low morals.
Our narrator hovers on the fringes of this world, by turns seduced and disgusted. He’s befriended by Gatsby – but for a reason. The narrator’s cousin, Daisy, is a girl from Gatsby’s past. But the war intervened, Gatsby went off to fight and when he returned Daisy, a dizzy, rich, society girl, had married more into her class. By contrast Gatsby was self made from humble origins, and Daisy, though she was the love of his life, had not the character to wait for him.
Everything Gatsby has since done (hints of shady dealings), his yearning for success, his millions, his mansion, all are aimed at turning Daisy’s head and winning her back from a philandering no good cad of a husband. Gatsby is thus revealed as a man driven not so much by the desire for money, power and fame as more simply and elementally by love. His massive, legendary parties are bait, aimed at luring Daisy through his door and rekindling their past.
But is she worth it?
The story is a simple one, of the type you could precis on the back of an envelope, hone down to a paragraph then sell it as a catchy idea to a publisher. It’s all the more powerfully told for the brevity of its prose and the sharpness of its focus. I won’t spoil the tale for anyone coming to it for the first time, but it leaves us in no doubt as to the vacuousness of a society dominated by money and privilege, and the falseness of relations forged under such a shallow, self seeking milieu. It this sense it speaks also to the present day as much as it did to the roaring twenties, when it was written.
John Braine’s book on how to write a novel isn’t much use to a writer writing now, but I do agree with him in this respect: when reading Scott Fitzgerald, a writer knows he is in the presence of a master, one from whom he has much to learn. Studying The Great Gatsby won’t help you get a novel published, nothing will, but it will help you write a better one. And if you’re not a writer, this is a story well worth the reading anyway, for no more reason, as with all good stories, that it’s a good story, and well told.