Actually, 'The Great Gatsby' Is Trash
Contrary to popular belief, the book isn't so great or novel, although it sure is American.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Among the books everybody's forced to read in high school, The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous and definitive. Its legacy goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the Great American Novel—relatively easy to read, lesson-imparting, "universal"—and it's so ensconced in framing who we think we are that its name possesses a stamp of its canonical concreteness.
I, for one, hadn't read Fitzgerald in the past 20 years, and hadn't planned to before the advent of I'd Die for You, a collection of Fitzgerald's previously undiscovered stories that came out earlier this week. I couldn't even remember why I hadn't exactly loved Gatsby years before, feeling only a vague lingering effect little beyond its name. How had The Great Gatsby continued to stand the test of time? What gave it grounds for being deemed by Time magazine as "one of the most quintessentially American novels ever written"?
What I found in my rereading was not what I would call great—or even necessarily sharp—writing, but the mirage of such. Somehow, since its 1925 publication, Fitzgerald's prose seems to have grown bloated, decorously written yet so bland that it feels like it requires a translation from purple to purposeful. The book's certainly not poetic, nor is it particularly well-paced, mostly either digressing about upbringing or meandering through the motions of yet another bourgeois day. "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope," Nick Carraway admits up front, on the first page. "I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth."
What is he trying to "snobbishly" warn us of? That if we don't see the value in the story he's about to tell, it's we, the readers, who have the problem? At once, then, we can detect the foundations of the myth of Gatsby: Here's a prick of a book we have for too long been afraid to simply call a prick and walk away.
Carraway is a young, well-to-do white guy who takes it upon himself to affectively mansplain his basic life plan to the reader, like some scotch-breathing friend of a friend at a dinner party you should have skipped. We're supposed to be along for the ride with this guy, or so it seems—he's neither so unlikeable as to have a temperature, nor likable enough we hope he turns out OK in the end.
He's like human wallpaper: a state of being that should be understood up front as devoid of irony, and the kind of people F. Scott Fitzgerald surrounded himself with in daily life and in admiration. He depicted them in this work, whose climate he described to his editor Maxwell Perkins as "a sincere and yet radiant world." Looking back, we shouldn't see the flaws in these characters' outlooks or practices as caricature, or even criticism, but instead as a tale intended to reveal the troubled intersection of their dreams—to feel their yearning, however misplaced. To write it all off now as satire or even foreboding would be to gift it context it does not mean to earn.
Plot-wise, The Great Gatsby—like so much realist narrative fiction—is easily boiled down to a handful of bullshit tacked around some semblance of Character Motivations. Nothing substantial really happens—and not in a conceptually compelling kind of way, like Gaddis or DeLillo or Delany, or in a way that nonetheless brings the text alive with nuanced language, like Gass or Stein or Morrison. Basically, we just follow Nick around as he is witness to infidelity on the part of his cousin's husband, later to become drawn in as a sort of wingman for Gatsby to try to help him get in said cousin's pants. There's a bunch of parties where Nick is mostly a bystander, periodically interjecting whitewashed observation as people bicker over relationships and Gatsby blathers amidst his privilege about how he was in the war once. Eventually, there's a car crash and some murder, but even that seems only there to force the story to a head, to wield its point—which, I guess, is that life is short and no one's happy? Well, no shit.
Essentially, the book resembles the least titillating episode ever of The Real Housewives of East Egg. If The Great Gatsby is indeed definitively American, it's in a way like American Psycho, without the comedy or the gore—another who's fucking who and who wants to be fucking who tale, phrased in the most lame and sexless possible way.
Did I mention that several of these characters speak like white nationalists? "It's up to us, who are the dominant race," says Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, "to watch out or these other races will have control of things." "We've got to beat them down," Daisy concurs, cementing such an outlook as part and parcel of the novel's emotional marrow. "We're all white here," Nick's date Jordan offers later, an attempt to calm down a fight between the men, as if that fact alone should end the struggle over who owns Daisy's heart.
Can we just please, at last, say fuck these people? While we're at it, fuck their story, its author, and the book itself. Regardless of how it evokes some state of how things were, perhaps even still in some ways how they are, the book's position as an icon among language-based ambition has long gone stale. As literary fiction, Gatsby holds up the table for everything we've been told for decades books are "supposed to do": to set up what's going to happen at the end of the story on the very first page, and to display in tedious detail who is speaking and where they are and why. I can actually feel myself getting dumber and more mindless as I read it, almost like suffocating, which is perhaps exactly why it has become inculcated by American schools as a cornerstone of the foundation of our learning: Most media is meant to numb you out, making you care only to the extent that you will buy more of it.
Which brings me to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby is not only not a great novel, but one by which the continued CPR over its legacy has only done us all a psychic damage, both literarily and as a culture. There might have been a time when The Great Gatsby seemed newfangled or boundary-breaking, or even just a solid literary book, but in our current landscape, it's a barely passable melodrama, one played out by dick-bag socialites and white supremacists, satire or not. Reread The Great Gatsby as an adult who has read outside of the canonical framework we're presented and you'll realize why so many young people hate to read; because, if nothing else, they can just as easily absorb the exact same sort of story on most any channel on TV. What good's an imagination, after all, when our "greatest novels" seem secondhand to reality's script?
Blake Butler is the author of several books of fiction, most recently the novel 300,000,000. Follow him on Twitter.
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- The Great Gatsby
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