A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
Why I read it
I read Gatsby years ago when I found the cute Penguin edition in a shop for $5 new. I read it fast, snuffling through it like a possum in a garbage bin, trying to unearth as efficiently as possible the marvellous whatever-it-was that made everyone rave about this book. I didn’t find it. You don’t, of course. The Great Gatsby isn’t a twist or a punchline. Pretty soon I’d forgotten everything I’d read.
Now there’s a movie out, and I want to see it. This means I needed to re-read the book. Going into a cinema without the book fresh in my mind leaves me open to the visual force of the movie planting itself in my brain and superimposing itself on any future re-reads, possibly destroying my ability to ever enjoy the book as a separate entity.
I’m home sick, so I’m not in a hurry, and there’s a bath that’ll see me through all 200 pages if I remember to put some snacks within arm’s reach.
Gatsby is go.
The ‘classics’ effect
You can’t be on the internets without realising this book is pretty much force-fed to every student in America. I didn’t have to do it at school here – I don’t know if it was even an option in the curriculum – but nonetheless I was aware the whole time I was reading it that the typical Gatsby experience, numbers-wise at least, involves highlighting passages, memorising quotes, and identifying of one of several ‘themes’ that have been deemed correct by the collective wisdom of the board of education.
And so as I was reading, a curious thing happened. I couldn’t stop myself mentally highlighting passages for regurgitation in imaginary exam-style essays later on. “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” says Daisy, and I mentally highlight it. But then out of left field comes her self-observing smirk, and I realise she’s not even sincere about her cynicism – and then I start really wanting to write essays about this book, for real.
Because, firstly: there are the most beautiful passages of description. The first time Carraway steps into Daisy’s house and everything’s diaphanous and levitating with the wind – that’s magical. Being able to create that in my mind for myself – that alone made re-reading the book before seeing the movie worthwhile.
Then there is the narrative tone. It is the opposite of the movie soundtrack that artificially augments everything. We watch these people implode one by one, and each time it’s muted. Instead of a big descriptive passage describing the car impact, there’s the lingering after-effects: the neighbour who has to stay with the husband through the night; the administrative details. Shootings happen off-camera, and are followed by days of leg-work organising a funeral. Daisy disappears without consequence or, it seems, any sort of learning experience. Tom seems to have failed to recognise any hypocrisy regarding Myrtle and Gatsby. Party-goers arrive, hang around to see if a party’s going to start, then drift off again with no further interest. The closest thing there is to a guiding God is a fading advertising billboard with a huge pair of eyes. At first, I think: it’s like some existentialist tragedy. Then I think: no, it’s just more like real life than books usually are.
I wonder how this understated tone is going to translate into a Baz Luhrman film.
Part of me feels a vestigial pressure from high school to start solidifying my thoughts on the themes. Would I write my imaginary essay on New Money versus Old Money? Nostalgia versus reality? Money and meaningless versus hard work and hope? Gender issues, class issues, historical issues or moral issues?
And then I savour the fact I don’t have to do any of that. I can walk away, mull it over in my mind for as little or as long as I want, and if my musings fail to cement themselves into anything substantial, that’s completely OK. That’s what it means to not have a teacher any more.
And that, as a general principle, makes me feel both free, and adrift.
This book was mostly read in the bath.