Review of The Great Gatsby (novel)

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Accepting that clichés are such because they’re true, I’ll refrain from paying The Great Gatsby the usual accolades, let my rating speak for itself and merely list a few observations about the book.
Gatsby is pretty much a standard part of the high school curriculum, but it’s an odd book to give high school students. As perfectly as Fitzgerald captures a man’s struggle to hold on possibilities that may just have slipped through his fingertips, this aspect of life and aging has no appeal for someone just beginning to romp in the passions of his or her own youth. At best, high school students can appreciate Fitzgerald’s themes in an abstract way, get examples of good writing style, and perhaps receive the seeds of something that will bloom then they themselves are borne back into the past and come upon the memory of reading The Great Gatsby.

Even if the sum of what students get out of the book is Fitzgerald’s prose, it’s still a fantastic example of good English style. The sentences are all well constructed and even when Nick Carraway goes off the rails in his descriptions we sense that it’s because of his unexpressed Romanticism and his hunger for a passionate life. It may not be great writing per se, but it is great characterization. Furthermore, Fitzgerald managed to write almost an entire novel out of what James Joyce might call epiphanies: little bits of dialogue or description that capture some startlingly raw nuance of human experience (The difference is that Fitzgerald weaves them seamlessly into a story that’s easy to follow while Joyce, being the avant-garde, presented his epiphanies in a chaotic hodgepodge that resembles day to day human experience but which is was much more difficult to follow).

But while the writing of The Great Gatsby is easy to follow and appreciate, it’s more difficult to care about the characters. As a fifteen year old it was agonizing to read Gatsby’s circuitous attempts to reconnect with Daisy. I didn’t appreciate the social constraints that he tried to respect and circumvent. The American archetypes with whom I’d been raised, the spitting cowboys and ball players, were rebellious, freedom loving types who escaped the pernicious structures of wealth and power, not appeasers and social climbers. Secondly, authors often create literary drama by having people fighting against such constraints with violence or direct, coercive action—think about Macbeth usurping the throne or Dmitri Karamazov physically striking his father—but most of what Gatsby does is show up, spend money entertaining people he may or may not like, and request that his neighbor ask his old flame to tea. Third, Gatsby may spend gobs of money and throw gigantic parties, but that’s much more appealing as a fantasy than as drama.

Put all these three together and you come to one conclusion: Fitzgerald anchors a superficial age by showing us Gatsby’s impossible dream—that he wants to be wealthy and all that means, but his only means to obtaining that wealth (bootlegging) precludes him from being a part of the club—but it requires a leap for the reader to find this sympathy, a leap which may be beyond most 15 year olds. Certainly at that age I found that Shakespeare and The Brothers Karamazov’s emotions were more immediately accessible and gripping.

And yet there is something terrible and honest about those social constraints, and the fact that Fitzgerald writes of them so baldly. America is ostensibly about social equality, and yet the social strata in Yale, East Egg, and so on are very much as manifest today as they were then. So I come back to the question that I started with: what is the idea of making high schoolers read Gatsby? It is possible that The Great Gatsby is a convenient collocation of both great writing and a work of art that can give insight into a bygone age and our own? It is possible that educators are telling students to value their youth, to realize that it will some day be gone and that the avenues which seem so plentiful and easy will one day be closed. It’s possible that the book challenges them by giving something so far beyond their experience that they must use their imaginations to sympathize with it. But really, the cynical side of me says, assigning The Great Gatsby is a message to any aspiring Nick Carraways (ie, shy, retiring writers) out there:

Man up, kid, and be ready for some kicks in the teeth. The good part?—once in a while someone will be able to describe those kicks in a way that gives you art, an obscure solace.

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On Rachel Shteir and Linkbait

Last week Rachel Shteir’s review of The Third Coast, Golden, and You Were Never in Chicago appeared in the New York Times Book Review (though she claims it is actually an essay). Proud Chicagoans quickly responded: every city has problems, Chicago has a lot going for it, and Shteir can go back to New York if she misses a “real” city so much.

I followed up with a bit of reading on Shteir, including an interview that made her views a little clearer. Her argument is more that Chicagoans are prone to boosterism and ignore the very real problems that their city has. (She also says that the personal remarks against her are a “sad commentary on the state of criticism.” As true that sounds, it makes me think of her as the huffy old person pining for the good old days when debate held to a high level of decorum and no one ever said anything untoward). As she said that she viewed it as an essay more than a review, and as I’m someone who’s taught about writing essays here and there, I’ve got a few humble bits of advice for the esteemed professor.

1)      Beginning your essay by quoting a conversation with your friend in which you list Chicago’s problems makes it sound like you’re thesis is that Chicago sucks. If you state your actual argument (that Chicagoans are so prone to boosterism that they don’t admit to/address their problems) at the outset and people will A) know what the charges against their city are and B) be forced to reckon with those charges on your terms.

2)      You wonder how many times Milton Friedman passed by the projects on his way to Lakeshore drive from the University of Chicago campus without entering them… and then admit that you rarely left Hyde Park as an undergraduate at same. I’m not saying that students need to venture into unsafe neighborhood to have cred, but to accuse Friedman of a something you yourself didn’t do isn’t really fair.

3)      The only book of the three that you like is Dyja’s The Third Coast. It sounds quite like you find Chicago’s history as a place for radical art and architecture to be the most interesting bit of everything you read, but then you bury it in a justifiable but unconstructive complaint about Chicagoans’ inability to take criticism (and no, I don’t buy it when you suggest that ruffling feathers is in and of itself a good thing that contributes to the debate). If you’re interested in that part of Chicago’s history, and I am interested in that part of Chicago’s history, why not tell me about that and relegate the stuff about Chicago boosterism somewhere else?

All that aside, what I really think is going on is linkbait. Shteir is obviously a smart woman, and the editorial staff at the Times has, you know, a little bit of experience, but one wonders if they’re really just stirring the pot to get hits on their webpage. After all, I wouldn’t have found out about all this if it wasn’t for the criticism Shteir was taking for trashing Chicago as she does. If I’m going to imply that I’m smart enough to identify poorly constructed arguments, I should also be smart enough to recognize the fact that I get my news through filters that favor arguments that are built to inflame more than edify. Such are the modern media.

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A Very Short Review of Richard Ellman’s Joyce Biography

James JoyceJames Joyce by Richard Ellmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All of the artist, none of the art.

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On the Bedside Table

I finally picked up Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce (the urge to call it seminal is almost overpowering, but doing so would give Joyce’s credit to the wrong person) and am going to a shoot for a chapter a night. While the writing is a sharp drop-off from Capote, Ellman does dig up a few gems, eg John Joyce’s phrase “with the help of God and a few policemen.”

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Review of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“He’d been put together with care, his brown head and bullfighter’s figure had an exactness, a perfection, like an apple, an orange, something nature has made just right.” (From BAT)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is somewhere between a novella and a long short story, and it is easy to dismiss it as a feathery, disposable product of a self-conscious, would-be debutante looking to secure his place in New York café society;* what fan of Serious Literature, of Dostoevsky and Dickens, would find in such a slender volume anything but a momentary diversion? But the work shines like its heroine all the more for the fact that it only seems so lightweight, that it and she capture such oceans of human need and forgiveness and ugliness in what appear to be such trifles.

It’s a marvelous book, for the character of Holly Golightly (who ranks, to adapt Hemingway, among the many discoveries Man has made about himself)** and for the fact that it is composed almost entirely of sentences like that beginning this review: not too long, not too short, unassuming but perfectly clear, as tricky for a great writer as a drawn out note for a concert violinist. I’ve heard it said from a personal authority that Capote is one for the only writers to give F. Scott Fitzgerald a run for his money; this is true, and my only addition will be that this comparison is so inviting for the fact that both writers capture fleeting, important feelings that happen when one is too young to appreciate and too old to forget, and their melancholy mood is more difficult perhaps than either comedy or tragedy.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it is a masterwork on structuring and telling a story; it is a miracle of balance and precision, delicate, tasteful, perfect as the jewelry at its namesake. I cannot imagine how many years of practice and preparation Capote gave to be able to write this book, but he reached his mark. Sometimes it is nature that makes things just right and sometimes it is art.

*I’d come across Capote not through his writing but through the pair of recent films detailing the circumstances around his research for In Cold Blood; this did a great injustice to the man, for despite the age’s tendency in biography to show warts and all, we’d all like to be remembered for our best moments, and for all his apparent ego and delight in fashionable company I doubt that Capote would have put many things ahead of his chosen craft or its marvelous result.

**please do forgive the masculine pronouns; it does sound so much less sonorous if it is adapted too far from Hemingway’s words.

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Too good to pass up…

It just so happened that I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the same week I read a profile of porn starlet du jour Stoya. I can’t resist:

“Certain shades of limelight ruin a girl’s complexion.” –Holly Golightly

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Another Sort of Marathon

I just finished the entire run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. 173 episodes, 121 hours and 6 minutes of TV that took 7 seasons to produce and 4 months to consume.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • It is a huge step up from the original show inasmuch as the focus is much more on the long term plot.
  • For a pop TV show it gets pretty dark: The Federation is supposedly about rationality and rights and justice and all that, but even the series protagonist Ben Sisko engages in a certain amount of arm twisting and political skullduggery. It’s all the more rewarding for the ambiguity.
  • When they aren’t paying attention to the main plot, the writers can lose track of that ambiguity and fail to follow up on it.[i] It makes you think of what might have been.
  • There’s a lot of fat and filler. If you subtracted the wacky Quark plotlines, the holosuite-malfunction plotlines, the time-travel plotlines and all of the potential villains that the writers test run and drop,[ii] you could probably trim 50% of DS9’s run-time and still get a decent long-form story.
  • Many of the actor’s performances set up plotlines that are subsequently dropped or reversed in a way that suits the plot as it develops.[iii] These aren’t red herrings—you just get the sense that the writers were making it up as it went along, and these are just seams showing.
  • It’s easy to compare the show unfavorably with later triumphs like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, which shows most people agree are some of the best television produced, and which no one would scoff at you for liking or comparing to high art from other periods.[iv]
  • Before doing that, though, I consider the differences between the system that produced DS9 and that which produced the previously mentioned series. DS9 was one of the last network shows that weren’t delivered over the internet. It maximized profit by producing a TON of content that could be syndicated. They wrote twice the number of episodes per seasons as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Given that task, the writers couldn’t very well write only episodes that had to do with the Dominion; they’d risk boring people who didn’t like that plotline and losing people who’d missed a few episodes and didn’t know what had happened since they’d last tuned in. And so they sprinkled these among smaller, standalone episodes.

Even with that in mind, I have to ask myself whether or not the show itself is compelling. My answer: for all the modern ambiguity, it still works primarily in the deep sort of way that we think of as childish or hokey or wonderful, depending on our temperament. It is not so gutwrenching or as challenging as some of the other shows I mentioned. It is not, dare I say, as well acted or as well executed. But that brings its own charm. It is easy and safe to like Mad Men, but it takes a good bit of youthful enthusiasm to take your cockamamie theory about how the Star Trek is really similar to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and run with it. Maybe you’ll get it wrong, but I’ll take unabashed enthusiasm over wry distan

[i] Example 1: Dax goes off to fulfill a blood feud that she is not obligated to fulfill. She doesn’t pull the trigger, so to speak, but she has run off to murder someone, a little problem that other characters only mention within that one episode. Example 2: At a certain point Quark becomes an arms dealer. Everyone gets mad at him in the episode, but all is forgotten by the time the credits roll. Example 3: we learn that the morally upright Odo once failed to protect the rights of the accused and innocent. Major Kyra is shocked to learn that he would ever have failed so glaringly, but that doesn’t stop her from getting together with him later on.

[ii] First it’s Gul Dukat the Cardassians… then the Maquis… then the Jem Hadar… then the Dominion… then the Founders… then the Cardassians and the Dominion… then it’s the Breen… you get the idea.

[iii] E.g. O’Brien and Kyra seem to have a momentary attraction while she is carrying Keiko’s baby, Jake Cisco seems a bit infatuated with Ezri Dax, when Worf comes aboard he has a tense moment with O’Brien that is never explained. Gul Dukat and Damar’s personalities also change rather conveniently: Dukat is a heartless functionary in an evil regime; then he finds his long-lost daughter and—instead of killing her to bury the evidence as a Cardassian would usually do—he takes her back home and destroys his political career. In the process he becomes a sympathetic freedom fighter. But then the daughter dies and he becomes a half-mad religious fanatic bent on destruction. Damar is Dukat’s right hand man, then a stock heartless Cardassian (he’s the one who kills Dukat’s daughter), then an alcoholic collaborator and political puppet, then a freedom fighter in the cause.

[iv] For our part, my little circle thinks of Breaking Bad as Shakespearean tragedy and Mad Men as a Gatsbyesque.

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