It’s fair to say that this is a book with a bit of reputation. A reputation, that is, for being one of the finest books ever written. Certainly one of the best American works of fiction and a contender for holding the mythical title “The great American novel”. So it’s fair to say I approached with in an air of expectation. I wanted it to be good, I wanted to leave me thinking “wow”. I wanted to be able Hunter S Thompson’s obsession with it that made him type it out just so he could experience what it felt like to sit and write a great book.
Such approaches almost always end in disappointment. Too many times there have been books (particularly fiction) that have been hyped up, even whipped up into a kind of literary frenzy that one cannot help but be underwhelmed by it. Examples include David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. So, in contrast, while the praise of others led me to expect a great book my own experience led me to expect a let-down.
So which was it? The fact is, it was neither. It is fair to say that it didn’t love up to the hype but it wa far from being a bad book. It was really quite captivating and, being rather short, I finished it all too quickly.
The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Nick, though the identity of the narrator is actually of marginal consequence. It’s quite interesting that of the recent American fiction I’ve read, lots seem to be told in the first person. Other examples include H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, On The Road and To Kill A Mockingbird. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was in some way indicative of an individualistic mindset and the longing for a “hero” figure, the motivation behind the majority of comics – a genre in which I have little to no interest, but whose influence seeps into much of 21st century western culture.
The figure that is of interest is the eponymous Gatsby. He is introduced to us in a manner not wholly dissimilar to Boo Radley in the aforementioned comparison. Though if anything, Harper Lee may have been influenced by The Great Gatsby, not the other way round. But it was an interesting plot device to note. He appears as a shadowy figure, then as one about whom various rumours are told, but no one knows what is really true.
Eventually, he steps out into the light and we get to hear his voice, even if the various pieces of his life don’t seem to fit together properly. Is he a rich hedonist on the verge of self-destruction, a German WW1 fghter trying to make a new life for himself, an Oxford don or something else entirely?
One of the book’s strengths is its sense of time and place. Set mostly in the fictional borough of West Egg of New York, the reader is firmly impressed with the decadence of the age, coupled with the mob threat that lurks in the heart of the city, but which this outer borough is largely free from.
As the story progresses, the friendship between Nick and Gatsby grows, but other interactions are rather distracting for Gatsby who becomes increasingly obsessive and he begins to alienate others in his quest for Daisy, who he once knew years earlier, but where the circumstances of that encounter I shan’t spoil for you.
The book has rather a bewildering conclusion. I had to re-read it several times to try to work out what had happened. Again, I shan’t spoil it for you, but it is intended to be a dramatic finale, but what exactly happens to whom is hazy at best, so that while you think one thing has happened, a couple of pages later you find out something else has happened or a character you didn’t think was mixed up in it suddenly was. This rather marred it for me, as the need to go back a few pages is, to me, an indicator of poor writing, not of great storytelling.
As I read through it, I though that it would make a great filling in a trio of works that progress through the ages and cultures. So if you are going to read this, and I would recommend that you do, I would do so after The Forsyte Saga and before On The Road. It provides a wonderful link and the together make for a fascinating journey from the English aristocracy to the American beat generation.
I wouldn’t deny that it’s a really good novel, though I struggle to see why it evoked the reaction it did in Thompson. Perhaps it is one that I ought to return to sometime in the future.