A charming rich asshole in Burning got called a Gatsby. After I left the theater I went to the Dial and picked up a copy of Fitzgerald’s book. I’d read it in high school, then again in my early twenties and hated it both times. I didn’t understand the characters, why they did what they did, the world they lived in. It seemed like a lot of fancy people living fancy lives, which had no point of connection with mine.
I tore through it in a few days this time. After having written a couple of books myself, I couldn’t help but admire the language and construction of the thing. A lot of it still rang false, but now it felt like commentary on America rather than a failing of conception. And the self-made swindler at the heart of it is right out of today’s news. Only the real one is old, charmless, and hardly self-made.
When I first read the book, I’d never been to Chicago. There are many references to the city and the Midwest in general. There’s a romanticizing of the region as lacking the pretensions of the East, which we here like to believe to this day. Jay, Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan go east to feel more worldly and seek fortune, as many continue to do to this day.
In America, the eyes of god turn out to be a roadside billboard.
The car crash turns the story from satire to tragedy but it’s the book’s least convincing plot device. It’s the kind of heightened action which plays in operas and fairytales, less so in novels which take on a whole country’s culture. The violent end turns it into a potboiler but also lets Fitzgerald get off some beautiful thoughts about longing for a better world that never was. That false longing is all over our politics. An exultation of some better, purer past, which never was but which so many insist on believing in.
I finished the book admiring it more than loving it. It’s almost a hundred years old but nailed things about America that continue to haunt it to this day. The racism, the longing to be high-class while pretending that class doesn’t exist, the nostalgia, and the absolute worship of money. The hollow type and the center of the story is full of bullshit promises, rotten to the core but unaware of it, building himself up to nobility so convincingly he believes it himself.
It’s all too familiar.