Here’s a fun fact: I grew up about 5 miles away from F. Scott Fitzgerald …’s grave, as he is buried in an otherwise nondescript cemetery in Rockville, Maryland, where I went to high school. Fun Fact #2: I never visited his grave, in part because at the time it seemed creepy but mostly because of Fun Fact #3: For the better part of two decades, I have been quietly scornful of Mr. Fitzgerald, because for the better part of two decades I have assumed that I really really did not like The Great Gatsby.
I suppose it started as one of those things that was mildly and inoffensively true, like maybe I hated having to read The Great Gatsby for school, or maybe I got a bad grade on a quiz about The Great Gatsby, or (most likely) I simply decided to dislike it for the mere accomplishment of being contrarian (I mean come on, is it really the best novel of all time?) But for many years, I told myself — and others; believe me, and others — that I didn’t really care for its rich white people plot, or its vapid characters. I suppose I said it so often (as often as The Great Gatsby comes up in daily life) that it became more of a truism than it ever was originally, like swearing you hate yogurt and then realizing one day that you haven’t actually eaten it in 15 years. Long story short, I owed Gatsby a reread, and I may have been a little (a lot) swayed by the prospect of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio play yet another poor scrappy white guy trying to scam his way to success.
As it turns out, I barely remembered the story, which (I don’t know, just in case) is about the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a wealthy Long Island bachelor who throws lavish parties and says “old sport” more often than was even socially acceptable in the 20s. I’d also forgotten how short TGG is, more of a novella than a novel, and in some ways more of a thriller than a romance. It is indeed — if not the most magnificent work of genius in the history of all time — a very classic feeling book.
Of course, today’s Gatsby wouldn’t have a mansion (to refresh your memory, slash spoiler alert, he turns out to be a petty criminal who’s spent years creating a nouveau riche personality in the hopes of impressing and re-seducing his lost love Daisy). Today he’d have a lot of flashy and/or suggestive Facebook photos, and he’d leave his relationship status as permanently “complicated” but poke Daisy at least three times a week. (Frankly, the technological perils of today would take Gatsby’s cringeworthy loneliness and turn it into something even more sad, but not in a tragic F. Scott Fitzgerald way. I mean like I Have Sex With My Car sad.)
This time around, my favorite part of TGG was the end. As Carraway goes to great lengths to round up Gatsby’s friends for his (spoiler alert) funeral, it becomes clear that Gatsby didn’t really have friends. And the beauty of the character Fitzgerald has created is that you’re not really sure whose fault that is: Gatsby’s? For being a disingenuous braggart who only made acquaintances that might help him financially, or enable him to get closer to Daisy? Or his acquaintances’, for never bothering to know Gatsby behind his facade, and only using him for his garish generosity? …Maybe I was right all along and the book really is about rich(ish) people and their rich(ish) problems.
So I stand by my feelings that The Great Gatsby is not the best book ever, but Jay Gatsby is one of the greatest characters in literature, admirable and pitiable in equal measure. Maybe I should go back and reread more authors who I’ve long considered among my least favorite. For all I know, I wouldn’t actually rather die by shark bites than ever read another book by Virginia Woolf.
TITLE: The Great Gatsby
AUTHOR: F. Scott Fitzgerald
PAGES: 180 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise
SORTA LIKE: Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Notebook
FIRST LINE: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”