From obscure Albanian literature to one of the most mainstream American classics you can think of. My sister was cleaning out her room – was about to throw this out – and I nobly saved it from the clutches of the dreaded plastic bag monster. It clearly needed love and attention – and I was the only person nearby to give it what it needed… Hmm, that sounded less weird in my head.
Nick Carraway has just moved to West Egg. His neighbour, Jay Gatsby, is the most gossiped about man around. Nick’s cousin Daisy, and her husband, Tom, live on the other side of the bay, at East Egg. Events in the coming months will shake these four people to the core – three of them will be caught up in an ongoing love triangle, one of them will lose the love of their life, and one of them will die. And, this is the ‘great American novel’. What more could you want?
Let’s start with the big bits first. The label ‘great American novel’ is something that should be thrown into the bin, and moved to a tip, as fast as is humanly possible. No novel is the ‘great American novel’. Just as there is no ‘great Australian novel’ and the such. While this novel is very, very good, the idea that it somehow taps into the unique, timeless American psyche is, I think, a little wrong. What this novel boils down to in the end is love. It’s as simple as that. Each and every one of the main characters is driven by love, by desire, by jealously. They just happen to be in a time and space when this kind of thing seems to be heightened, perhaps because of the inter-war period, perhaps because of the relative wealth of these people – Gatsby in particular. These characters have nothing to worry about except their trivial lives – it’s a bit like a soap opera. A bit less dramatic, mind. If you aren’t a main character, though, you get a terrible plot line – Tom and Daisy’s daughter, who is only three years old, appears fleetingly for about ten lines.
I guess that’s the main thing that struck me about these characters. Each and every one of them is looking out for themselves and their own interests, they don’t care about anyone else around them. In the end, even love becomes something that has to be possessed, to be kept. The competition between Tom and Jay is not about love – it’s about who’s bigger. Which is why Daisy gets the raw end of the deal in this novel. Granted, she doesn’t do very much to help herself, but she really loses out in the end.
In this light, the ending is not perhaps what we might expect. The ‘great American dream’ would, I assume (I’m not American), involve getting the house and woman of your dreams, as long as you work for it. It is ironic, then, that the man who works so hard for his dream, Jay, is killed for attempting to pursue what he wants. The only person who gets his dream is the big, rich jock, Tom. Perhaps Fitzgerald is showing us just how silly and disillusioning the ‘great American draem’ actually is.
Despite a slightly clunky beginning, with some awful exposition, Fitzgerald is an excellently cautious writer. Well, perhaps cautious is not the right word. Tight, is perhaps better. The events of this novel are intricately laid together, so that the ending creates layers upon layers of answers, as well as more questions, that make you understand the motives and desires of the main characters. When everyone comes together at the end, something seems to click that makes so much sense. You have a vested interest in the person who died, and you wonder whether he really deserved it – though Nick would have you believe that he very much didn’t. The one question that remains in my head, though: did Daisy know what she was doing when she was driving the car?