The Bookish Affair 2017 just wrapped, and before the Crazy Squirrel and Kahlua kick in, I must blog about a book our outstanding keynote speaker Robert Wilder mentioned. You guessed it–The Great Gatsby.
I’m planning to do two different entries for this masterwork of American Literature. This first will examine the way Fitzgerald lands the book. It has one of those endings, that if you get it, you never let it go. It is beauty and mystery made manifest in words. If you don’t read the whole book, it might not have the same effect. I don’t really know. I’ve read the whole book, so I can’t be sure how much of my smitten feeling can be attributed to the total effect of the work, and how much can be attributed to the masterful way in which Fitzgerald brings his narrative to a close. I am going to write under the theorem that it is as masterfully landed a work as one might read.
Here’s the SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t read the book, stop right now. Go to some earlier entry of this blog you haven’t read, like the one about guacamole. I proceed sans caution.
The story begins with the direct narration of Nick, the observer of our title character and the monster Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald invents one of his great designs, a novel by a first person narrator who is not the main character of the narrative. Nick is invested in everyone, the same way I get invested in characters in my favorite movies. Nick is not neutral. He is entirely vested in this world he is about to reveal. He pretends an objectivity that he cannot maintain, but he tries. Oh, how he tries!
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Nick then explains to us that he has been advised to reserve judgement of others, to stand neutral, and thus he has been made privy to the secrets of “wild, unknown men.” We are lead into Nick’s world being ever so gently instructed not to pass judgement on the characters, not too quickly anyway. Eventually Nick will take sides and show us the people we should value, the people we should recognize, and (most importantly) the people we should curb. By the time Nick tells Gatsby he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together” we’re totally complicit. There’s a good deal more to the narrative at that point, some essential plot twists, but Nick has managed to point the way into his final bit of narrative poetry. “So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Note how beautifully that last image, of boats fighting to move into the future, the “orgastic” future, are being forced into our past, to consider our past. Look back at the first line of the narrative again. Nick explains that he has been contemplating something he learned in his youth, in his past, ever since he first learned it, and each successive lesson has proven the futility of trying to escape our past and our foundation. That’s what great endings are capable of doing. They give readers lesson after lesson about what the author has learned, lesson after lesson about living in their world, and (sometimes) about living in our own.