On Rereading Gatsby

For well over a decade, I’ve been listing F. Scott Fitzgerald as one of my favorite authors. I went through an intense Fitzgerald phase in high school, enthralled by his descriptions of flappers and bootleggers whooping it up during the Jazz Age while unconscious of the troubles ahead of them. In retrospect, I have to admit that I was reading his novels and short stories more for content than form; I wasn’t paying much attention to Fitzgerald’s mechanics or how he structured his work. I wanted to be entertained, pure and simple. As I escaped into the world of Prohibition, though, I was overlooking the considerable lessons that Fitzgerald could teach me as a writer.

Despite my teenage fascination with Fitzgerald, I haven’t actually picked up any of his work in years. But back in October, I came across my old copy of The Great Gatsby (cringe-inducing high school marginalia intact) and tossed it into my briefcase, thinking that brushing up on a classic couldn’t hurt. I now work in New York (at the Asia Society) two days a week and have been making an effort to spend my commute from Princeton reading for pleasure rather than work. F. Scott Fitzgerald is as far from Chinese history as I can get, and has strong connections to the town where I now live, so it seemed natural that I should crack open Gatsby on New Jersey Transit one morning.

What I realized while rereading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece can be boiled down to two points: (1) I had almost completely forgotten the plot of the book, retaining only the vaguest details (lots of parties; assumed identity; colors are important), and (2) I had never understood just how brilliant The Great Gatsby is. Now what I notice most about Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s mastery of language. The book, brief as it is, brims with beautifully crafted* phrases, evoking impressions I otherwise wouldn’t have thought could be put into words. Yes, the rippling surface of water touched by wind is “corrugated”—but I needed Fitzgerald to choose that adjective before I could see that it’s simply the only one that could be used. And describing fall as the season “when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air”? Perfection.

Had I read Gatsby with pen in hand and circled every one of those finely tuned phrases, I expect not a page of text would have gone unmarked. Rather than sit here and list my favorites, though, I’ll bring up another aspect of the book that I had previously overlooked: the image of New York City that emerges from its pages. Though at the end Nick Carraway concludes that he, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom Buchanan are “Westerners,” not cut out for life in the East, Fitzgerald had a great eye for the rhythms and confusions and possibilities of Manhattan. What other city in the world would give rise to a paragraph like this one?

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Ignoring the somewhat stalkerish qualities that Nick displays in his daydreams, this paragraph amazes me. It begins on a positive note, celebrating the vitality and excitement of the city … but by the end (only four sentences later!), it’s a meditation on loneliness and the passage of time. Could the scene just as easily be set in London, or Beijing, or San Francisco? I guess. Alienation is a quality shared by residents of all big cities. But when I read this paragraph, it has to be about New York, in a way that it could never be about Philadelphia or Los Angeles.

One more example:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Really.)

* An editor once told me to avoid describing an author as having “crafted” a piece of writing—but I honestly can’t think of another verb that so perfectly describes what Fitzgerald accomplished in The Great Gatsby. He truly did craft the book, heavily revising the galley proofs until he got things right (causing his editor and publisher no small amount of panic, I’m sure), and Wikipedia quotes Fitzgerald as saying the novel represented a “consciously artistic achievement.” So I think this deserves an exception to the “no crafting” rule.

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