Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald I read my high school copy - just about every one of its brittle, yellowing pages marked up; each colour and number circled, as though Fitzgerald's ham-fisted symbolism was the most important thing. I certainly remembered the novel most vividly for all its golds and pinks and whites and 12s and flowers and ashes, and of course for the lassitudinous debauchery; that feeling that can only be described as "Gatsbyesque" with the full range of connotation that describing something as Kafkaesque has.

I re-read this because I wanted to remember the original, as it was clearly (and directly mentioned as) an influence on Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I just finished yesterday and enjoyed very much. I'm glad I still had it lying around on a bookshelf, available to be read for the broader story which I can now more fully appreciate.

It bears re-reading for many reasons, but of course mostly for the dissolution. And disillusion. The hypocrisy and petty cruelties of the "careless people", who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Talk about a story that holds up well (Occupy East and West Egg!).

"Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between ...". Well, Tom says black and white; but fill in the blanks with any contemporary Fox News-inspired illustration of the world going to hell in a handbasket. I don't know how this makes me feel: 1) I marvel at Fitzgerald's prescience, writing before the Wall Street crash of `29 but seeing the decadence of the age as a sure sign, if not of it, of something momentous to come; 2) I give in to that sinking feeling of inevitable, cyclical doom coming upon us, as similar as it feels to our current age of decadence, greed and selfishness.

What a perfect read for Dec 30th, the end of such a politically, socially, environmentally tumultous year!

I know The Great Gatsby has a revered place in American lit, especially if not primarily for that final few pages when Fitzgerald eulogizes in a sad and bitter summary the loss of the American dream, from "the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world" to the inutterable brilliance of: "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us."

But to this Canuck, as powerful as those final pages are and as big (and contemporary) as that idea is, the story that comes before it -- the more personal story -- is even better. These characters' amorality is so pervasive they are completely unable to act in their own best interests, beyond satisfying their most basic and immediate physical or emotional needs. They can't identify what is making them so sad, or what will make them happy. They are caught in their own lies and mean hypocrisies; trapped by their own social position and empty aspirations; cycling through the endlessly-repetitive and unfulfilling pursuit of sex, power, money, material things. And most of all, they are unable to care for each other as they could and should, and they don't realize that it is that which is at the core of their sadness, this 'takerism', this total absence of compassion, which really marks their failures of character. For they all fail - they fail each other, they fail themselves. All but for Nick, I suppose, although he is as buffeted by events and as amoral as any of them. (He has the good fortune to be narrating the tale and therefore can pretend he`s learned some kind of lesson. And maybe he has. Discuss.)

They all just get it SO WRONG. Most tellingly, some (most) of them never face the consequences. And it is here that the depth of Fitzgerald's cynicism shines through so clearly. God, it's like a huge weight bearing down on the reader, how cynical this novel is. It's not just disgust for the selfishness and cruelty being portrayed, or even sadness for the characters whose lives have ended - or whose lives continue in a compassionless vacuum devoid of meaning or purpose, which may be worse - but the very real sense that there is no possibility of redemption through insight for any of them. This is quite possibly one of the most hopeless books I think I've ever read.

For me, that`s why - as Elizabeth says in her fantastic review - Tom, Wilson, Myrtle, Nick, Mr. Gatz, they all break my heart.

What a great book.