First read: 1980 (approximately)
Owned since: 1999 (this copy, approximately)
Some books work their way so deeply into our worldview that we not only can't remember first reading the book, we can't remember a time before we read the book. THE GREAT GATSBY is like that for me. I think I first read it as summer reading between my sophomore and junior years of high school, but it might have been earlier than that. I know I picked up this book cheap at a used bookstore to replace the heavily-marked trade paperback I'd owned since high school (which I still have), but I can't remember buying it.
THE GREAT GATSBY just is. I wanted to post about this yesterday, because it's always struck me as the American novel, more so than HUCK FINN or THE SCARLET LETTER or even TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Gatsby is the American dream distilled, and the last paragraph of the novel is a heartfelt cry about what it means to be American:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning --
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
This is the key to American culture: we want to pretend that the past does not matter, but we cannot escape it and we ignore it at our peril. The same gift for self-reinvention that makes it possible for us to go from Bull Connor's water hoses to the real possibility of President Barack Obama in one generation is the curse that allowed us to train military intelligence operatives in discredited Chinese interrogation techniques. In the United States as nowhere else in the world, we take for granted that believing makes it so.
Gatsby is the personification of this idea. He arrives on Long Island in all his glory, a wealthy and glamorous man with a mysterious past that he lets his neighbors speculate about; he drops hints of a life of privilege and danger, time at Oxford, a heritage that warrants his current lifestyle. It is an elaborate construct -- not so much a deception as a castle of dreams, built on sand -- and inevitably collapses. But wasn't it worth doing? And wasn't it beautiful while it lasted?
Fitzgerald lets us feel wistful for this while recognizing that Gatsby's goals -- the careless Daisy, the society lifestyle, the wealth that requires dealing with gangsters -- aren't really worth having. He does this by telling the story in the voice of a narrator who is not the main character, but whose attitudes shape the story we get. It is an extraordinary piece of literary virtuosity, and all the more astonishing when you think Fitzgerald was only 28 when he wrote it.
What I Read This Week
Thomas Perry, RUNNER. Jane Whitefield is one of crime fiction's greatest characters, a woman of Native American descent who helps people disappear. Perry left the series with 1999's BLOOD MONEY, saying that he wouldn't write about Jane again until she had a story to tell. In the years since, the events of September 11 made radical changes to the way Jane used to operate, which made me worry that Jane would never come back -- but this return, due out next January, is everything I could have hoped for. A young pregnant woman comes to Jane for help, running from her fiance and his family; Jane, longing for a child of her own, can't say no. The book closes with the promise of more adventures to come, to which I say hurrah.
Brad Meltzer, THE MILLIONAIRES. Brothers Oliver and Charlie Caruso work for a private bank in New York, managing millions of dollars for clients eager to hide their money from the government. When they get the chance to take $3 million in abandoned funds for themselves, they can't resist -- but somehow $3 million turns into more than $300 million, and some scary people are after them. The relationship between the brothers is the highlight of this book, which bogs down in an unnecessarily complex narrative structure: Oliver tells half the story in first-person, present tense, while an omniscient narrator fills in the rest in the past tense. Annoying, and I can't imagine why an editor didn't talk Meltzer out of that.