The Pretty Okay Gatsby

For me, at least, the most anticipated summer movie is one that takes me back to high school English class. I refer, of course, to Star Trek Into Darkness, since I spent much of that class drawing schematics for my starship (the USS Siegfried; I was also into Wagner) and not much time paying attention to the ramblings of Mr. Benedict. But I dimly recall that I also read The Great Gatsby at some point.

Gatsby_1925_jacketMy memory is in fact so dim that I recently had to go read the Wikipedia plot summary, after being asked what it was about and failing to give a very satisfactory response. (“Uh, there’s this rich guy named Gatsby? And he’s in love with Daisy, but she’s old money and he made all his money bootlegging and it ends badly somehow. And it all shows that the American dream is an empty pursuit.”) But I do recall that the experience of reading it left me a bit cold, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Why do so many people consider it the Great American Novel? Is it because it has “Great” in the title, like the time the cheesecake named “Best In Show” won the office dessert contest?

So, I enjoyed this spectacular piece of contrarianism at New York magazine arguing thus:

I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike them—but not this book. So since we find ourselves, as we cyclically do here, in the middle of another massive Gatsby ­recrudescence, allow me to file a minority report.

It goes on from there to make a strong case, and I recommend reading the whole thing. However, although I have a lot of sympathy with the Gatsby skeptics, I don’t know if I can fully sign on to this position. The problem is that, as stated, I was not totally engaged with the material at the time that I read it. On top of that my understanding of literature at age 16 was almost non-existent, so Fitzgerald’s symbolism went totally over my head even though it seems ham-handed when described now. (My over-literal approach to the humanities was perhaps not the only autism-spectrum marker I displayed as a teenager–see also the aforementioned starship schematics–but it got better with time.) So maybe I just didn’t get the full experience. I should probably revisit it now, with my improved critical faculties and perhaps my experience living in New York among wealthy finance types providing additional color. On the other hand, the author of the piece linked above read it five times (above and beyond the call of duty, it seems to me), and it didn’t seem to help.

So I’ll put it on my reading list and get back to you. Meanwhile, I think I’ll see the movie as well: Baz Luhrmann actually seems like a good fit for Gatsby, with the caveat that I actually haven’t seen any of his movies. And one day I’ll get around to finishing the book that I would pick as the true Great American Novel: Moby Dick. It blew my mind when I started reading it–so much so that I resolved to read the full version while the rest of the class was reading some abridgement at half the length. Unfortunately I didn’t account for the fact that this would mean 80 pages a night–80 pages of Melville (Sterling Archer is right that he’s not an easy read)–and abandoned the project entirely. Later, Mr. Benedict spoiled the ending for me by insisting on discussing it in class. Damn you, Benedict. See if I put an English classroom on the USS Siegfried now.

6 thoughts on “The Pretty Okay Gatsby

  1. Jim Hime

    It’s all opinion about literature and everybody is entitled to their own- mine is that if you put THE GREAT GATSBY in the ring with MOBY DICK, GATSBY doesn’t make it to the second round. I’ve read THE WHALE three times and expect to read it several more times still. On the other hand, a work colleague just introduced me to David Foster Wallace and just the first two chapters of THE PALE KING have blown me away. And right behind that would be INFINITE JEST and since I’m still reading GAME OF THRONES and recently rediscovered John le Carre, well, I’m all set for the summer.

  2. Joshua Kesselman

    I second Moulin Rouge there is cover of a nirvana song that alone make the film worth it.

    No for worse book i read in English that many love is catcher in the rye. I truly hated it in high school english and i am pretty sure i would still.

  3. Arcane Gazebo Post author

    Yeah, reasonable people can disagree about Gatsby but Catcher in the Rye is objectively lame. I’ve got no desire to revisit that one. My least favorite assignment, though, was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I thought was a load of hippie crap. (Possibly doesn’t count since it’s not really in the canon; that was a Mr. Benedict special.) In hindsight, maybe I was being narrow-minded in my disdain for that one; I had some conservative tendencies at that age and overt liberalism sometimes got on my nerves. (How things have changed!)

    I believe Mr. Benedict assigned The Fountainhead to some of his classes, but mine was spared. Nevertheless I gave it a try because a Rand enthusiast in my class spoke so highly of it. At that age, I found Objectivism appealing based on the vague descriptions I had heard, so I started the book with high expectations… and had to quit a hundred pages in because I hated it so much. Holy shit was the writing awful, and it turned me off her philosophy forever because her characters weren’t heroes, they were just assholes. So The Fountainhead escapes on a technicality: it wasn’t assigned in class, but if it had been, it would have been a strong contender for last place.

  4. Mason

    I also hated Catcher in the Rye. I think my favorite book assigned in high school was the first of the Merlin books. I always meant to continue reading others in the series, but I never did. Maybe one day…

  5. Sharon

    I feel like I fit in. I, too, hated the Catcher in the Rye.

    I just randomly saw the original The Great Gatsby because it was on a list of greatest romances. I think that all romances that have an unhappy ending are not worth my watching. Almost all of them, very few exceptions. If I watch a movie or read a book, I want to be happy at the end of it. It was a great movie, it made a statement, it was a wonderful work of social criticism, and it wasn’t for me.

    As opposed to Catcher in the Rye, which I did not see the point of at all. Caveat: last and only time I read it was in high school.

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