Friday, September 27, 2013

Was Gatsby Really That Great?

Despite being only one hundred and forty (or so) pages long, it took me a very long time to come to terms with The Great Gatsby. Declared by many to be “The Great American Novel”, and a stalwart of most English teachers’ libraries, it felt like there was far too much critical weight for me to grapple with. It was no surprise that I had dreaded reading it for so long, and perhaps that is why it took me so long not only to get through it, but also to appreciate it fully.

I can’t tell you how long it took me to read it initially; because it feels so long ago that I actually can’t remember. I think it took about a fortnight, broken up into intermittent chunks. In my first reading, I tried to keep up with the story, hurrying my way through it in anticipation of seeing Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation before it left the cinemas. I managed to finish it in time, but I ended up feeling less than positive about the book.

Upon finishing it, I felt like I had just endured a return to high school English class: the themes that I had been told about all the way through the book seemed heavy-handed, with no nuance or interpretation; I hated most of the characters, save Gatsby (because he still seemed nice, and I was certain he had been hard done by from the events of the book), but I had a special disdain for Nick Carroway, who I felt had washed his hands of his own implication in the narrative, choosing instead to declare himself better than those he had freely chosen to associate with, and whose questionable actions he had not protested during the time they were happening. To me, Carroway was a coward, and a self-aggrandising one at that. He aggravated me immensely, and made reading the book more than a little grating. I thought the story was good, but I simply didn’t connect with any of the characters in a way that would give the book the life so many had insisted it had. It felt like, well, a bit of wank.

So yes, it’s easy to say that my first impressions of the book weren’t great. But they certainly weren’t mature either - I had judged it with about as much open-mindedness as a grumpy teenager.


Once I had finally reached the end of the novel, I took myself off to Dendy for a screening of the Luhrmann film. I had been excited about it for months, ever since I had found out that Mr Brendan Maclean had been cast as Klipspringer, and while I wasn’t expecting a strong reflection of Fitzgerald’s novel, I was expecting a visually enriched wonderland. And oh boy, did Baz deliver. (The soundtrack was awful, however. I wanted the happy, bouncy jazz SO MUCH, MAN. But I really, really enjoyed playing the game of "Identify the obscure Australian actor". So many spottos.)

When I went home, I tried to write my response, and to be honest, I struggled with my initial responses. The film had led to me warming to some characters (most notably Carroway, who seemed a little more “wrong guy, wrong time” than “self-congratulating jerk” in the movie) and really beginning to feel disdain for other characters, who were probably where my distaste should have been directed in the first place. And as for Gatsby himself? Well, he still seemed nice, but to be honest, I just kind of stopped caring. Everyone else had suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.

So, I couldn’t bring myself to write a post about the book. I had suddenly become very confused about my initial response. I knew this meant I had to re-read it.

I wasn’t particularly happy about that notion. I was really keen to move onto something else, but I knew I had to give it another chance if I was ever going to be able to get the entry written. So… I left it. For weeks, I simply didn’t read, until one Sunday I was incredibly bored and keen to surround myself with words that weren’t pre-election crap or the back of a cereal packet, so I picked it up again.

I devoured the first half in three hours, and I quickly found that the film had changed the way I read the book. Now I had seen the story play out in front of me, I was given a little more room to appreciate the beauty in Fitzgerald’s writing style, and the intricacy of the metaphors in his tale. I began to see through Carroway’s eyes, although I felt his holier-than-thou attitude was still unwarranted due to his role in the way the events unfolded. I began to feel frustration with Gatsby and with Daisy, and I began to sympathise a little with Tom, which in turn made me angry with myself.

There was about a week and a half between my massive Sunday starting session and the other binge that led to me finishing the book for the second time, but by the time I got there, I got it.

While The Great Gatsby hadn’t bowled me over in the same way it did some others I know (who, curiously, have all been blokes), the themes of wanting to change the past and reaching for unattainable goals started to hit home. I realised how they reflected in my own life, and how I needed to come to terms with things I couldn’t alter, both in the years to come and in those behind me. It was a kind of reality check, but not to the point where it was life changing. It was less of a glorious realisation, and more like a turned head, looking at recent event in my own life with a different perspective.

I doubt I’ll go back to The Great Gatsby for a third bite of the apple any time soon, and I’m reluctant to put it on the list of “the greatest books I have ever read”, but I am willing to grant that it did leave a mark on me, and I’m glad that it did. However, I would warn any potential readers of this: The Great Gatsby is a book that takes time. Don’t rush through it like a high school student cramming for exams. Don't expect that you will be able to read it in a cafe, or on your lunch break. You need to let it soak in slowly, without distraction; take as long as you need. Rush it and you’ll miss almost all that it has to offer, and the worst part is that you won’t even know what you’ve missed, which means you won’t even know to regret it.