12 Books of Christmas: The Great Gatsby

Having The Great Gatsby as a favourite novel is a cliche, a quick review of the top dozen hits for that search on google all included it. The main difference between it and, say, Ulysses or War and Peace as the Greatest Novel Ever Written ™, everyone has actually read The Great Gatsby. I first read it in my second year after graduating because it was one of the set texts on a correspondence course on literature I did that year. I read it at a moment in my life when I was feeling very isolated, because I lived a couple of hours’ drive from my hometown and didn’t know all that many people. It was during that year that I joined a range of evening social activities. Mondays were the Table Tennis club nights, where we met and essentially socialised in mini hat draws. Tuesdays I played Chess, with particularly poor results. Wednesdays I played in the competition night of the local Bridge club. Thursdays were the “inter-club” Table Tennis nights where we’d meet other clubs around the region for a structured tournament.

I was a slightly different person at all of these events, sorted by some social alchemy based on my demographic and skill. I was one of the stronger players at my local Table Tennis club, but also one of the only people in my demographic. There were plenty of high-school kids, plenty of parents, and a few old-timers, but I may have been the only regular member between the age of 18 and 30. Everyone was very friendly, but nobody knew exactly where to fit me into their social spectrum. The club champion was a 14-year old girl with a tartan hat and a great attitude. Immediately below her was an octogenarian who had been playing seriously since WWII and who still had a regular coach and all kinds of training aides. I was third by the end of my time, having initially been sorted into the B-grade hoi-poloi based on my first night at the club. There were a handful of teens who thought they were better than me, but when it came time for our tournament matches they couldn’t quite close out the victory to prove it. My friend Jeff was the victim of my success. He came to visit the club one night and when they asked him how much he’d played he said he’d played a bit socially at university – the exact resume I’d given. So they lined him up with a night of matches against the other top players and he got slaughtered every game.

The Chess club had a similar age spread. Despite my successes at High School, I was by far the weakest adult who regularly went to Chess, and I suffered losses in the mid-year tournament to pre-pubescent children. I was similarly stranded by age, and the avuncular attentions of some of the well-intended older players were poorly received because I’d been used my whole life to dealing with people on a pretty even footing. I dropped out of the club mid way through the year, as it was more stressful than fun. In the long run, that was probably for the best, because instead I’d go to the local United Video and take advantage of their 5 DVDs for $5 deal. Seeing that many films on a quite continual basis was quite the film education, even if I can’t claim I was even modestly high-brow in my viewing habits. I vacuumed up every western, action film, comedy, and schlocky horror that the place had, usually accompanied by a slightly immoderate amount to drink by the end of the night.

Finally, at Bridge I was by far the youngest person in attendance. My partner, Molly, had been playing competitive Bridge for 68 years when she volunteered to help out a newcomer to the scene. We usually finished mid-table, but it became pretty apparent to everyone that I was a wild card who had to be rescued twice for every daring coup I made. Our best ever finish was 3rd (out of about 30 pairs), based largely on winning a 5-club contract that had gone 3-spades to the other pair on every other table. I played the Spring/Summer leagues over the end of 02/03, but as with Chess I’d dropped out by the middle of the year. For all the kindness of the elderly club members and my reasonable success rates, there was a fundamental disconnection between their whole approach to the game and mine. I’ve played only one Bridge tournament evening since leaving Masterton, when I visited my aunt Jean in Pretoria, and matched with another less-than-solid player instead of a stalwart veteran, we sank without trace in the rankings.

I was reading Gatsby early in the year, before the other shoe had dropped and I found myself swept up in the myth of the character. Gatsby in my first readings of the novel was the triumphant outsider who arrived on the scene in Long Island and took the place by storm. It was easy to wish myself into his shoes and downplay the tragedy that unfolded – a tragedy I don’t think I even understood as such. To me, Gatsby’s death was very sad, and that it arose from the events was unlucky, but it seemed like just one of those things that happens. Gatsby seemed like a character that had won at life, except for one unfortunate event beyond his control – unlucky, sad, but not tragic. This reading is, of course, completely wrong. As the year wore on, I began to understand that Gatsby’s apparent social success was a complete fiction – the people who occupied his world were all fakes, there for the experience and not Gatsby at all. As I failed to make any lasting friends in my different planned activities, I came to realise that. Gatsby is, and remains, an outsider. Gatsby felt like the perfect book for me to understand myself, the world, and my place in it.

As I grew older I began to realise that even this is not really Gatsby’s tragedy, because he doesn’t really care about any of those people. Those people are just the lure he uses to entice Daisy. It began to seem to me that Gatsby’s tragedy was that Daisy wasn’t able to break her bonds to Tom in order to be with the man she truly loved. Gatsby is thus also a victim of the class structure which, despite his wealth, marks him as separate from Daisy and Tom’s idle richness. Still later, I realised that Daisy doesn’t love Gatsby at all. Gatsby’s tragedy is that he is so consumed by his love for her that he can’t recognise that Daisy may have loved the idea of a Gatsby, but that she is incapable of loving another real person. Tom is her perfect companion because he is similarly distorted. As I’ve moved through different infatuations and romances, it’s always been easy to assume one or other of these readings and cast myself as the protagonist.

The Great Gatsby is chameleonic in that way. Its a melange of ambiguity and inference, and over the past couple of years I’ve started to think that all of these readings are wrong, because actually Gatsby may be the subject of the novel, but the real story belongs to Nick Caraway. Nick is an outsider watching the struggles of another outsider. He’s chronically lost, and clings to Gatsby, a total fabrication, as the closest thing to reality he can find. Over the past few years, the final encounter between Nick and Jordan has haunted my re-reading. Jordan accuses Nick of being a fellow “bad driver”. It’s an odd note at first reading, because it so closely parallels the tragic accident which is the hinge of the story, but Nick has carefully distanced himself from all the action, as a dispassionate observer. What Jordan reveals is Nick’s deeper involvement, so that rather than being a passive observer, you can see that Nick exerts a kind of gravitational force on Gatsby. Nick’s belief in Gatsby legitimises him, empowers him. It’s what Nick doesn’t write about himself that’s key to his influence. Jordan’s comment also reveals the affair between her and Nick that he’s elided in favour of Gatsby’s more dramatic tale.

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