Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nick's Wild Summer

This post is the third in what I'd originally intended to be an on-going series, re-reading some of the required books from my high school literature classes. Re-reading 1984 proved a very illuminating experience, but re-reading The Scarlet Letter was every bit as much fun as beating myself in the head with a drywall hammer. I have to admit, that experience dimmed my ardor for the project ... and now, a year and a half later, I'm plowing back into it with The Great Gatsby.

If you haven't read this one yet, by all means, do it. It's quite good.

Plot and story aside, Fitzgerald's writing is tight. He wastes no words. The edition I read tips the scales at a scanty 180 pages, while modern novels can ring up eight to ten times as many. Without being eight to ten times better, I might add... And, despite the direct, no-nonsense style, he still manages to paint quite a detailed picture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what good writing looks like.

I also enjoyed the story. The basic idea as I see it is a treatment of class and social mobility in America. Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, and the other "new rich" lived in West Egg, while the "old money" aristocracy lived in East Egg. They're basically like oil and water: they go together, they move together, but they really don't mix. Which sets up the central tragedy -- Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, who married into the "old money" aristocracy. He had dedicated himself to the goal of becoming rich enough to move among the established families as an equal, without realizing that you really can't. That group, you have to be born into.

Some bits of the story look, well, odd to a modern reader. Take the racial attitudes as an example. Tom, Daisy's husband, is quite un-self-consciously racist, and pretty much assumed that everyone he talked to was as well. "It's all scientific stuff; it's all been proved," Tom would say. A modern reader might wonder how someone could say that in polite society ... but then, you remember that this was written in 1925. That sort of thing was common, and one must say, broadly accepted as true. On the other hand, Fitzgerald has these things being proclaimed by one of the book's least savory characters. So even then, you could see the tectonic plates of opinion shifting, ever so slightly.

But how relevant is the story today? Somewhat relevant ... and somewhat not. Social mobility in America is a generational process. A son of a working-class family can become a professional, and in turn his children can move another rung up. But you can't make that leap in a single lifetime, not without some fairly extraordinary circumstances. But on the other hand, education is a much more potent leveling force now than it was in the early 20th century. The fact that the sons of working-class families can become college-educated professionals, and do so with some regularity, is a thing that would be unheard-of a hundred years ago. I am, by and large, accepted in society based upon how I behave, not on who my parents were. Education opens doors.

And the doors it can't open? What of them? For some people, that becomes an endless, unscratchable itch. And that's sad: if you define yourself by what you can't do, or what you can't have, you doom yourself to a life of misery. But even today, there are plenty of people who destroy their lives trying desperately to bash that door down. Most of us don't go there. We're content with the opportunities we've had, and continue to have. Sometimes we may dream of what might have been, but at the end of the day we're content in our own lives.

In the end, that's what Nick did. At the end of that wild summer, he decided the East wasn't for him, and moved on with his life. Nick walked away from the locked door that Gatsby died trying to break down.

Final verdict: Highly recommended. Great writing, memorable characters, and a pretty fast read, too. They don't write 'em like that anymore...

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