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Defector Reads A Book

So We Blog On, About ‘The Great Gatsby’

Cover image: Scribner Classics

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our February DRAB selection was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Tom Ley: At the risk of getting myself banned from all future DRAB meetings, I do not want to start this off by talking about boats beating against the current, or What America Really Is. I want to talk about parties.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is really good at writing about parties! Big parties, small parties, parties where everyone kind of hates each other, parties where nobody knows each other and is just kind of going through the motions in order to Be At A Party. While reading about all of these different types of parties, I didn’t find myself feeling nostalgic for them, I don’t think, mostly because what Fitzgerald is best at describing is all the ways in which parties can suck.

My favorite scene in the book is when Nick gets snatched up by Tom and is forced to go to his weird love den in the city, and then all of Myrtle’s friends come over and start drinking whiskey and the vibe is just insanely bad. The claustrophobia of that scene has always stuck with me—I think at one point Nick describes himself as being tied to his chair by ropes—and it also contains one of my favorite lines from the book, when Nick suddenly imagines himself as a person passing on the street below: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” 

I love that line because I don’t think anyone has ever done a better job at using beautiful, literary language to describe the very basic and universal feeling of desperately wanting to be invited to the party but not actually wanting to be there. And I just think that’s neat!

Giri Nathan: If we have to read another book about roaring parties I think my skull’s gonna implode. I don’t care if they’re depicted as tacky or shallow. I am jealous of all these fictional characters partying in Dalloway and Gatsby, even the ones having a bad time. Would kill for the clamminess of a mediocre party right now. I want to pick a lukewarm Corona off a chipped countertop and gaze into an abyss of interchangeable strangers.

Kelsey McKinney: Tom, I completely agree. This was my first re-read since high school and one of things that I found absolutely stunning is Fitzgerald’s ability to create almost unbearable tension with very little description. That scene in the apartment is completely unbearable, and Nick feels stuck and as a reader, there is just this torpedo effect of misery and chaos where you want it to end, but this damn photographer’s wife keeps like demanding everyone look at someone in the light. I went back and looked at that scene and it’s almost all dialogue! You don’t even need much description because everyone is so unbearable all on their own. 

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I think the success of Fitzgerald’s parties lies in his incredible skill for writing people, and you’re so right, Kelsey, that he requires almost no description to do that. Every quick sketch of a partygoer or a supporting character is impossibly rich and economical. He can get so much out of a few adjectives or a quick simile—these little lines about someone’s posture or the way they laugh. 

GN: This is a talent that Woolf and Fitzgerald definitely share, their miniature personality sketches buried in a single clause of a sentence. Even though I have not spent much time in Jazz Age Long Island or post-war London, all of these character archetypes are rendered vividly enough to be recognizable. Tom Buchanan might as well be speaking at CPAC right now. Getting real worried about the reordering of the racial hierarchies and the preservation of family values while sleeping with everyone in sight. If he was alive he’d be posting deadlift pics like Don Jr. (better form though).

TL: Yeah it’s kind of comforting to know that parties and partygoers have basically always sucked in exactly the same way, even when a full orchestra is involved.

MA: Giri, maybe for that reason—the contemporary resonance—I was totally fascinated with Tom Buchanan this time around. I gasped when we’re first introduced to him—or maybe we’re not even introduced to him yet, but we’re about to be, and Nick has described him as “forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” What a line! I’m, you know, not an aging former college football star, but I felt a little owned by it as a fan of college football, which has always been wrapped up in this sort of grotesque, pitiful nostalgia. 

GN: Fitzgerald is so deft with the physical descriptions and Tom is thus the ideal subject because he’s such a meat. So much of his personality comes down to his looming and unpleasant physical presence. I like the part at the end where he’s described as walking down the street, “his hands out a little from his body as if to fight off interference.”

KM: Yes, Giri! Fitzgerald also avoids the obvious descriptions of Tom like “hulking” by putting them in dialogue, which really gives him the space to do that! Tom Buchanan totally threw me. I had no memory of him in this book at all, which is confusing because he is an incredibly prominent character. I went and looked up how this book was received because it felt really contemporary and almost too honest about this type of man, and Gatsby did NOT do well when it was released. No one liked it. And then I guess they shipped it to all the U.S. soldiers in WWII. It is fascinating to think about, a man like Tom Buchanan being presented this way (as a full racist, annoying, and brash, and generally sucking) to a group of people fighting the Nazis. 

TL: I think it’s interesting that this time through the book (I assume we’ve all read this at least once before?) we all seem to have been more taken with scenes and characters that didn’t have anything to do with Gatsby and Daisy. I felt kind of bad about this while reading the book, but I just could not give a shit about them and their relationship. Whatever drama and tragedy I may have interpreted in them as a high-schooler or college student was gone, and I mostly just wanted to stop thinking about how pathetic they are.

So I found myself getting really into all the other stuff in the book, like the parties and side characters like Wolfsheim and the unnamed party goer with the owl eyes. That dude was cool as hell—hanging out in Gatsby’s library in the middle of a week-long bender, just sort of casually moving on from a car wreck, being the only dude to show up at Gatsby’s funeral.

Paying closer attention to the side characters this time through also really drove home how feverish and close to collapse the broader scene Gatsby was part of really was. It felt like every character in the book was one more drink away from just completely cracking up, and I liked how Fitzgerald would briefly surface moments in which everything was coming apart before quickly moving back to polite society. Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose is one example, Fitzgerald dedicates one line of description to one of the most shocking moments of the book. Another scene that stood out was from Gatsby’s party, where some woman is singing by the piano and just sobbing uncontrollably while various couple fights unfold around her. So did the car wreck that Owl Eyes finds himself in—the two guys in the car are just sort of dumbly standing around, wondering why their car won’t work, and the only line that sticks is one guy shouting, “But the wheel’s off!”

GN: I found Daisy really annoying and didn’t like how she kept flirting with her (second?) cousin. Maybe that was cooler back then. I was invested in her and Gatsby’s relationship insofar as it was a part of his warped self-realization quest, but not as a pairing of characters. I think that was ultimately fine because it’s at its core a teen romance hoarded way way beyond its expiration date, and it spoils almost as soon as it’s re-opened. Nick talks about how doomed Gatsby’s pursuit is because Daisy can always retreat back into her money long enough to “fix” whatever’s broken with her and Tom. The conversation in the too-hot hotel where everyone realizes this all at once is so heartbreaking. It was like watching the Patriots come back in the Super Bowl. Gatsby had what felt like a decent lead. Tom B. just kept coming.

KM: Yes! The Nick line where he says that “Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made,” is just a perfect read of them. 

TL: Giri, yeah, that scene in the hotel was just a gut punch, and it paired really well with the one later in the book, where Nick goes to peep through Tom and Daisy’s window and sees them at the kitchen table, sorting out what had just happened over a plate of chicken and some beers. It’s hard to think of a better image of a loveless marriage than two people sharing a sad meal and working out—“conspiring” as Nick put it—all the reasons to continue their relationship.

MA: The hotel scene also works perfectly because the tension is just undercut, delightfully, by Nick going, “I just remembered, today’s my birthday.” I suppose it’s meant as his awakening to the growing distance he feels from his own self, or whatever, but I cracked up. Nick! You doofus!

KM: The hotel room scene is so claustrophobic: the immense heat, the music from the ballroom, everyone whining. There’s all these little hints in that scene that Fitzgerald just leaves. Daisy mentions something about why Daisy and Tom left Chicago and just drops it. He has this ability to build immense tension and then just drop it into these little seconds of deep, heartbreaking emotion. The saddest part of that scene in the hotel to me is when Tom starts listing moments when he’s certain that they were in love, these like tiny vignettes of their relationship that were tender and nice used as only ammunition.

Here is a question: Do y’all think that Gatsby was actually in love with Daisy? This read through I was like … oh Gatsby is so YOUNG. 31! He didn’t love her. He loved her wealth! What she represented! 

MA: Her voice “full of money.”

TL: Yeah reading this book as an adult, it seems painfully obvious that Gatsby was never actually in love with Daisy and was just a young dumbass who had a host of other problems that he just convinced himself could be solved by reviving his dumb crush. A line I never noticed before is from the car ride he takes early on with Nick, when he says he went to war and “tried very hard to die.” This dude was just depressed and needed therapy!

MA: Men will literally buy a giant house across the bay from their former crush and host lavish parties instead of going to therapy. 

GN: Men will literally get on a boat and act as “steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor” for a weird, rich, vaguely violent stranger instead of going to therapy.

I was struck by two other things on this re-read. 1) Fitzgerald is a way better stylist than I remembered, and this thing just flows so smooth; 2) it was really nice to read this book without the English-class framing of mining it for symbols (piles of shirts, orchids, green light). It’s just a nice book with beautiful images. The strain of the mining detracts from the pleasure.

KM: I was reading my high school copy and all sorts of nouns were circled that I was clearly trying to collect for some fucking paper, and WHAT A WASTE. None of that nitpicky symbolism is the interesting stylistic decision of this book. Fitzgerald is doing way more interesting and smart things than choosing to make Jordan Baker’s hair the color of an autumn leaf. One of the weirdest parts to me, that I can’t really wrap my head around yet, is the section where Fitzgerald just lists like 75 people who showed up at Gatsby’s house that summer. No plot. No import to the story. Just a guest list. That’s such an interesting literary decision! So much more interesting than the green lights/green eyes/eye billboard obsession. 

MA: I did not miss the English class color theory at all. I get, in a sense, the value of teaching teens to read literature closely, but I remember feeling like the way we were taught Gatsby in high school was such an insult to my intelligence. (Then again, I was 15, so everything seemed like an insult to my intelligence.) At a sentence level, the book is basically perfect. I did a low, jealous growl at this line leading up to the visit to Myrtle and Tom’s pad in the city: “At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses.” 

GN: There are some great bits and bobs in this book. The guest list was lovely and revealed the massive anonymous pointless scope of Gatsby’s parties. My favorite was young Gatsby’s self-improvement to-do-list that Papa Gatz finds in an old copy of a book: “Practice elocution, pose and how to attain it,” “Study needed inventions.” There are a bunch of snippets of song which, while unfamiliar to me, would probably anchor it firmly in a specific time and place for more knowledgeable (and/or dead) readers. 

And yeah, the novel is flawless on a sentence level. I loved the “scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree.” I love when Nick finally figures out what drives Gatsby and, “He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.” I also loved that a military uniform is an “invisible cloak” that allows Gatsby to temporarily hide his class, buys him some time to go out and get rich and get Daisy.

KM: Speaking of getting rich … can we … discuss Gatsby’s “career”? Tom mentioned something when we chose this book about reading it in the context of other classic gangster stories, and I could not get that out of my head as I went through this read. His constant long-distance phone calls, how he maybe helped fix the World Series, etc. 

TL: Right, yeah. Gatsby is clearly a criminal—Wolfsheim is essentially a stand-in for the real-life gangster, Arnold Rothstein, who is famous for having supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series, so if Gatsby was running with him then he was into some real shit. And at the end of the book, after Gatsby is dead, we get the clearest bit of evidence that he was a gangster when Nick answers the phone and some guy just starts babbling about “Young Parke” and how he just got arrested.

In college I had this book taught to me in a class about gangster novels, and it was a fun way to reorient the story away from the Gatsby-Daisy dynamic and Gatsby’s failure at self-actualization in the pursuit of love, and focus more on how a character like him fits into capitalist society. The thing that makes a good gangster novel hum is the criminal world clashing with straight society—because you see, man, there’s no difference between the two—and this book can kind of be read as the ur-text of that particular genre. A lot of good gangster books that came later, like Billy Bathgate and The Godfather, borrowed a bunch of conventions from The Great Gatsby, the most notable being the use of a main character who doesn’t really fit in either world—Nick is always simultaneously “within and without”—to act as a kind of narrative bridge between the gangster character and the rest of the world. This is the context in which Nick’s conclusion at the end, that Gatsby was “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” can be read as like an indictment of capitalism or whatever, if that’s what you’re into.

MA: What did you all make of Nick? If you could make anything of him. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about our first “literary crushes.” (That is a normal conversation topic. Move on, find a new slant.) Mine was Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables, and hers was Nick Carraway, which I found extremely funny then and found even funnier now. He is such a cipher to me. (Gilbert, on the other hand, holds up and could do no wrong.)

GN: Nick is the man. I would like to be his friend. He is perceptive, empathetic, and basically powerless to stop any of the shit colliding (literally or otherwise) around him.

MA: But isn’t that just what he wants you to think?

GN: Maybe his charm just worked on me! 

KM: Wow, see, I came out of this book this read absolutely loathing Nick. I got really caught on how radically wrong his own perception of himself is. Something I found really smart about Fitzgerald’s work is that Nick is constantly saying one thing as a narrator and then doing absolutely the opposite. The most obvious example for me is how he thinks of himself as an “honest” person, but how he is constantly lying. He lies for Tom Buchanan (noted racist and terrible person) to Daisy and Jordan for absolutely no reason at all. When Jordan says at the end says “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought that was your secret pride,” I found that an incredible line by Fitzgerald to just show that while Nick has a perception of his own aloofness and like “regular man” behavior, no one else sees him this way. He is constantly trying to separate himself from Tom and Daisy while they are quite literally two of his only friends. 

TL: I would totally hang out with Nick but I also agree that he’s kind of a weenie. I got a kick out of how quickly he zoomed past his family history in the beginning—grandfather dodged the Civil War, born into a lucrative family business, went to Yale, had his move east funded by his father—so that he could spend the rest of the book acting like some poor yokel who didn’t fit into Tom and Daisy’s high society.

GN: Yeah, that’s hilarious. Fitzgerald was definitely fixated on these micro-gradations of richness and the feelings of inadequacy that could result. Not just new vs. old money but degrees of each, and the regions of the country they came from, and the kind of work that produced them, etc. Whereas all the poors are just depicted as living in a “valley of ashes” and gossiping about their employers in the village. The Finnish lady who takes care of Nick’s house is demonized, bizarrely. I wonder how far, if at all, Fitzgerald’s own assessments of these people deviated from his characters’.

MA: I guess some of his moralizing did work on me. I’m burying my top-line review here, but the technical mastery aside, a lot of this book left me cold, and as I came up on the final pages, I was pretty relieved to be nearing the end. And then I got to this passage I had absolutely no memory of, Nick’s recollection of coming home to Chicago for the holidays when he was in school. It’s this gorgeous winter scene at the train station—somehow it feels original, despite the millions of literary Christmas descriptions in existence—and I totally fell for it and recognized that feeling he describes of homecoming, of being “unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.” You all know well that I’m a sucker for romantic descriptions of the Midwest—particularly when they exist to be weaponized against the vile, corrupt EAST, and I was kind of paralyzed by this one. “That’s my Middle-West—not the wheat or prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth…” I am literally in the Midwest right now, and I still felt homesick. So Fitzgerald did get one good gut-punch in there. 

KM: Completely agree with this. You can kind of gulp this book down, but the structure of it is very strange. It’s interesting to me, almost academically, how he makes it work and reveals information, but it left me feeling basically nothing at the end. At a sentence level, this book stunned me and impressed me and felt really powerful, but maybe I was in the wrong headspace for the larger feeling. I could not quite grasp the emotional arc, and it always felt a little far from me. Even the funeral felt kind of inevitable in a way.  

GN: Dang! I was extremely moved by this re-read, definitely more so than the first time around. The image of Nick as the only guy who even cared enough to see through Gatsby’s funeral was enough pathos for me, plus his old dad coming out to see the ruins of this mysterious and wasted life. And I thought it was structurally ingenious, the way we gather bits of Gatsby’s backstory over time, both in the book’s contemporaneous dialogue and in drifty narratorial asides. You, like the characters, can never quite get your finger on who Gatsby is. There’s a great description of it in the letter that Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, writes after reading the first draft: “The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.” This is intended as a technical criticism, but it might be my favorite aspect of the book, the way its central character—the title of the book—slipperily resists your full focus.

TL: Yeah I landed closer to where Giri did at the end. I spent most of the book just kind of cringing and rolling my eyes at everything Gatsby said or did, but when his dad showed up with Gatsby’s childhood daily routine and just kept saying, “It just goes to show you,” I was moved. How dare those bastards abandon Gatsby in death! He was a son who had a dad!!!

GN: “As a son of a dad,”

TL: We are all sons of dads, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! March is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick tomorrow.