Friday, May 6, 2011

The Great Gatsby

There are some books that it’s difficult to write about, not for lack of things to actually say about it, but because writing about it feels like exposing the innermost reaches of one’s core. There are a handful of books that make me feel this way, The Great Gatsby being one of them. I’m not sure that there is a book that I feel more connected to – that I feel is more personal to me and my own story; only The English Patient comes close. The Great Gatsby feels like a road map of my own heart – and heartache. It’s hard to know where to begin in this review, because it is so intertwined with my life, I don’t know how to tell the story of The Great Gatsby without telling my own. This isn’t a “review” of the novel. This is my story of The Great Gatsby.

I have to take a big breath just to begin.

Gatsby came to me in 10th grade Honors English. I was 15. A romantic 15. I had already been in love twice. The third time came when I was 15…it had probably already arrived by the time we got to Fitzgerald (though #3 was really just trying to recapture #1). Perhaps you may think I’m being melodramatic, to say that three (out of four!) of the times I have been in love with someone occurred by the time I was 15, but looking back even now, as I approach 30, it’s true. There were two other times – at 18 and at 21 – when I thought I was in love, but in hindsight I know that I wasn’t. But if those first two times I fell in love were not love, than I don’t know what love is. (Do not cue Foreigner here). This was the lens through which I was reading Fitzgerald – three unrequited loves, and only 15 years old!

When I was 12, I fell in love for the first time. The person I fell in love with was much older than me. I don’t know if he ever even knew I existed, though I made every attempt possible (in the pre-internet days when I couldn’t cyber-stalk him) to make myself noticed. I was a non-entity, as 12-year-olds tend to. That whole situation has colored my entire life since. I will go no further into details. But I was an incredible fool (“colossal vitality of his illusion”). I was reading Romeo & Juliet for god’s sake. I believed that if only I had enough faith, if only I tried hard enough, IF ONLY, we would be together. I believed we were “meant to be” in a way that only an innocent child can believe such a thing and not be incredibly creepy. And you cannot argue with a 12 year old who is convinced of something, especially one as stubborn as me. (“It was an extraordinary gift for hope…”)

When I realized it wasn’t going to work out the way I had planned, there I was – Gatsby reaching out to the green dock light across the Sound. There I was, setting up my entire life so that this person would happen to someday show up at my party. That is where Gatsby really began for me, where he entered my life. I was Jay Gatsby before I ever knew of him.

I’ve been revisiting the novel in the last few weeks, reading it to Brendan at night as he falls asleep. This might be close to the tenth time I’ve read this novel. I find myself tearing up at certain passages. Though this book has always moved me, something about reading it out loud, 17 years down the road, has brought tears to my eyes more than once. I can feel Gatsby’s longing over the years…I can feel his heartbreak that hot afternoon at the Plaza. I mean that I can literally feel it. My heart is breaking for him as I write this. And in a sense, breaking for myself at 12 at the same time. The images from The Great Gatsby have become part of my own personal mythology.

Here are some of the quotes I’ve underlined in the book over the years. Some are fabulous sentences, some evocative images and some have just spoken to me as if Fitzgerald just got it. It’s the best I can do in terms of a review.

  • It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

  • On Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.

  • The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

  • The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.

  • A pause; it endured horribly.

  • He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity.

  • Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

  • No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (My.favorite.line.from.a.novel.ever.)

  • But the rest offended her–and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village–appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.

  • He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house–just as if it were five years ago.

  • “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

    “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

    He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

    “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

  • He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . .

  • Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.

    "You always look so cool,” she repeated.

    She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.

  • ”An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”

  • But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.

  • There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.

  • He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him.

I appreciate a good book, a well written book. A book that sucks you in with its language and paints for you a world that you know, or don’t know; gives you a new light, or illuminates an old one. But then there are books that speak to you – that feel as if they were plucked secretly out of your heart. In Gatsby, it seemed as though Fitzgerald had beautifully rendered in poetry my own experience. To feel that someone gets what you’re going through so much that they can turn such pain and despair into something as magnificent as Gatsby is an amazing, amazing feeling. When I was younger, Gatsby was a comfort, providing a kindred spirit – a story, a despair, a drive, that I was intimately familiar with. Now it serves as a reminder of and connection to some core self that has been wrapped and buried under layers and layers of years and experiences I once never could have conceived of.

Once upon a time, when I was 12, I had a nightmare that I still vividly recall 17 years later. This person I was in love with was visiting – not visiting me, but back in the area. This person was “20 minutes away,” and I couldn’t get to him. No one would drive me to where he was. There was my chance – if I could only get there – and I couldn’t. It’s a feeling of complete and utter helplessness…one’s future is waiting just out of reach, and you just cannot get to it.

Last year I heard through the grapevine that this person was coming back – literally 20 minutes away. And I could have easily found my way back into that situation, once again seeking out the opportunity to say, “Does my name mean anything to you? Did you ever know that my life revolved around you, and that its trajectory is entirely because of you?”

Inside of me, my 12 year old self is always tugging at my sleeve, still looking for answers that at 29, I know will never come (“He’s afraid, he’s waited so long”). And to some extent, I don’t know that I want to know the answer. The likely truth would no longer be helpful. But she – the little lost girl still cowering inside me – still seeks those answers.

I thought about taking that next chance to find answers, if only for her, in honor of who I once was. But my life is at a good place now and I do not want the emotional implosion that always comes along with these questions – from opening up these old wounds again. At some point, I had to take Gatsby as a lesson rather than a reflection. At some point, I had to learn to ignore the green light. The light will always be there, since it’s myself – my past, the life I once believed I would have but never did – that is glowing across the Sound. But I have learned that I don’t need to stand at night and reach out to it. At some point, I had to just turn around.

Gatsby pursued Daisy, believing he could go back into the past and fix it, only to have reality shoved in his face at the Plaza that hot, hot day. (A day that feels more palpable, more real to me than any day I’ve ever read of in fiction.) For me, in the end I decided not to try once again to find answers, since I know what they will likely be. All of this is kept in a tightly closed box inside me, and I now prefer to keep it that way. That chapter of my life is best not reopened.

I found out that he had a baby girl recently (and gave her a dumb, dumb name). I felt nothing. At last, I realize, it’s behind me.


Eclectic Indulgence said...


Eclectic Indulgence said...

I just had a long heartfilled comment which was deleted somehow. I am trying to use a MAC for the first time and it is NOT CO-OPERATING.

How the hell do I get back all the outpouring in the same lovely way? Impossible.

Anyway - I just wanted to say that this post moved me nearly to tears - thank you for sharing. The 'green light' is a constant reminder to me to not search for things that do not exist (because I have made them so much more in my head) and how to live in the present instead of the future. The messages I get from the green light change as I go through different experiences but I think that is where they have settled at this point in time.

I also think I fell in love early - possibly in grade 2. It doesn't matter to me if it was 'love' or not - but I do know that if I ever found this person again I could not resist seeing her and being disappointed or filled with heartache. In this sense, she is my green light and I know I'd make the same mistake that Gatsby did.

I have learned since then to leave the green light alone - and even did so on one occasion this weekend. The green light was a memory, and I didn't try to force it to happen twice. When circumstances wouldn't allow me to go back to the scene, I left it alone and was fully contented to do so. This 'drink life as it comes' mentality used to be very hard for me, but it is becoming much more normal.

Anyways, I now want to read 'Gatsby' all over again. It will never be my 'Catcher in the Rye', but it will always sit in the back of my mind trying to keep me honest and focused on the right things.

Thanks again for your heartfelt post.

Kristin said...

Thank you for your comment! I have always felt that the best books are really compasses. Sometimes the books seem to change, but obviously it's just the reader that changes.

In my own case, I have come to realize that even if I had an answer, either way it wouldn't be helpful. If the answer was no, he didn't know then I would be profoundly disappointed, even though at this point I have come to accept that this is the likely truth. But even if the answer was yes, he did know...that would only open up a 17 year burried can of anger. Because if he knew, why didn't he come and take me away...(yes at 12 I thought this was going to happen).

I competely agree about searching for things that are really so much more in our minds...I read something about that recently, but I cannot remember where...

Robby Virus said...

Wow. This was maybe your best post ever. It brought a tear to my eye, and definitely makes me want to read "Gatsby" again (it's been a decade or maybe two). Thank you.

Danielle said...

What a beautiful review. I was searching the web, looking for some new perspectives on Gatsby for my own blog...I'm so glad I came across yours.