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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 18, 2018
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For doubters, the enduring renown of The Great Gatsby is mystifying. It seems a wonder to them that Gatsby should cling to its lofty place on lists of Great American Novels, despite being so slender and so dated, and not withstanding its ham-handed symbolism (the Valley of the Ashes, the Eyes of Doctor Eckleburg), simplistic structure (a series of set-pieces), clunky plot machinery (fancy cars roaring back and forth to Manhattan, merely to move pieces around the board), and flat characters (Tom Buchanan tilts toward caricature and Meyer Wolfsheim tips all the way over).
There is a solution to the mystery of Gatsby’s lasting fame, as believers know, and to my mind that solution is voice. The elixir that transforms the novel’s inert matter into music—that turns its static iconography into poetry—is its first-person narration: the subtle, compounded, compromised voice of Nick Carraway. A voice of hope infused with despair, of belief corroded by doubt. A voice suave and dapper on its surface but roiled and dark in its depths. It is the inviting but evasive voice of a new best friend who draws you into his confidence and promises alluring secrets, only to turn away from you, agitated, distracted, and weary.
Here is that voice at the novel’s famous beginning:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
…In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments… I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.
This could be the voice of a club-car raconteur, inviting us to settle back and enjoy the ride while he rambles on, except that beneath the sangfroid is an unquiet mind, ever ready to suspect its own reactions, open to the charm of a first impression but quick to doubt it, eager to be moved by elegance and beauty but skeptical of their claims. Consider the twists and switchbacks in Nick’s first meditation on Jay Gatsby:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away… it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
In the course of this decrescendo—beginning with wistful bouquets tossed at Gatsby, sinking through “foul dust,” bottoming out in “abortive sorrows and short-winded elations”—we can trace the evasive maneuvers of a man whose first thought is typically overwritten by reservations and reversals, whose original proposition is usually erased, though it lingers as a palimpsest. Willing at first to be enchanted by Gatsby’s smile, Nick soon changes his mind, first suspending judgment and then—in the turn of a phrase—dissolving the suspension.
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. 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 understood you just as 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. Precisely at this point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck…
The theme of The Great Gatsby is a question: If we aspire to the truth—as presumably we do—how can we know the truth without sabotaging ideals and annulling hope? The instrument Fitzgerald uses to develop this theme is the voice of an innocent who admits his complicity in a corrupted world—a supple and conflicted voice, at once lightsome and gloomy, naïve and disenchanted, like a duet for clarinet and bassoon.
* * * *
Appropriating an original voice has obvious risks (dilutions, second-rate copies, invidious comparisons), although for a devoted and brilliant follower—like Sarah Vaughan adapting Billie Holiday, or Stan Getz absorbing Lester Young—the rewards can be transformative, making way for an entirely new work of art. With an eye to this prospect, many writers have tried their luck with a version of the Carraway voice, but not all have managed to pull it off. Many novels that have placed their bets on Gatsby have failed to capitalize on its most significant gift: its soulful, cerebral, ruminative narration. The most famous instance may be The Catcher in the Rye, with later examples provided by John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which has been described by James Wood as a post-9/11 updating of the Gatsby dream. And yet, while the narrators in Salinger and Irving arguably derive from Fitzgerald, they lack Nick Carraway’s moodily shifting refractions, his negative capability, his gorgeous gravitas. And while Netherland may be an updating of Gatsby, its narrator comes more out of Bellow—a bloviating enthusiast, enthralled with a problematic protagonist whose expansive antics we’re urged to find engaging—and his descriptive flash comes more out of Updike. And so, unsurprisingly, Netherland has none of Carraway’s delicately calibrated, cautionary questioning of the human condition.
While many novels owe their debt to Fitzgerald, they lack what prompted T. S. Eliot to call Gatsby “the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James”: the tragic weight that the novel bears so lightly, the disenchantment that never denies our longing, the vocalization that can move the stars to pity.
Some novelists, though, have listened so attentively to Gatsby’s music, and learned so much from it, that they have been able to transpose it for their own narrators. I’m interested in three in particular—Donna Tartt, Lorrie Moore, and Richard Ford. Despite obvious differences, these three novelists are crucially linked by their appropriation of the Carraway narration. For them, Fitzgerald is more than a master who merits homage; he is the source of a transformative voice, a voice that in each case is central to the novelist’s intentions, and to the novel’s impact.
DONNA TARTT: THE SECRET HISTORY
The success of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, owed something to a famous agent’s scorched-earth marketing campaign, and something to its own sensationalism—its seething neo-gothic plot and its “Inside Baseball” report on wickedly decadent undergraduates. That one-two punch might have been enough to make The Secret History a bestseller, but what made it hard to put down, particularly for readers who knew better—and what lent it the panache of literary fiction—was the Carrawayesque voice of its narrator, Richard Papen.
The two narrators have much in common. The point of departure for both is a prototypical American journey from west to east—Carraway coming from the Midwest, Papen from California, although his California is not a glamorous la-la land but a lower-class family in a dusty inland town, a dull reality he replaces with a Tinseltown fable. For Tartt’s purposes this deception is an inspired invention, since it enables her to conflate Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, and to graft both onto Richard Papen.
When Papen reaches the campus of Hampden College (a stand-in for Bennington), he arrives with a pilgrim’s sense of awe but also, tainted as he is by deception, with the knowing corruption of Jay Gatsby.
My name is Richard Papen. I had never seen New England or Hampden College until I was nineteen. I am twenty-eight years old and a Californian by birth and also, I have recently discovered, by nature. The last is something I admit only now, after the fact. Not that it matters.
I grew up in Plano, a small silicon village in the north…drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in a way. On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences: a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.
Papen joins a cadre of precocious students majoring in ancient Greek, who appear to Richard as Gatsby first appeared to Nick: aglow with glamorous intrigue, moving in a nimbus of mystery and giddily bad behavior: they drink copiously, do drugs wantonly, indulge in sex both routine and transgressive, stage antique Dionysian rites, and commit Raskolnikovian homicides, twisting themselves along the way into a luridly involute plot.
Their stories unspool at leisure—The Secret History is notably long—and Papen has ample time for adjusting to the hothouse world of Hampden and its night-blooming orchids.
I sat on the bed during the twilight while the walls went slowly from gray to gold to black, listening to a soprano’s voice climb dizzily up and down somewhere at the other end of the hall until at last the light was completely gone, and the faraway soprano spiraled on and on in the darkness like some angel of death… I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying… the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost.
Papen’s ardent response to the apple-cheeked girls is shadowed by anticipatory gloom. Like Carraway—who foresees the foul dust which will eclipse the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock—Papen detects landmines in the lyric flow: the apples rotten, the white birch ghostly, the soprano an angel of death. All that glitters is tarnished, like the cufflinks in this next passage. Papen, having gone to an “expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts,” continues to a second-hand clothing store where he assembles a costume suiting his new image:
…a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it… The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor—voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.
The passage recalls Carraway—man of limited means, seduced by the appearance of opulence—and Gatsby, man of excessive means, charlatan and would-be seducer, pulling costly shirts from his drawers, flinging them on the bed for Daisy. The cufflinks are the false glitter that betrays them all.
At the end of The Secret History, a chastened Papen makes a mournful trip back west, like Carraway, who famously described himself on the occasion as a boat beating against the current. Papen’s self-reflective metaphor is Orpheus rising from the Underworld, but these are two tropes for one fate: a weary traveler’s disenchanted return to the past (though the tear-stained end of The Secret History may recall The Bridges of Madison County as much as The Great Gatsby):
I rented a car, and drove and drove until finally the landscape changed, and I was in the Midwest, and the rain was all I had left of Camilla’s goodbye kiss. Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backwards glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever…
LORRIE MOORE: THE GATE AT THE STAIRS
Donna Tartt was shrewd to make her narrator a first-year college student, and Lorrie Moore was smart to poise Tassie Keltjin, narrator of The Gate at the Stairs, on the same verge of worldly experience. Tassie has just completed her first semester at a large Midwestern university, and she is spending her winter break plowing through the snowy town in search of a babysitting job. A farm girl, she has arrived in a state of relative innocence, though she comes equipped with Lorrie Moore’s DNA, with her creator’s stiletto-heel acuities and sharp-elbowed asperities. Such wryly seasoned innocence makes her an ideal vessel for the Carraway sensibility, which is compounded equally of wonder and distrust, gullibility and dismay.
I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe… a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood… Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder… And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me…for a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave…Twice a week a young professor named Thad dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
Gaga though she may be, Tassie has cause to suspect that her story will not end well—to guess that a junior professor in jeans could be a seducer in the wings, no more sincere than the aging roué whose wandering eye will stalk her, no more authentic than the “Brazilian” boyfriend who will betray her. She has emerged from the cave predisposed to awe but haunted by premonition—by a shadow of darkness creeping over the grass.
In the weary blues of Tassie’s voice, time-present—when all is possible—merges with time-future, when suspended judgments come home to roost. In the account of her first meeting with Sarah Brink—who is about to hire Tassie as a babysitter—we hear her glissando sinking from observation through irony to foreshadowed woe.
The woman of the house opened the door. She was pale and compact, no sags or pouches, linen skin tight across the bone. The hollows of her cheeks were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-colored, and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment. “Come in,” she said, and I entered, mutely at first and then, as always, apologetically, as if I were late, though I wasn’t. At that time in my life I was never late. Only a year later would I suddenly have difficulty hanging on to any sense of time… Time would waft past me undetectably or absurdly—laughably when I could laugh—in quantities I was incapable of measuring or obeying.
Set in motion by this meeting, the plot builds to the revelation of Sarah’s secret past (a car accident, a child’s death, a prison term) and to the loss of Emma, the adopted girl Tassie has been hired to care for (events paralleled by a secondary plot, equally harrowing, based on Tassie’s family). Near the end, Tassie gets a call from Edward, Sarah’s now-estranged husband, a predator who has been lurking behind “the gate at the stairs” (an expansion gate separating innocence from experience). Edward’s invitation to dinner leaves Tassie speechless, almost. Dinner? Dinner? she repeats, thinking back to the lost Emma and the love she inspired—love
of the most useless kind, unless you believed in love’s power to waft in from a burning sky to the unseen grass it had designated as its beloved, unless you believed in the prayers of faraway nuns, unless you believed in miracles and magic, rapture and dice and Sufic chants and charms behind curtains and skillful clouds at smoky, unfathomable distances. Love and virtue—their self-conviction was an astonishing thing: a pantomime of wishes… as real as rock.
…Edward remained silent, as did I. What was I alive for? I would not always know or make it my troubled concern. For now I simply became aware of my own noisy breathing. Windy exhalations, I had been told, seemed louder on the phone than they actually were.
Those windy exhalations are metaphorical echoes of Nick Carraway’s lament, his sighing over the “abortive sorrow and short-winded elations of men.” They are the sounds of deflation, of emptiness, of woe.
(The novel’s parting allusion, however, is not to Fitzgerald but to Charlotte Brontë. In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine—the long-suffering, loyal governess—was fated to marry her employer, Mr. Rochester, whose first name, if you’ve forgotten, was Edward. In The Gate at the Stairs, Tassie plays the governess, Sarah is the maddened woman chained to her predicament, and Edward is himself. But Tassie’s last line repudiates Jane’s fate: “Reader, I did not even have coffee with him.”)
RICHARD FORD: THE FRANK BASCOMBE NOVELS AND CANANDA
In The Sportswriter, his first Frank Bascombe novel, Richard Ford began to turn away from his early influences—the stories of Hemingway and Carver, with their prideful realism and tough-guy sentimentality—and toward the Flaubertian elegance of Fitzgerald. By the time of his second Bascombe novel, Independence Day, Ford had attained a new level of stylish achievement and had arrived in a new place (not just New Jersey). He had outgrown the restrictive, cautious quality of his earlier work, and he was now writing with expansive insouciance and debonair aplomb. Bascombe, his narrator and lead character, was speaking in a voice that seemed entirely and idiosyncratically Frank’s own, for all that the origins of that voice could be traced to The Great Gatsby.
In Fitzgerald, Ford found a pensive, ruminative voice that would become second nature to him, and that would provide him with a wondrously supple strategy for handling diverse material. Under Ford’s direction, this fluent narrative instrument could flow in almost any direction, could reverse and correct itself without apology, could hit urbane and literate notes while still sounding like a regular guy (important to Ford, whose heart never strays too far from its regular-guy roots). Here is Bascombe near the beginning of Independence Day:
…to anyone reasonable, my life will seem more or less normal-under-the microscope, full of contingencies and incongruities none of us escapes and which do little harm in an existence that otherwise goes unnoticed.
This morning, however, I’m setting off on a weekend trip with my only son, which promises, unlike most of my seekings, to be starred by weighty life events. There is, in fact, an odd feeling of lasts to this excursion, as if some signal period in life—mine and his—is coming, if not to a full close, then at least toward some tightening, transforming twist in the kaleidoscope, a change I’d be foolish to take lightly and don’t.
Bascombe, like Carraway, can sound confidently unambiguous one moment and turn back a moment later to interrogate his own proposition. Like Carraway, he is almost compulsively ready to challenge his own assumptions. Consider that opening gambit, to anyone reasonable, a plain-sounding phrase that conceals, if barely, its implied rebuttal: that someone less reasonable might see Bascombe quite differently, and that this less reasonable person may in fact be Bascombe, who, upon taking a further look at his history, admits it is not so easily explicable.
All of this comes—in surfeit—near the anniversary of my divorce, a time when I routinely feel broody and insubstantial, and spend days puzzling over that summer seven years ago, when life swerved badly and I, somehow at a loss, failed to right its course.
The clarity of that reasonable view, as originally proposed—which on inspection may be only a dull generalization, like “some things are meant to be”—has been smudged by a new perspective; reasonableness, in this revised view, strains to account for a man who seems haunted by his past and troubled by his present. On further reflection, it seems that the contingencies said to do little harm may have done considerable harm already, and that by failing to grasp the contingencies at the right time, Bascombe may have missed something important.
We never need look far in the Bascombe novels for evidence of Fitzgerald. Skip ahead to the scene in The Lay of the Land, the final book in the trilogy, in which Bascombe, needing a windshield repaired, finds a young garage attendant “bent over a foxed copy of The Great Gatsby—the old green-gray-and-white Scribner Library edition I read in American Existentialism and Beyond in Ann Arbor in 1964.” For a long time, Bascombe says,
I reread it every year, exactly the way we’re all supposed to, then got sick of its lapidary certainties disguised as spoiled innocence—something I don’t believe in—and gave my last copy to the Toms River Shriners’ Xmas Benefit. Garage mechanics, of course, play a pivotal role in Fitzgerald’s denouement, transacted scarcely a hundred miles from here as the gull flies.
(By the way, that unattributed we—“the way we’re all supposed to”—seems to me a perfect fusion of Bascombe and Ford.)
After dissing Gatsby for attributes he claims to be “sick of,” Bascombe reverses himself (in a Carraway-like pirouette) and reaffirms the novel’s importance for him, linking the attendant to the doomed George Wilson, and calculating how short is the distance, as the gull flies, from his current coordinates on the Jersey shore to Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island. For Bascombe and Ford, Gatsby is always close at hand.
In Canada, Ford’s next book after completing the Bascombe trilogy, Ford returns to the familiar territory of the Great Plains and the narrow lives he finds there; but while its setting and characters hail from an earlier Ford, the design of Canada is new. With a radicalism recalling the experiments of Virginia Woolf, Ford breaks his novel into three discontinuous sections, abandoning two of his lead characters to their fates after the first section, and taking the risk of a disorienting leap in time after the second.
Yet for all the structural modernism of Canada, its young narrator, Dell Parsons, begins his tale in a tone of vintage American realism, and a manner of speaking—laconic and threadbare—that recalls a Nick Adams story. And yet again—for this is the new model Ford, not the Ford of his dirty-realist mentors—the appearance of simplicity soon gives way to a more cerebral brand of discourse. Homegrown diction and strained grammar aside, once Dell has proposed that we take the aesthetic theory of John Ruskin as a guide to understanding his parents’ story, we are not in Kansas anymore. Here are the novel’s opening lines:
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular— although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
Dell argues that the robbery is more important than the murders, and that arranging events in an order has explanatory power. But his claims are shaky, as he is the first to admit, and he proceeds, in Carraway fashion, to revise himself, undoing his proposition sentence by sentence, admitting that what he knew about his parents does not support a conclusion that they were destined to end up the way they did. The cause-and-effect theory, in which he had hoped to place his confidence, gets fuzzed over. That kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
Yet a boy whose ordinary parents turned into bank robbers has good reason to be obsessed with causes and consequences. Dell speculates that perhaps his parents could be explained as products of a time when many “transgressed society’s boundaries”; but this theory too has scarcely appeared on the screen before it is taken down. No, he says, his parents were not “reckless people in the vanguard of anything. They were, as I said, regular people tricked by circumstance and bad instincts, along with bad luck, to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back.”
A different storyteller might settle for this summary, but Dell moves on to a larger hypothesis, which briefly seems to hold the trump card here: the proposition that Dell’s father, having returned “from the theater of war and from being the agent of whistling death . . . may have been in the grip of some great, unspecified gravity.”
Is that the answer? Assigning it the final place in a sequence suggests that it might be. But Dell’s mind is forever reassessing, always worried that he may have missed the main point. One of his great fears, Dell tells us, has been that “I would miss crucial knowledge that could assure my future and was obtainable nowhere else”—a fear recalling the fretful Nick Carraway, who was afraid of missing something should he ever forget his father’s advice.
At the end of Part One (the story of Dell’s parents up to their bank robbery, capture, and imprisonment), Dell says it has been my habit of mind, over these years, to understand that every situation in which human beings are involved can be turned on its head. When he speaks like this, he sounds less and less like a fifteen-year-old boy, and increasingly like Nick Carraway.
In Part Two, set in Saskatchewan, Dell is left to puzzle over his new guardian, the mysterious Arthur (who has, like Dell’s parents, a criminal past), and we are left to work out how Part Two connects thematically with Part One. The problem over which Dell obsessively broods is now the reader’s as well: how to fathom the relation of things, how to understand causes and consequences. The various plots and backstories of Canada are engrossing, but the raw fact of what happens matters less than why it happened, and what we make of the outcomes.
When we meet him again in Part Three—a section so brief it is basically a coda—Dell has become a professor of literature at a small Canadian college. He is 66 now, and on the verge of retirement. This older Dell Parsons, we realize, is the source of the voice we have been hearing for some time—or more precisely, we can identify him as the lead in a blend of voices, the key element in a compound sensibility whose elements include the narrator at various ages as well as the author. When Professor Parsons shares a list of novels he recommends to his students, the list sounds like one Richard Ford would make—and inevitably it includes The Great Gatsby.
Finally, in the novel’s last lines, he turns to Ruskin one more time.
What I know is, you have a better chance in life… if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.
It is possible to read this as affirmation—a reading encouraged by the allusion to Forster’s “only connect”—but the dominant note I hear is lament. We try—that lonely, whistling cry, thrice-repeated—sounds to me as bleak as the mournful last chord of Gatsby, bearing us back into an unredeemed past.
* * * *
Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Canada—which could be by no one but Richard Ford—are works of originality. And yet that originality—the alchemical product of benign influence and creative assimilation—arises from Ford’s appropriation of Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has been an equally fecund source for Lorrie Moore, although her variation on the Carraway model is less evident because it is more fully absorbed into her hyper-distinctive style. That style, so familiar to readers of her renowned short stories, can be hilarious, tragic, hip, heartbreaking, smoothtalking, deadpan, and elegant in the course of a single page. Its trademark mix of lyric and tart could be pitched as Wong Kar-wai meets Jim Jarmusch. But for The Gate at the Stairs, she chose a different kind of narrator. If that novel is a triumph—as I believe it is—that triumph owes less to its content—the Brontë parallels (which fade into the background), the plot (which idles through contrived delays and lumbers to take off again), and the obligatory presentism (9/11 and Iraq loom large)—and more to its voice: the first-person narration, in which we are immersed, in which we deeply believe. For the twisting and entwined tones of that narration—for its plangency, subtlety, and complexity, its plaiting of wonder and woe, exhilaration and loss—Moore is indebted to Fitzgerald.
As for Donna Tartt, it is hard to say if she will eventually be dubbed a Dickens of her day (as Stephen King’s paean to The Goldfinch implied) or be branded an accomplished purveyor of “YA for adults.” However that pans out, Tartt will always have The Secret History, a true page-turner that has seduced legions of readers with its high-end melodrama, elite decadence, and entrancing weather, and which stakes its claim to literary fiction through a slick ventriloquizing of the Carraway voice.
What links these three very different novelists is their debt to Gatsby and Nick Carraway’s voice: a voice that knowing composers treasure for its vocal polish, its soulful depths, its suitability for aria and recitative alike. Their appropriations of that voice entitle them to the benefits of membership in an exclusive club: the Heirs of the Great Carraway.
* * * *
Although fans of Gatsby are unyielding in their praise, dissenters are not easily persuaded. In their view, if you whisk away the veil of the novel’s fame (and you are not tickled by its champagne or seduced by its perfume), you are face to face with Fitzgerald’s limitations: the infatuation with glossy parties where everyone drinks too much, the taste for flashy display (which he can’t help sharing with his most vulgar characters), the swooning over the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the mooning over girls with milky complexions. Even if the novel does suffer from such flaws, we can’t help but to recognize its stature within American fiction. Why does Gatsby rise so far above flaws that are typical of its type and its time (unlike most of the once-renowned John O’Hara, unlike Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which fails to overcome the triviality of partying and the banality of celebrity worship)?
Why has Gatsby become so embedded in our popular consciousness? Why has it been treated so obsessively by Hollywood? Why was the word-for-word stage reading by The Elevator Repair Company a theatrical sensation? Why is Gatsby on the required reading list of every American institution, and so ubiquitous that even members of a prison literature class in an episode of The Wire are seen arguing about the ambiguity of Daisy’s character?
Part of the answer, to be fair, is that as classics go, Gatsby is readily accessible and agreeably brief. A larger and more important part is that its major characters, who are among American fiction’s most memorable, provide insight into the American psyche. A final part of the answer, and the most pertinent to the argument I have pursued here, is influence. If one measure of greatness is influence, then the value of The Great Gatsby to writers who have turned to its voice as source and inspiration—Tartt, Moore, Ford, and more to come—supports the judgment that it is, finally, a great novel.