I was looking for an interesting book to review this week when I heard an interview on CBC radio with Baz Luhrmann, director of “The Great Gatsby” film (the sixth one). In defending himself against some of the bad reviews the film received, he made the point that most people have a vague sensual memory of Fitzgerald’s book as that of a sepia-toned, listless afternoon when it is too hot to move. It was the director’s contention that nothing could be further from the truth: the book was about loud parties, raw, primitive jazz, and violent colours.
I immediately decided to re-read the novel, because the sepia image was definitely the one I had maintained in the decades since I first read it.
I have decided that Mr. Luhrmann is wrong. Oh, the noise and the colour are all present. There is even a car chase of a sort. But when someone is using soft, drowsy tones to describe a loud noise, you don’t listen to the words and think of the racket; all you hear is the languor of the voice. And so it is with this book. The words speak of wailing music, bright colours and fatal emotions, but it is as if we see them through a screen, filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, who seems removed from the emotions of the story, unable to fully join the party, trapped in the clinging shreds of his upbringing. This is shown in his half-hearted romance with Jordan, which he seeps into by osmosis and drifts out of through the silence at the end of a telephone call, when there is nothing left to say.
Nick is a middle class boy new to the East Coast, and he experiences the whole scene with a sense of unreality. His first perception of Gatsby is when he sees his neighbour as an impenetrable figure in the dark, looking out over the water towards some unimagined goal on the other side. He doesn’t get any closer to the man until he discovers their common origins in the down-to-earth midwest.
The narrator drifts through the scenes, and we are unsure if he is a ghost, or if he is real and the scene is made up of ghosts, including the ghost girl beside him. Reality strikes through the screen at times, such as when Nick is describing an argument in dispassionate terms, punctuated by; “with a short, deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.”
One aspect of the novel is in clear focus; all authors should take lessons from Fitzgerald in how to describe settings and people. No matter how poetic (and they are), his descriptions always mean something as well, metaphoric or symbolic. They aren’t just there to fill us in on the landscape. The details of the setting affect the characters. The characteristics of the people comprise the theme. The illustrations count.
I recall complaining bitterly in Joyce’s Ulysses when the author wastes pages with a list of people’s names, the only silver lining being that the reader can easily skip to the end of the list. Fitzgerald fills two pages itemizing Gatsby’s guests, but the names are so fascinating and appropriate to the era, and every third or fourth one is accompanied by such a juicy and creative comment, I just had to read every one of them.
My mixed-media image of this book is that of a sepia-toned watercolour, splashed here and there with bright pastel blotches not quite in focus: the people, the scenery, the music, the emotions. All held together by a poetic writing style that flows around you like a warm wind.
A wonderful read, highly deserving of its reputation as one of America’s best novels. Five stars out of five.
I’ll be really interested to see how Luhrmann portrays it in his film.