Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Book is Better

ISBN-10: 0743273567 ISBN-13: 9780743273565 Published: Scribner, 09/30/2004 Pages: 192 Language: English
Before watching Baz Luhrmann pile-drive all the nuance out of The Great Gatsby with his recently released film adaption, I thought it would be worth reflecting on what makes Fitzgerald's book such a timeless masterpiece. For one thing, The Great Gatsby has never ceased to be relevant. Take a listen to this excellent Studio 360 episode on "how this compact novel became the great American story of our age." It presents a fascinating cultural history of the work and how its particular take on the American Dream has infiltrated everything from film to hip-hop. Gatsby is not the earliest attempt to define the allure and danger of America's rags-to-riches ethos-- Mark Twain's unfortunately little-remembered 1873 novel The Gilded Age springs to mind-- but it did inject a corrosive fairy-tale romanticism into the oft-told story that gave it a memorably dreamy, surrealist quality. This is why-- snob that I am-- I shudder to think of Luhrman's literalist, 3-D take on the greenish light at the end of Daisy's dock. Not everything has to be seen to be felt.

In addition, The Great Gatsby is an extraordinary demonstration of the value of writing with economy and verve. Every single sentence is beautifully crafted, as can be seen in the Studio 360 piece when an actor who has memorized the entirety of the book is asked to read from it at random and every line comes out like a perfectly formed gem. Although I think Jonathan Franzen might be better served if he took those lessons to heart, his take on Fitzgerald's winning combination of style and substance is dead-on: "In 50,000 words, he tells you the central fable of America...and yet you feel like you are eating whipped cream." In other words, it's the rare classic that's short and fun-- famous counter-culture comedian Andy Kaufman once read the entirety of the novel at a show. Granted, most of the audience was less than pleased, but there's no accounting for taste. 

So go buy it! At Flyleaf preferably. And avoid the garish movie tie-in covers, the one featured in this post is absolutely perfect. This is THE Great American Novel. With the exception of Moby Dick, of course, but I'll leave that post for another day.

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