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Not just Great, Timeless
on 4 November 2010
East Coast America, 1922, and young Nick Carraway decides to rent a house in the fictional town for the rich, West Egg, while he tries to make it in the city trading bonds. Except his life is about to change as he meets his flamboyant and rich neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whose charisma and lifestyle will spirit Nick away to catch glimpses of how the rich live in 1920s America, the good and the bad. But Gatsby isn't all he seems and when Nick introduces him to his married cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, their fatal company will reveal to Nick the sordid and black-hearted side to the American Dream.
What to say about this book that's not been said before? Should there be a superlative limit for this novel? And where should someone start? Well, I read this book several years ago and decided to re-read it recently to see if the novel was as good as I remembered, as clever and well written, as fun and as sad, and with a beating heart still behind it; and I was glad to find that it still did.
Nick Carraway is a brilliant narrator, flawed and biased, yet all-seeing out of all the characters; we see Gatsby as a charming personality at first and then slowly and subtly see the flaws in his character, see through the lies that go into the creation of his persona and the darkness beneath. We see Daisy and Tom as a sad married couple - Daisy full of regret yet unable to leave because of her love of Tom's money and Tom with his numerous infidelities and foul temper showing how the rich can live a life free of consequence.
The book contains many images of startling beauty such as Gatsby's glittering parties wearing his pink tuxedo, the green light from Daisy's window in the night, the decayed ruins of Gatsby's mansion, the decadent empty Buchanan household - and the stench of squandered privilege, crime and death that accompanies it all.
The writing is of the highest quality, each sentence perfectly written and filled with layers making up rich paragraphs and textured pages - it's not hard to see why Fitzgerald is canonised and celebrated when the writing in "Gatsby" is this good. But that's not to say that it's unreadable to people looking for a good read - it's perfectly approachable, understandable, and fun. The scenes are so full of life and action that it's as compelling to read purely for its story of doomed love between Gatsby and Daisy. The scene between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom is as explosive to read the first time as it is to re-read it again and again.
But because the writing is so good, the story so layered and full of symbols with a strong theme and message, it's no wonder this book has had untold numbers of books and papers written about its complexities and nuances - how truly magnificent a work of art it is. I won't go into the various themes and sub-texts as this review will turn into a sprawling mini-book of its own but suffice it to say Fitzgerald explores the theme of how wealth in America means the rich can do what they want to the poor and the law can't touch you if you have cash, with a wry and precise eye that still has relevance nearly a century after it was written.
And why is Gatsby great? Because he is the embodiment of the American Dream - a working class boy who became rich; a self-made man, yet his pursuit of riches and love were all illusions in the end. Riches come and go and love can be fickle and deceitful. In the end, Gatsby represents the poor to Daisy and Tom's rich, and like the poor paying for the sins of the rich, Gatsby too must pay the ultimate price for attempting to join their ranks.
"The Great Gatsby" is a haunting, bitter, and powerful novel of America's elite and their excesses, a damning yet beautiful work of art that captures perfectly an era and a class through wonderfully realised characters in an unforgettable story. A modern tragedy that's of its time but for all time, "The Great Gatsby" continues to enchant readers and earn and re-earn its status as a Great American Novel. If you've never read this masterpiece, let me be the first to introduce you to Mr Jay Gatsby - he'll take it from here.