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Something Like a Review – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

read by Jake Gyllenhaal

The Great Gatsby

I read this book many years ago. At the time, my intentions were ignoble at best. I was in high school, in the midst of college application chaos an trying to prove to the world that they wanted me, that they wanted to pull me out of the tiny little town I’d grown up in and pay for the pleasure of doing so. I think part of me was pretty frustrated and disenchanted with the whole process. While I didn’t know exactly what my parents could afford, I knew that they cringed with the names of colleges  and the names of their respective cities were mentioned. That disenchanted part seemed to think that I didn’t belong to that world, or somehow, wouldn’t make it. That I was trying to slog through The Fountainhead and come up with something profound to say about it only seemed to confirm this.

Of course, my friends were going through similar things, though perhaps without the exact same concerns, doubts and stresses. We didn’t talk money, and their aspirations seemed far more realistic and achievable than my own. When we talked about the various hoops of our respective applications, a friend of mine was reading The Great Gatsby, and seemed to have interesting and profound things to say about symbolism. What bothered me most about this was that she was a science major and I was the book nerd. I was supposed to have deep things to say and she was supposed to struggle with art. Needless to say, this did not contribute to my overall positive perception about my future. In a blaze of confidence, I picked up the book and burned through it. Too fast, perhaps since it left little impression on me except about fake people, mint juleps and confirming my desire to live an urbane, cosmopolitan lifestyle. It must have assuaged my concerns about my literary bankruptcy since I managed to get through The Fountainhead and compose an essay that Sarah Lawrence College deemed acceptable for admission.

When the movie came out, I made a mental note to retread the book, irked that I couldn’t remember much about it. Since Audible seems to be my savior when it comes to wanting to read something without wholly dedicating time to doing so, I found a copy narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal and plugged in.

The first thing that struck me was that the language Fitzgerald used, and I was very aware of his merits as a poet. Though it sometimes struck me as a little overblown, the language was something that felt distinctly out of time. It felt like the glamour and intricate delicacy of the 20’s and how the decorous often hid ugliness and brutality.

Though I won’t dwell in on the details of the story, since the plot is pretty well known (if probably distorted by Hollywood), a few things stood out to me in this revisit that seem worthy of comment beside the language. First, the character development that hinted at depth in intentionally shallow people. Their superficial behaviors masked the reality of emotion behind them, or the intentional ignorance of them. Instead of allowing the characters to be as shallow as they wanted to be, Fitzgerald gave them depth they denied  and sometimes worked to eliminate. Second, the eggshell fragility of beauty he used to encapsulate even tragedy. Listening, there was a sense that examining what happened too closely would fracture the beauty he created. It was like listening to the tragic photos of a disaster and finding them breathtaking and ethereal, but lacking horror. Lastly, there was a sense of relevance, even today. While not in the same context, and lacking some of the contemporary distractions, the same superficiality still persists in pop culture. Instead of watching from a table in the party, we watch Gatsby parties from the comfort of our couches. We plunge ourselves into celebrity-stalking, make people famous for being famous, idolize the vanities and declare ourselves entertained. Though this story is almost 100 years old, it retains a vibrancy that bridges the distance of time.

Medium: Audiobook from Audible.com

Other: Available in various formats from Amazon.com

Overall rating: 4 stars

Potential re-read: Yes. Even though there’s a veneer of superficiality about the story and the characters, to the ambitious (and/or philosophical) there is great potential to mine for meaning and depth. If nothing else, the story stands the test of time and can easily be related to the current state of the superficial in current American culture.

Dead-tree worthy?: I’m torn on this. To some, this is a no-questions-asked staple. To others, it can be moving in just about any format. I think this one should probably start out as a a library borrow and then translate into whatever suits the reader best. There will be some who won’t understand it, or won’t be able to see its value, and frankly, I’d rather see a copy sit on the shelf for someone who can appreciate it rather than be bought and discarded for no reason. Even though this story has been around longer than anyone I know, don’t get too excited about finding a public domain/Project Guttenburg copy online; due to copyright renewals, that won’t happen until at least 2021.

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