February 2nd, 2020

Winter Sunlight

The Great Gatsby

I have managed to go my entire life not only having never read this book, but having only osmosed a vague vestige of the plot (something something decadent 1920s Long Island nouveau riche is about as much as I knew going in). I read it tonight, expecting something - I don't know, heavier or more difficult, I guess, but actually it's a fun, quick, very engaging read. I knew it was headed for disaster and I wasn't wrong, but not quite the disaster I was expecting. Collapse )

I think the thing that surprised me most about this book, nearly a hundred years after it was published and 99 years later than its 1921 setting, is how contemporary it feels, both in the language and the general attitudes of its characters - which I think is not just about the 1920s in general (because not everything published in the 20s/30s/40s feels this way) but it's also about the way that the attitudes and mores of rich young college students in 1920 have become commonplace for everyone. The characters in the book, as now, enjoy fast cars and going to the movies and friendships with the opposite sex; they casually call each other on the phone; they curse and drink too much and have casual sex before marriage and say that things are "cool."

The language and social milieu are contemporary-feeling enough that the handful of strikingly racist or antisemitic pieces of narration were like a stumbling block thrown underfoot -- oh wait, this is a book written in 1925, not a book written now! That kind of thing aside, I think I was also a little surprised at how casually diverse Fitzgerald's 1920s New York is, as well as the book explicitly pointing out Tom Buchanan's populist racism in order to (implicitly) condemn it. (But the book has some profoundly racist and antisemitic passages, not to downplay those.)

Given what I'd osmosed about the book before reading it, I also think I was expecting the decadent idle rich to feel more ... well ... decadent, and less like a bunch of college kids having a house party. I think again, it's a case of some of this having become more like typical 20-something behavior than it was at the time, and the more extravagant aspects being commonplace visuals for us now, from soap operas and movies and celebrity lifestyle shows. I mean, some of it still reads as over-the-top as it might have at the time (Gatsby's blatant namedropping, say, and some of the more extravagant excesses of their wealth). But in general I think this was not quite the book I'd expected because the culture has caught up and passed it by.

But it was a vivid snapshot of a time and place and set of characters that I very much enjoyed, as readable now as it was then.

That said, I recognize that due to its literary reputation this is a book most people (Americans, anyway) probably already have deeply entrenched opinions about.

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