Monday 27 October 2014

REVIEW: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3.5*)

(Penguin Classics, 2010)

The Great Gatsby is one of those classics that almost every eclectic reader is bound to read sooner or later, whether for school or for fun or just to find out what all the fuss is about.  It's also, however, a classic that no one really seems to know that much about until they read it (the Baz Lurhmann movie may have changed all that now, I don't know).  All I really knew was that there was a narrator called Nick Carraway, lots of decadent alcohol-soaked parties, and that a long-standing romance between the enigmatic Jay Gatsby and a girl called Daisy was important.

This was a beautifully written novel with a cast of flawed and interesting characters and a strong dose of extremely pointed social commentary - so why couldn't I rate it higher than I did?  Perhaps in some ways the fundamental nature of the characters, their shady backgrounds and compulsive lies and airy aloofness, served to distance me from their story rather than drawing me in.  Every time I thought I'd got a handle on a character they got flipped around again.  It's skilfully done by Fitzgerald, but it didn't allow me to really invest in anything that happened.

To be honest, I think one of the most irritating things for me was that just before I started reading the novel, some idiot on the internet spoiled the ending for me.  Obviously I'm not going to say too much, but I really think the climax would have knocked me for six and added a lot to my lasting impression of the book had I not known what was coming.

As the novel progressed the contextual themes and philosophical musings occasionally got a bit heavy-handed, but I did enjoy the insight into the shifts and changes happening in Twenties society.  Fitzgerald's careful skewering of rampant materialism and consumerism, of the corruption of wealth, and the poignant emptiness of the façade created by 'new money', is very well done.  Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of an ambitious self-made man holding on to an impossible dream, Daisy is a shallow butterfly, and her husband Tom is the epitome of arrogant privilege and entitled cruelty.  Of course, we only ever see what the gentle (though clearly biased) Nick Carraway wants to show us, but we can read between the lines.

I liked this novel.  I really did.  I think I'll get more from it on a second reading, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching a couple of different adaptations to see how they take this dazzling story into a new medium.  I quite liked Jay Gatsby in the end, which I think helped cement my enjoyment of the book as a whole, and I very much liked Fitzgerald's smooth writing style.  I'll definitely be reading more of his work - probably starting with Tender is the Night - and immersing myself further in the world of flappers and frippery to which he so frequently returns.

A note on my edition:  This is the foiled art deco-style Penguin hardback, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.  It has a bookmark integrated into the back flap of the dustjacket (which OBVIOUSLY I didn't use), a small section of notes in the back, and also an extensive introduction by Tony Tanner, which I recommend reading AFTER you've finished the novel (as I did) as it does contain fairly major spoilers.  This introduction may be ideal for students, and definitely contains some interesting perspectives and insights, but it's a bit dry and of the 'Look how many big words I know' ilk if you prefer your intros more informal and personal.  It also lost points for this completely straight-faced sentence about how far Nick believes Gatsby's fabrications about his life: -
"I would never... suggest that even in the most metaphorical way [Nick] ever goes upon his knees before Gatsby to be 'humbuggingly humbugged"...
- followed by repeat use of the word 'hankey-pankey', which I'm not going to lie, gave me the 'Uncle Geoffrey from Bridget Jones' creeps.  So... yes.  Beautiful edition, though!