We're currently in the throes of a Great Gatsby mania; beaded flapper dresses, tipped blazers and straw boaters are suddenly the height of fashion and Gatsby-themed, well, anything - charity galas, cocktails, pop-up speakeasies, even hotel suites - is so ubiquitous right now that one could be forgiven for thinking we'd been transported back to a time when "caper" was used without irony and the bootlegger was an integral part of society.
All of this, of course, can be laid at the door of Baz Luhrmann's upcoming film adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic story of longing, violence and reinvention. As a writer, I normally get a bit worked up that it should take a movie - now a major motion picture! - to bring attention to (or in this case revive interest in) a book, even though I'm well aware that such annoyance is probably overly-precious and definitely futile. Yet, a strange thing has been happening with The Great Gatsby brouhaha: I find myself filled with joy over the renewed attention being trained on what is arguably one of the greatest American novels.
A recent scene: there I am at Heathrow airport, searching the shelves of WHSmith for a paperback to read on the plane, and a couple of twenty-somethings are perusing the bestseller titles beside me. One picks up the latest, glossy, Leonardo-Di Caprio-adorned edition of Gatsby and turns to other, saying: "have you ever read this?" When his companion admits that she has not, they both pick up a copy and skip joyfully to the cashier. Okay, maybe they didn't skip. But it is episodes like this that make me want to fist-pump the air and embellish the truth. I imagine these two, sitting in their tiny airplane seats, reading for the first time Fitzgerald's description of Tom Buchanan's physique - "It was a body capable of enormous leverage - a cruel body" - feeling the fear and disgust, marveling at the lyric precision and economic metonymy, and thinking: "This is like nothing else I've ever read."
In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that I am a flat-out obsessed Fitzgerald fan; if he were alive now, I would probably be lingering furtively outside his apartment building, or stalking him at industry cocktail parties. His novel Tender Is the Night, was likely the single most influential piece of writing on my own first book. Yet, among other writers, it is deeply unfashionable to cite Fitzgerald, among others, as an influence. In my experience, those of us that are misguided enough to do so find ourselves in a wilderness of passé, banished from the cool group who worship much edgier, more intellectual or difficult literary gods. I suspect that the real sin is that his obsessions are just too plain romantic, and, perhaps, too specific.
Of course, on the other side, the fact that it is considered a "modern classic," and one that its full of morally ambiguous characters, doesn't help its appeal to the average reader. I was having dinner with a friend recently, discussing Gatsby, and she was talking about the first time she'd read the novel, in high school, at fourteen. "I thought to myself: 'Why would someone write a book like this?'" she said. "'All about these unlikeable characters and with no real plot.'" Indeed. There is a long history of making the book palatable to high-school students by citing the glamor, the parties, the tragic love-story. And it seems that Hollywood has done the same for the film in its previous incarnations. But this misses the real point. The Great Gatsby is about finding out that terrible truth: that, sometimes, the very act of reaching out for, and finally touching, the thing you long for most turns it to dust in your hands, whether it's an affair or the american dream. It's about the immovable nature of the chimera. And whether you're a likable or unlikable person, such an emotion is something anyone can experience, at any time. Furthermore, this concept is coded in the language, the DNA of the book. It is the sentence-by-sentence writing that makes The Great Gatsby the heartbreaking work that it is, and one that seems to resist any attempts at cloning; a novel that is eternally fascinating and eternally contemporary.
Yet, credit where credit is due; it is thanks to the latest film adaption, after all, that there is Gatsby, ranked No. 2 on Amazon.com's Bestseller List, handily beating out George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones quartet and Gwyneth Paltrow's latest cookbook, only slightly less topical that Glenn Beck's views on gun control. I feel like I'm hallucinating; it's as if the world of book sales has come right-side up, as if it all suddenly makes sense. As if, even only for a moment, "a book like this" -- a little too mean, a little too stylized, a little too in love with beautiful, rich things -- can be the most important work of fiction in a mass market.
I'm sure Fitzgerald, obsessed as he was with his own potential legacy and consumed by his desire for a large audience, wouldn't mind the comparison between what is happening in 2013 and Jay Gatsby's indefatigable longing for a perfect future. As he put it himself, in the last line of that amazing novel: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann, published by Picador, is out now in paperback.
For your chance to win an e-Reader with The Great Gatsby and The Huffington Post visit www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/15/competition-the-great-gatsby_n_3245986.html?1368631062
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