Have Plot, Will Unravel

Books and Literature, Culture

Although I’ve called him morally obtuse, I can’t bring myself to dislike Ezra Klein. He may be just another young hack on the make in Washington, a careerist and a faddish liberal, but unlike so many of his peers, there seems to be something accidental about his success, something less gratuitous and self-willed. But it still came too early, and it ruined him. He ought to be the most popular teacher at a middle school in Columbus, or the director of a nice Reform summer camp, underpaid but decent, one of those rare grown-ups we all remember as having steadied us through the awful middle passage of our youth. Instead, he writes for the Washington Post and makes speeches at think tanks. I can’t begrudge him his success, but I do almost pity him for it; he’ll run faster, stretch his arms father . . . . And one fine morning—

Anyway, Klein’s writing for the Post is drudgery; the interior monologue of staff-level Washington is unceasingly banal, a pseudo-economic pidgin of legalese and bad PR-firm argot so divorced from ordinary human concern or communication as to become a form of language-looking gibberish, lorem ipsum. But a friend of mine on twitter forwarded me his brief, recent musings on Gatsby, presumably occasioned by the arrival of a new, gaudy film, and if only because it occasioned a re-reading, I had to reply.

I don’t care for the phrase, great American novel, but you can’t escape it; it exists, at very least, as a genre, albeit more aspirational than actual. American literature is littered with the wreckage of titanic Summa Theologiæ, the preferred template. Fitzgerald himself attempted that sort of thing, and isn’t it interesting that his only truly remembered work is a mere 50,000 words that could nearly make Katherine Mansfield look loquacious? Even so, no one can quite agree what it is, or what it’s about; the fact that so slim a work can mean so many things to so many people, admirers and detractors alike, suggests something at once uncanny and ineffable about it, something inevitable, a word to which I’ll return

Gatsby isn’t my favorite novel, and you certainly won’t hear me, as you’ll hear some of its more hyperbolic admirers, call it perfect. There are a few perfect pieces of art in the world, but none of them is a novel. Fitzgerald’s lyricism sometimes gets the best of him, and he’s obviously burdened with some of the prejudices of his time, although we can never know which of these belong to the author and which of them to Nick Carraway. But you still won’t find a more well wrought or more finely honed book; 50,000 words seems like a trifle, but 50,000 words sustaining so singular a voice seem, to another writer, as impossible and daring as a guy walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.

So. What to make of Klein’s complaint?

I love the writing and, for that matter most of the book. What I can’t stand is the finale.

The book’s denouement is a series of ever-more insane coincidences. Gatsby and Daisy hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian proves to be Tom’s mistress. Tom persuades her husband that Gatsby was driving the car. The husband kills Gatsby then kills himself.

That’s fine for fiction. Dark Knight Rises wasn’t very believable, either. But it’s a problem for a book with Something To Say. The end of the Great Gatsby doesn’t feel inevitable. It feels unlikely. And thus its lessons don’t mean much.

This, first of all, is a misreading, and I wonder if it isn’t in part the result of a bad memory for the particular details of the story. There are some well-known problems with the internal chronology of Gatsby, but this bit of plotting builds almost from the beginning. The connection between Tom, Wilson, and Wilson’s wife (Tom’s mistress) Myrtle isn’t just happenstance; the Wilson residence is on the main route between tony Long Island and the city; and the tragic inevitability of Myrtle’s death isn’t that Gatsby and Daisy run down some pedestrian who, mirabile visu, just happens to turn out to be Myrtle, but rather that Myrtle has been waiting and watching for Gatsby’s car, which she mistakenly believes to belong to Tom Buchanan, and that she runs out into traffic to try to stop it. If the line sets are visible and the first electric peeks out from behind the black border, still, the knowledge that you’re in the theater does not a deus ex machina make.

Hey, though, opinions may differ; reasonable adults may disagree. Of all the artifices of narrative fiction, plot is the most unnatural and the most unreal. One author’s elegant resolution is another man’s overwrought coincidence, and I’m not going to ding Klein too hard for falling into the latter camp, even if I do half suspect that it’s the result of a flawed recollection from a not-recent-enough reading. What I will toss tomatoes about, however, are the “lessons.”

The idea that Gatsby is a sort of sociological survey of the gilded age, with the characters as archetypes playing out changing ideas about wealth, status, and morality is an easy one, and wrong. I’m sorry, but you’ve mistaken this novel’s setting for its theme, the scenery for the schema. Fitzgerald was undoubtedly interested in money, class, and the passing away of the old guard in the face of something new, but all this is the background against which something more human moves. Gatsby is sometimes criticized for a lack of psychological depth, but this, like the desire for a less coincidental plot, is a kind of prudishness and a just-so belief about what a novel ought to be; it sounds like a nice old lady looking at a piece of great modern art and sighing, But what’s it a picture of? If Gatsby lacks some of the more ostentatious experimentation with perspective and consciousness that characterized high modernism, Fitzgerald did dare to challenge the convention that every character in a book must act in Cartesian accord with his own internal machinery. Talk about coincidence! Part of the magic in Gatsby is that its characters can’t be easily explained or psychoanalyzed. Like I said: human.

Klein says:

As Nick Gillespie writes, most of the Great Gatsby perceptively sketches a moment in which new money, new immigrants, a new economy, and new social mores were overwhelming the old order. The old order triumphs in the book, but only with the help of authorial providence. Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one. And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, we know who really won, and it isn’t Tom. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right, at least up until the end.

We can leave aside for a moment the cheap teleology of social progress at the end, there, and the Nick Gillespie piece he cites is really just about Nick Gillespie, but right in the center of the paragraph is that same odd complaint, repeated. The story, absent “authorial providence,” a happy one? Once more, I’ve got to wonder when he last read the book. Gatsby’s and Daisy’s affair ends that day in the city, when she admits that she also loved her husband. She will stay with him. She won’t say that she never loved him; she can’t. When Tom tells the room that he and Daisy have been through things that none of them will understand, it’s devastating because it’s true. When, later, after the accident, we see Tom and Daisy through the window at the table together, his hand on hers, talking quietly, conspirators to the end, we are meant to realize that this was the only possible outcome with or without the accident. (As for the idea that Tom “wins,” that the book “old order triumphs,” well; Tom and Daisy flee, and Nick goes home as well. An odd victory, no?)

Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan, the Wilsons, Wolfshiem—the title and Fitzgerald’s skillful deflection throughout obscure the fact that this is a book about Nick Carraway, who gives his voice and consciousness to the novel. Nick is an extraordinary character; poetic, ironic, sexually ambiguous, a liar—and Gatsby is a Bildungsroman of disappointment. He goes East to seek a fortune independent of his past, and it ends in failure and regret. The beatific image of the new world and the boundless future beckons only as a false promise; the present only ever becomes the past, and the future eternally recedes from us. It’s a terribly sad and pessimistic vision, although one with the ring of truth, and in a time when “a guy named Baz Lurhman” cranks out entertainments whose thin veneer of contemporaneity masks a devastating nostalgia for a vanished past and “a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama” likewise bubbles in the gloriously false promise of its own lost preeminence, I’d say a poet of disappointment is very much what we need.

20 thoughts on “Have Plot, Will Unravel

  1. “poet of disappointment”…such an eloquent discription.

    I always find it difficult to explain why I loved the book so much. I always refer to the first time I read the book and how utterly dejected and disappointed I was when Daisy told Gatsby she loved her husband.

    This obviously confused the person I am trying to convince. A dude with everything going for him turns out to be a pathetic heartbroken sop? What the hell?!?!

    The point is that its not relevatory, miraculous or epic. Its simply an exploration of hopelessness that comes as close as a novel can to being poetic.

    But yeah, fuck Klein and his coincidences.

  2. I sincerely applaud you for completing that post without once using the term “willing suspension of disbelief”, which would trip off the tongues of the lesser commentariat.

    Also, I think that Gatsby must partially be understood, strange as it may seem, in the context of romantic but sexually-infused young love.

    In highschool I once made out with a girl to a Tony Bennett soundtrack provided by his LP that had all three of “I Left My Heart in SF”, “Tender is the Night”, and “Once Upon a Time”. It is no accident that a title of Fitzgerald’s is in that trilogy.

  3. bunch of hateful rich people doing terrible things. [yawn] poetic or no, it was a disappointment i couldn’t bring myself to care about. of course this too from a not-all-that-recent reading (oh my, 21 years ago.)

  4. One of the things that baffles the hell out of me (having re-read the book maybe 3-4 years ago) is the central relationship between Gatsby and Daisy.

    I work more or less down the street from Wall Street and know several folks with Caraway’s job. I work with several convicted drug dealers – folks attempting to profit on modern Prohibition, I guess. I know a couple guys who got severely mentally fucked up fighting in Afghanistan. What I cannot believe is that a guy who been through any of that, would still give a shit for some girl he was sweet on as a teenager. (I don’t know anyone who’s entire identity is a lie . . . or do I?) It’s a lousy motivation.

    Certainly that kind of moon-eyed sentimentality exists–but I find it difficult to believe it would survive through a World War and several years working the black market. If it does survive, it’s not some noble longing but a kind of ridiculous quirk, like a grown-up sleeping with a teddy bear.

    Now, it’s possible that Fitzgerald’s attitude about the Gatsby/Daisy relationship is nowhere near what Nick seems to make of it. But Nick, at least, seems to view it as a Tragic Pursuit of the Sublime or something, and I just can’t buy into that premise.

    There’s nothing tragic about any of these people. My friend is right: “The Great Gatsby” would be much improved by turning it into a Dragonlance novel, with Daisy replaced by a silver dragon, and Nick turning into a minotaur.

  5. Gatsby the novel and the character have stuck with me a long time, and the part that rings true for me is that (politely contra M. IOZ) I think Fitzgerald did write the Great American Novel in at least one meaningful way. For a long time, but perhaps not so much any more (maybe that’s why Klein seems lost here), being American couldn’t be localized to material success or being a cowboy, an industrialist, or any of that shit. Sure, we function in a sociological context, and that’s where our personal dramas play out, but that didn’t define what being an American could be. At least in our mythos, what being American could be is what Gatsby believed you could do and almost did: dream some impossifuckingbelievable story of yourself as Larger Than Life Demigod or Myth and set about making the story real, using whatever tools and settings (World Series fixers, loose money, post-war social upheaval, etc.) you have to hand. That’s what the orgiastic green light is for Gatsby and Carraway et al – the idea that you can really do something like that if you just have the balls to imagine it and concentrate on it with his brand of perfectly sincere, pleasant lunacy. A gormless kid writing little dreams in his notebooks actually does become the kind of person that people through most of the novel look at with a sort of awed, reverent hush that goes beyond the cars or the money, although that’s all part of it. And then it all turns to shit, which is where the tragedy of Gatsby and the poetry of disappointment undoubtedly comes in. But a guy like Klein can’t grok that. A guy on the make, OK, fast cars, lots of money, whatever, sure. But orgiastic green lights, defining a new reality and a new mythic identity for yourself that affects everyone around you, all that Icarus shit about figuring how high human beings can aim, going beyond that and getting it in the neck by the remorseless Fates (ie bad driving and jealous husbands)? That goes way beyond the latest release of data about housing starts, GDP, or deficit projections, man. Let’s be real. Don’t look at that light or think about it, even. Keep your eyes firmly planted on the ground beneath you, secure in the knowledge that Jay Beats Tom Because Black Jesus. Amen.

  6. “Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one.”

    This line shows a far more serious reading failure on Klein’s part. One which possibly explains his dislike of the “coincidental” circumstances surrounding Gatsby’s death. If Klein doesn’t realize that Gatsby could never be happy–even if Daisy left Tom for him–then perhaps he sees the plot as being that of an up-and-coming young turk, whose glorious ascent was tragically cut short by the machinations of fate and thuggish aristocrats. In which case there is no set of circumstances which could satisfy his urge for plausibility, because what he is really complaining about is that the actual novel is not the novel he wants it to be.

    In other words, Klein fails to see that, whatever the circumstances that cause it, Gatsby had to die because the only other possible denouement is decades of increasing disillusionment culminating in Tennessee Williams pastiche.

  7. Ezra Klein is Sammy Glick. He thinks Gatsby is an early version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

  8. I’ve been reading Gatsby since I was, say, twenty, so that’s 55 years and the novel and I have grown older and deeper together. I have to say I think Jacob’s analysis is spot on. I share his view of what the book is about. As I observed not long ago to a young hedge-fund trillionaire of my acquaintance, “Just because you were invented last Tuesday, don’t assume everyone else was.”

  9. And three cheers for getting “Wolfshiem” spelled as FSF does, not “Wolfsheim” as everyone wring about the movie has.

  10. Sarcasm (and Gatsby) aside–I know compliments are so fucking lame and whatever–and I obviously haven’t read your roman (can’t wait to) but I think your probably the best writer of my generation. So there you go.

  11. “And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama…”

    The movie was made in Sydney, Australia. Fact check!

  12. ‘Let’s be real. Don’t look at that light or think about it, even. Keep your eyes firmly planted on the ground beneath you, secure in the knowledge that Jay Beats Tom Because Black Jesus. Amen.’

    Fucking word.

    As sheenyglass says, it being a long time ago is good enough cover for Klein: to claim that Gatsby was undone by happenstance is to have staged a total and categorical failure of comprehension.

    Gatsby set himself an aim which transformed Daisy into an instrument, and was undone by belonging to a different class. He connived and conned and strived for the affluence he so conspicuously consumed. What he was pursuing was acceptance as old money. Being one of those people who’s very voices drip of it.

    But it turns out there’s more to it than that, and that he (like so many) was simply longing for the unobtainable. And for the rich? Shit, just another day’s work. Ruining people is what they do. Then they take a holiday in the ‘Old World’.

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