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.