Growing up with Gatsby
Everything we read gets filtered through who we are at the time.
I first read The Great Gatsby for my 10th grade English class. Just a few months before, I had read Lord of the Flies and found a selection of literary criticism at the back of the book, and it was well beyond the scope of class discussion. For the first time, I understood why we’d learned to do close readings and tease out possible meanings behind the symbols we found. The point was never to find the right symbol, but to learn from the process by which we evaluated each possibility.
Gatsby proved to be a tricky challenge. For reasons unrelated to the book, I found myself desperately wanting my English teacher’s approval. We all took our turns dissecting this dense little book in front of the class, and I spoke haltingly, undermining myself before anyone else could doubt me.
I never managed to earn the praise I craved, and maybe that’s why I got a little stuck on the topic. On a dull weekend afternoon at Barnes & Noble, I picked up The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and dove in.
Reading these stories felt like discovering a Rosetta stone for Gatsby. Many of the same themes were present in easily digestible doses. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” started to explain how the very rich were different from you and me, but took it beyond any logical conclusion and into absurdity. “The Ice Palace” echoed the determinism of class and place in the way we form our identities.
I wanted to join a conversation, but I didn’t know where to start. My own corner of the Internet was full of violent Flash videos and Nintendo MIDIs. It didn’t seem like the right medium for literary talk.
Fortunately, I remembered the essays about Lord of the Flies and found an abundance of critical theory in my local library. I also returned to Barnes & Noble to pick up the well-timed bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which did double-duty in easing my nostalgia around pondering both Lolita and Gatsby.
Then, crucially, one of my friends invited me to Gmail, promising me that it was worth the hassle to change addresses because the conversation views were too perfect to pass up. Shortly after switching, I became fast friends with a girl in love with Lolita and Gatsby, not to mention emotional intensity. We exchanged letters multiple times a day, wishing we were literary and sophisticated, but mostly just witnessing each other’s ordinary lives.
Together, we visited Fitzgerald’s grave at St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland, bringing a bouquet of flowers and shaking our heads at the mini Tanqueray bottles and pennies and other tokens. She listened as I enthused over The Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about the West that he nurtured in Hollywood while writing screenplays.
Rereading Gatsby now is like trying to go home. I can’t relate to it in the same way I did more than a decade ago — and not just because I’ve been moderately successful in my quest to read every other thing that Fitzgerald had published. These days, I have a vastly different sense of place, a firmer sense of self, and a more nuanced view on opulence.
Four years ago, I moved to San Francisco, and have watched its latest crescendo in awe. I’ve learned the condescension that Daisy directs toward West Egg. Gatsby’s glittering parties are less abstract now that I’ve had a small taste of extravagance firsthand. But sometimes I still feel uncomfortable about the simulated wealth that we project. Like Nick, I feel within and without.
I used to believe there was something romantic about Gatsby’s delusions. Gatsby’s drive to reinvent himself, in the image that his seventeen-year-old self dreamt up, seemed quintessentially American. And Gatsby’s inability to let go of the past was a kind of passion, even though it also suggested a cynicism that he could ever find something better. But unlike Nick Carraway, and perhaps Fitzgerald, I trust in the future, and am entirely enchanted, not repelled, by the inexhaustible variety of life.