The Great American Novel Project: The Great Gatsby, or The Perfect Novel?

December 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Great Gatsby is one of those books that I come back to every few years, and every time, it’s like reading a completely different book. When I was fifteen, it was about my nostalgia for a world that had passed, all pretty words and glamorous parties and marrying for money and spending afternoons drunk in New York City. When I was 19 and a brand-new English major in a cold, lonely city, it was all about literary symbolism: the color gold, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, the green light. When I was 24, it was about ambition, about longing, about getting what you want or being forever dissatisfied–all things that, as an about-to-be-minted college graduate, I was preoccupied with. And now, at 28 . . . well, I’m about due for a re-read, aren’t I?

I have no stake in the philosophical dinner party debate over whether The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel, or whether a perfect novel exists at all. If Gatsby isn’t perfect, it’s the closest thing we have to it. The fact that it can be read on so many different levels, the way it has so many layers, how I can find so many different ways to read it–that’s what lifts it above everything else. I can foresee reading Gatsby every five years for the rest of a very long life, and have it be a different book every time. (Huck Finn falls pretty close to that criteria, too, coincidentally enough–I think I could re-read it every ten years and have it be a different book every time.)

And this paragraph, Jesus Christ:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Y’all know I’m a liberal, so my potential for effortless patriotism is limited. But those closing paragraphs of Gatsby get me every time, leaving me in awe of the suddenly illuminated huge and beautiful country we live in, how it must have been to see it through those fresh new sailors’ eyes. I don’t believe in the American Dream, but Gatsby (the man, not the novel) sells me on it in those final lines–at least for a moment or two, before I sigh, savoring them, and slowly shut the book once again.

Previously: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Next: Absalom! Absalom!

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