I sat down this morning, a week late, to blog about deadlines and writing for money. And then I opened my email in-box. As the new messages tumbled in like dominoes down the left-hand side of my Mail window, one caught my eye. “Gatsby Tops Knox.” I grinned. I didn’t have to open it to know what the subject header, from PW (Publishers’ Weekly) Daily, meant. The classic American novel, published in 1925 and staple of every high-school American Lit class since, had topped the memoir by Amanda Knox, the American convicted in 2009 of murdering her roommate in Italy. (The conviction was since overturned.)
As anyone conscious during the past two weeks knows, “Gatsby” refers to more than Fitzgerald’s novel, backlist-favorite that it is. Gatsby’s topping of Knox comes from the new Baz Luhrmann movie, which has also inspired a new Fitzgerald Suite at the Plaza (at $2,800 a night) and Tiffany’s new Great Gatsby Theme Collection. Billboards and bus posters all over town show a dapper di Caprio and a flappered-out Carey Mulligan as well as jewelry models wearing cloche hats. (Doesn’t anyone remember what Fitzgerald had to say about billboards? Forget Dr. T. J. Eckleburg at your peril.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that Gatsby—the book—has topped Knox. Nothing against Knox, and nothing against memoirs, although yes, something against overhyped sensationalist memoirs. (Knox reportedly received $4 million for her book; Fitzgerald got $3,939 in 1923, or $52,406 in today’s dollars.) To be fair, I haven’t read Knox’s book. But I have read Fitzgerald’s. Everyone knows the story: American dream, gone bad. Boats beat back, etc. Girl with a voice like money. The Buchanans’ red-white-and-blue living room with its wine-colored carpet recalling Homer’s sea. (OK, I was an English major…)
And, yes, no doubt about it: the theme of Gatbsy comes to mind first. Opulence and great dresses, and just about every kind of decline imaginable. The corrupt American Dream is just as pungent and relevant now as it was in 1925.
So what bears examination and re-examination and awe and reverence and joy? Fitzgerald’s sentences. Yes, the famous ones about boats beating and the orgiastic future, about the green light and the foul dust. But also these, so acute in metaphor and modifier and just a sampling:
- …Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.
- …motorboats slit the waters of the Sound
- …gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden
And my favorite, that I read over and over for years without thinking much about, until one day on a couch helping a high-school student with her American-lit essay, I read it again. There, distilled into image, gleamed the pitch-perfect description of despair, as Gatsby sees “an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
I shivered, too. (And, yes, some might point to an overdoing of adjective and adverb, but don’t verbs like slit and corrugate more than make up for it?)
So I’m happy that Jay is ahead of Amanda in sales right now, though I know it has mostly to do with the glitzy, stylized movie. I’ll go see the movie—how can I not? But when I need solace and inspiration from the pure pleasure of words, I’ll pick up my dog-eared copy and read again.
What are your some of your favorite books for language? Which novels make for great movies (The Godfather and Gone With the Wind come to mind) and which fall short?